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Life was almost always better with Don Banks around

John Romano: Remembering a son of St. Petersburg, a fabulous storyteller and a best friend “loved with the best parts of our hearts.”
Don Banks (far right) shown with his wife Alissa and John Romano on Beach Drive during Thanksgiving weekend in 2017, had deep roots in St. Petersburg. His family moved here when he was a toddler, he graduated from St. Petersburg Christian High and the University of South Florida, and worked at the St. Petersburg Times for more than 15 years. PHOTO PROVIDED.
Published Aug. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — Two weeks ago, Don Banks announced on Twitter that he had accepted a new job. This led to profuse amounts of praise and well wishes for him from seemingly every digital outpost in America. Naturally, his good fortune was fodder for my derision.

At one minute past midnight, I sent him a direct message on Twitter:

“Should I just collect all of today’s laudatory tweets for your eulogy?’’

Two minutes later he responded with four rapid-fire messages:

“You should at least try’’

“I am very popular’’

“Borderline beloved’’

“I always told you that but you never listened’’

As usual, Don broke that story.

My very best friend in the world died in his sleep over the weekend while on his first assignment for the Las Vegas Review-Journal at the Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities. And, right on cue, the Internet was awash with a stream of friends, colleagues, athletes and readers weighing in. Many of them from right here in Tampa Bay where Don lived and worked for the majority of his first 35 years.

They told stories of his unsolicited kindness. His humor. His integrity. His professionalism. Some stories that I knew, some that I didn’t. But each one trying to capture the essence of who he was.

This is my attempt.

Don Banks (right) and John Romano take selfie at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Foxborough, Mass. in 2016. The two friends saw Springsteen in New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale over the years.

Don was not larger than life, he was better than life. By that, I mean life was almost always better when he was around. He was neurotic and brilliant, and switched back and forth often between those two narrow lanes.

He and I had virtually identical upbringings on opposite sides of St. Pete. We were both the youngest of four siblings born to late-in-life parents six months apart, we were fanatical Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans, we read and re-read Ball Four obsessively and we knew the game of baseball far better than we played it.

The one major difference is his memory was without peer. He could recite dates, games and moments with absurd clarity. I used to think it was a random quirk but I’ve realized it was something better.

Don remembered more than the rest of us because he was more passionate than the rest of us. He could argue with anyone about anything. Not because he enjoyed it, but because he believed so strongly in whatever he was saying. And he could make you laugh. Not just clever one-liners, but uncontrollable, hide-under-the-desk belly laughs borne of his total commitment to be funnier than you.

And, in case you didn’t know, let me explain why you should care about Don Banks. He was one of the preeminent NFL writers of this, or any other day. He began writing about the Bucs/NFL in 1990 at this newspaper — then called the St. Petersburg Times — and went on to break news and tell fabulous stories for the next three decades while he was here, in Minneapolis, Boston and around the league during his 16-plus years working at Sports Illustrated.

Don would appreciate that paragraph. He could be as self-deprecating as anyone I know, and yet he was also an intensely proud man.

But the truth is, he never lived to work. He simply loved to live. Don was never presented with a road trip that he wouldn’t take. Ballgames, concerts, casinos, you name it. He bemoaned the idea that he wasn’t as outgoing as some of his more famous colleagues, and yet he made friends wherever he went.

He wanted me to meet him in Canton for this Hall of Fame trip with the idea that we would drive to Pittsburgh for the Pirates-Mets game on Sunday afternoon. But the new job meant he had stories to work on in Kansas City and Denver, and so we agreed to rendezvous later in Las Vegas.

That weekend will never happen now, and I could not care less. It’s everything else that’s gnawing at my heart. The retirement he will miss with Alissa. The vacation he had planned with his sons Matt and Micah next week in Block Island. The middle-of-the-night texts that will never again ping on my telephone. My God, the grandchildren he will never see.

I’ve got the TV muted right now and the channel is tuned to SportsCenter. I just saw the news of Don’s passing come across ESPN’s crawl at the bottom of the screen.

It’s exactly the kind of thing I would normally take a picture of, and send to him with some disparaging remark. And he would gleefully turn it around on me with something even funnier.

Two weeks ago, I tried to joke about his eulogy. And of course, his reply was better than mine.

Borderline beloved?

Screw that.

We — and I do mean all of us — loved you with all the best parts of our hearts.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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