Chosen one
Banjo humbled to wear LeVias's number

Banjo finished fourth on the team in 2008 with 61 tackles, the fourth-highest total on the team (photo by SWMG).
As accessories go, it's a modest trinket - a small silver "23" hanging from a simple chain.

It wasn't Chris Banjo's first choice for neckwear. During the spring, Banjo bought a "22" charm, in honor of the number he wore in his first season at SMU.

That changed during one of the Mustangs' team meetings, when head coach June Jones announced that Banjo would be the first player chosen to wear jersey No. 23, in honor of former SMU wide receiver Jerry LeVias.

"I had just gotten the No. 22," Banjo said. "The day after that meeting, I went to make the switch."

Jones started the award to honor players who represent all that LeVias, the first African-American player in the former Southwest Conference to earn a scholarship. Banjo said the honor came as a complete surprise.

"They were talking about the Jerry LeVias award, and talking about how it goes to somebody who represents everything Jerry LeVias stands for - a courageous man, determined - all those things. I actually thought it was going to a senior - I thought it was going to Emmanuel (Sanders). So I put my head down for a slight second, and he said 'Chris Banjo,' and my eyes popped open. I didn't know what to think, like 'Me?'

"It's a great honor. Jerry LeVias - I got to meet him and got to talk to him. He's such a great man, and he did so much, on and off the field. To be chosen to wear his number is kind of humbling. I still can't really believe it. But it's been really nice. I try to talk to Mr. LeVias as often as I can, and I'm going to do everything I can to make him proud that I'm wearing his number."

"When they gave the presentation, in our team meeting room, they said it goes to a player who has great character, great work ethic, he works hard, he's there for his teammates - everyone's sitting around thinking of those characteristics, thinking about who it could be, and he was honestly who popped in my head for it," senior cornerback Bryan McCann said. "He was more surprised than everybody else was."

Banjo's selection shouldn't come as a total surprise. In addition to his on-field talent - his 61 tackles were the fourth-highest total on the entire team, despite the fact that he started just seven games at free safety - Banjo draws raves from his teammates and coaches for his intelligence, dedication in the weight room, commitment to film study and practice habits. That he had such a strong season, even as the Mustangs' last line of defense, might have shocked some observers, but not those who practice and play alongside him.

"I'm not surprised that Banjo could do it," McCann said. "If you had told me that a freshman, before I knew him, would play like he did, I would have told you it's not going to happen. But knowing Banjo and his work ethic, and how much he loves the game, it doesn't surprise me at all.

"He's knowledgeable. He knows the game, because he watches a lot of film - I think he watches more film than anybody on the team. He's always in the film room. A lot of times I go up there to get in some film, thinking I'm doing extra work, and Banjo's already there. We didn't have to tell him any of that - that was just him."

McCann also said the combination of Banjo's talent and improved confidence means Banjo's future could go from great to blinding.

"He's picked up his confidence," McCann said. "He knows what's going on, because he's got a season under his belt. He knows the speed of the game, he's getting in the film room even more, because now he knows what it's like to translate from the film on to the field. As far as getting better, I don't want to put limits on him. He could be an All-American if he wants to, to be honest.

A strong freshman season, of course, does not ensure a LeVias-like career, and while he has the potential to develop into at least an all-conference player, he remains far from a finished product, according to secondary coach Derrick Odum.

"Last year he came in and played as a freshman, and he got his feet wet in terms of what college football is all about, but he still hasn't proven anything," Odum said. "But he certainly has the ability to be an all-conference guy - I don't want to put that pressure on him, because I want him to just go out and perform, and do what he can do. He's a sharp guy, and takes a lot of pride in what he can do on the field.

"I haven't had to throw a freshman safety in there - if I did, it was for a pass, or some other special situation, and I'd put him in there for a play and then he's out after one rep. So that was unique, and he took it well - he really ground away at all of his assignments and learning the opponent. Last year, he was one of the better guys on the team, as far as film study, so he puts the time in. So coupled with a year of experience, I think he's going to have a good year."

Banjo said that part of the reason for his strong finish to his freshman campaign was when he learned to slow down and relax a little.

"I'm just a lot more comfortable," Banjo said as he prepares for his second season. "When you first come in, you're kind of on an edge, and you want to try to do things right to impress the coaches. But the thing about Coach Jones and this coaching staff, you don't always have to live on the edge - you can relax a little bit. It's going to come to you. Especially since I first came in, I was trying to rush everything, trying to learn everything so fast, and I was just cramming it, so I was really having a tough time on the field. But they taught me to relax and be more comfortable in the system."

Banjo hasn't always seemed as relaxed as he did toward the end of the season, when he started playing like a seasoned veteran. In the 2008 season opener, Banjo was the team's nickel back, and before playing in front of his friends and family at Rice University (Banjo came to SMU from Kempner High School in nearby Sugar Land, Texas), Banjo got sick on the sideline - a performance he insists was not caused by first-game nerves.

"Everyone thinks it was freshman jitters, but honestly, I was sick that whole week, so I was throwing up at practice that week, too," he said. "I'm more relaxed now, but always, before games, I get a little nervous. My mind's going 100 miles an hour, but as soon as the game starts, I'm ready to go."

While his improved comfort level allowed Banjo to perform at a higher level, it also further fueled his desire to get better.

"You have to have that inside of you, and he did when he got here," Odum said of Banjo's dedication to improvement. "He has tremendous work ethic, he's a really bright guy, and he can take coaching well and apply it on the field, and he's a great leader - he busts his butt every day in the weight room, and the guys really respect him because when we start watching film, he can start to predict what offenses are doing, because he has so much film study."

Despite the honor of wearing LeVias's number, Banjo hasn't changed - if anything, the burden of living up to LeVias's legacy might have made him work even harder, Odum said.

"I don't want to put too much pressure on him, but I just know that he has done everything right from spring ball until this day," Odum said. "I expect him to have a great year, and he expects that, and we'll see how that all shakes loose.

"I don't think there's been a change, but he's really conscious of upholding that legacy, so there's not a better guy to have that jersey than Chris Banjo. He's not going to make light of that number - he's really going to push himself and take pride in representing that number, so if he does what he did last year, in terms of the way he went about his business on and off the field, Mr. LeVias will be very proud of Chris Banjo, that's for sure. Jerry LeVias is a very special guy, and a huge part of the history of SMU football, and Chris Banjo is a great representative."

Banjo started seven games last year as a true freshman (photo by Webmaster).