Banks named top special teams player, Custis honoured

Brandon Banks was mistaken for the water boy.

He was shopping in a Winnipeg mall earlier this week with a Ticat teammate – a particularly large Ticat teammate – when a store clerk spotted the team logo on their clothes. The salesperson was excited to meet a pair of CFLers but wouldn’t accept that Banks, all 5-foot-7, 153 pounds of him, actually played the game.

Not only does Banks play, he’s now the CFL Most Outstanding Special Teams player after winning the award at a gala event in Winnipeg on Thursday night. Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence was the runner-up for the league’s top defensive player, which went to B.C.’s Adam Bighill.

Former Ticat quarterback Bernie Custis was also recognized with the Commissioner’s Award for his contributions to the league. In 1951, Custis became the first black quarterback to earn the starting job for a professional football team when he suited up for Hamilton.

Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Custis came to Canada after the team refused to give an opportunity to play quarterback. He started every game his first season and won the Grey Cup with the team in 1953. He is credited for paving the way for black quarterbacks on both sides of the border and was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1998. Now 87, Custis lives in Burlington.

“Many of us wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people like Bernie Custis,” said the CFL’s Jeffrey Orridge, who is the first black commissioner of a North American pro sports league.

Having played in the Grey Cup the past two seasons, Banks said he found it strange not to be playing in Sunday championship game. Individual recognition is nice – Banks beat out Calgary kicker Rene Paredes – but doesn’t provide the kind of hardware Banks is really after.

“Trust me, it’s an honour and it feels good but I kinda feel like I already knew I was the best special teams player,” Banks said. “I just want to be on the best team.”

The Ottawa Redblacks, who defeated Hamilton in last Sunday’s East Final, had a banner night while winning four awards. Quarterback Henry Burris – a former Ticat – was named the league’s Most Outstanding Player, receiver Brad Sinopli earned top Canadian honours, SirVincent Rogers received he nod as Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award while Rick Campbell is Coach of the Year.

Edmonton Eskimos receiver Derel Walker earned Most Outstanding Rookie while Montreal Alouette offensive lineman Jeff Perrett won the Jake Gaudaur award, given to the CFL player who best demonstrates the qualities exhibited by the country’s veterans. Perrett has been candid about his battle with alcoholism.

The 26-year-old Lawrence started all 18 games at the weakside linebacker spot and set career highs in defensive tackles (80) and sacks (5), while adding two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Banks led the league with four punt-return touchdowns while posting 2,073 all-purpose yards (good enough for third in the CFL.) He also had the first-ever score off a missed single-point convert, going 127 yards to the end zone against Ottawa last week.

The Most Outstanding Player awards are decided by 75 voters from the Football Reporters of Canada, including eight from Hamilton, and the head coaches.

Both Banks and Lawrence elected to bring fellow Ticats to the awards ceremony instead of friends and family. Offensive lineman Cord Howard, who played in Winnipeg before coming to Hamilton in September, was Banks’ guest while Lawrence rewarded equipment manager Drew Strochein for his work with the club.

“That’s my boy. He works so hard for us, I just feel like he deserves it,” Lawrence said. “He’s one of the coolest equipment guys I’ve ever been around and he makes our job a lot easier.”

Notes: Banks is taking the Redblacks in Sunday’s Grey Cup match up: “I’m an underdog guy so I like the underdog. Playing against Ottawa, I know what they bring to the table. I think Ottawa has a better chance than people are giving them,” Banks said. Lawrence has the Eskimos: “I think Edmonton is going to win on Sunday, just because of their defence. They’re ball hawks and I love watching them play,” he said.

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