Introduction 2012: OT Zach Banner

Lakewood (Wash.) Lakes offensive lineman Zach Banner, an elite 2012 prospect with a UCLA offer has quite a back story, as he looks ahead to a very promising future...

LAKEWOOD, Wash. - It sounded like a play straight out of 'Varsity Blues' - the ol' Hook and Ladder. It was the play where Billy Bob caught a pass and staggered across the end zone with four defenders on his back. Zach Banner knew that feeling; he did the same thing as a third-grader while playing fullback in his league's championship game.

But he didn't stay at fullback for long. In the seventh grade, Banner was already 6-foot-4; next year he was 6-6. His first year at Lakes High School? 6-foot-7 and over 300 pounds. Banner was a boy in a man's body.

Like looking at someone with a big nose or a distinguishing feature of some sort, people took notice of Banner and his size. He was a gentle giant, especially when on the football field. Zach wasn't just some huge, uncoordinated kid who took up space; he was different.

And then there was his face. It was an unmistakeable replica for fans of football in the greater-Seattle area. Looking at Zach Banner was like looking back to a time when another Baby Huey was leading the way for the Washington Huskies in the late 1980's and early 90's. For the fans, the visual comparisons between Banner and Lincoln Kennedy, the giant All-American lineman, were too good to be true. The face, the body type, the whole package - it seemed like an exact match. Genetically, it was.

Only Banner had no idea who Lincoln Kennedy was until he was a seventh grader. He already had a Dad - Ron Banner. But while rummaging through his families belongings during a remodel, he came across a piece of paper. There was a name on it - Zachary Samuel Kennedy.

Zach's brain started working like sixty. "Who is this kid with the same two names as me?" he wondered. He couldn't make it out.

Then he saw an audio tape. He listened to it. "It sounded like these people arguing," Banner said. "They were arguing over Zach. They were arguing over me."

He still couldn't make anything of it. But after football practice that afternoon, his mother and father confronted him. He thought he was in trouble, but he wasn't. Instead, they sat Zach down and explained the whole story to him; how someone was else was his biological father.

"It was hard," he said. "You go through your whole life and you think something, but then you're just told something else. When I found out about it, I was heartbroken. I was a little shocked, scared and nervous. But from then on out - I was ready. I was ready to meet him. We're talking about an NFL player, a first-rounder. People are going to know about it, sooner or later. I was ready for it."

Whether his parents were ready was another question. After Lincoln's relationship with Zach's Mother Vanessa ended, he went off to pursue his NFL dreams. She moved to Pullman, Wash. to continue her education at Washington State University. It was there where she met Ron Banner, who proposed to her a year later. "He came into my life and was my rock," she said of Ron. "He got me through a lot."

A year after that, the Banners had moved back out to the west side of the state and Ron had legally adopted Zach. But they didn't want to keep Zach in the dark about his past, especially considering his visage and the uncanny similarities to his biological father. When Zach unwittingly found out, his parents told him the box of stuff he found his birth certificate in was for him. Vanessa kept a picture of Zach with her and Lincoln to show Zach that he came from happiness, not from turmoil. The eventual conversation was going to happen when Ron and Vanessa felt he was ready to deal with the news.

They thought that if they told him too soon Zach might come to resent Ron and rebel, maybe talk about running away and living with his other father - the same thing Vanessa threatened to do as a child after her own parents divorced.

That made him cry even more. Not because of the news, but because he would never do that to his Dad.

"My Dad is the Dad that's downstairs, or the one across the room watching TV," Zach said, matter-of-factly.

For years, the Banners would deflect questions from anyone outside their immediate family. It was a private matter. They would talk about the genes on Vanessa's side of the family - she had distant relatives that shared Zach's height. "We weren't lying," she would say.

But the real story in all this isn't that Lincoln Kennedy is Zach Banner's biological father; it's that Ron Banner is Zach's real Dad. Banner, who is the current principal at Mann Middle School in Lakewood, is all about living his life with solid fundamentals and a strong sense of self. Whether you are talking about life on or off the football field, the way you approach your business doesn't waver. Those thoughts came from his mentors; his father, who was a first sergeant in the military for 26 years, as well as the late Chuck Bingham, who passed away two weeks ago after an eight-year battle with cancer. "He taught us that the harder we worked, the luckier you get," Ron said. "It's about foundation. You reach a milestone, you celebrate it and then you get ready for the next one."

The basis of Ron and Vanessa's teachings toward Zach, as well as their younger children - Xavier, 10, and Mia, 6 - have all been centered around character. "With all the fame and with all the knowledge and recognition, one day you're going to be older and you never know what's going to happen," Vanessa said. "It's your character that's going to take you places."

Early on it wasn't working for Zach. It wasn't for a lack of effort. In fact, it was probably that effort that got him into trouble more often than not, because he simply overwhelmed kids his age when it came to sport. Some kid might go home with a fat lip, but Zach would go home in tears because teachers had made him feel like he was doing something wrong.

But as he kept at it, things started to turn around. By his seventh grade, Zach was becoming more of an athlete and getting his coordination. "As you respect them and show respect and kindness to them, as you grow up they will appreciate you more and they will want to be your friend, " he said.

That type of maturity put him in good stead. When Zach found out about his connection to Kennedy, he was able to move past it with the help of Banner's best friend, former Washington State running back Mark Allen. He has become one of Zach's best friends too, and helped train Zach early on with Ron. Allen was the one that told Zach that he should just not be mad at Lincoln for what had happened. "And he was right," Zach said.

"His character as a kid, you could see the strength in him," Banner added. "He didn't break down. He was confused. It was emotional, but you could see his character. What he had built up to that point, that was the foundation that he landed on."

And it was that foundation that provided the impetus for what would come next. After a brief bout of hating everything that Kennedy stood for on the football field ("When I got to Lakes, I jumped straight into the passing league lines," Zach would say), he eventually moved to tackle after some gentle prodding by Lancers Head Coach Dave Miller.

"Zach didn't come to Lakes High School for football; he came to Lakes because he was about seven or eight blocks away from where I worked," Ron said. "And I wasn't going to be a helicopter and hover, but we needed to be in a position to support him. And he came to Lakes not because Dave Miller is the football coach, but because Dave Miller is the man that he is and was going to assist in supporting Zach become a young man. Football is icing on the cake.

"We wanted to make sure that whoever got Zach was going to get the baggage that goes with it. And baggage in the sense of Louis Vuitton baggage - the good stuff. But this whole piece had to be dealt with sensitively and it had to be dealt with Zach in mind. After scouting around and talking to Dave, there was just nobody else we felt was going to handle this in way that, when Zach was a senior, he was ready for the next level physically, academically and emotionally."

But in reality, all the heavy lifting had already been done by Ron and Vanessa. While both were showing him the value of character off the field, Banner was showing his young son the value of hard work and foundation on it.

Zach ran his first mile at Lakes when he was in second grade. "That was the hardest four laps I ever did," he said.

"We kept that a secret from his mom," Ron admitted with a grin.

Banner and Allen were Zach's first trainers. All they worked on was cone drills, pushups and sit-ups. "I used to hate those two," Zach said.

Ron's response? "It was going to prepare him for the future." And it did.

Banner talks daily to middle school parents about broadening their vision to include long-range goals. It didn't mean anything to Zach until one day when he was playing basketball at school. Washington Head Football Coach Steve Sarkisian was on campus to talk to Miller about some of Zach's football teammates. Sarkisian saw him play basketball, and that's when Zach knew it was all coming together.

"The size gets them and how well I move as a big man," he said. "When I started getting all that stuff, everybody started hopping on, being friends with me."

But he never, during this whole time, ever changed who he was. That would have been a poor reflection on his family. "We try to instill in Zach that, when we aren't around, he represents us," Ron said. "When he's not around, we represent him. That's family."

"You can just see the way the way people feel about Zach, because of how Zach treats everybody," Miller added, noting that Zach was named the Lancers' Most Inspirational Player when he was a freshman, something that's never happened in the 25 years Miller has coached at Lakes. "He wasn't even a starter. That says something about him. That showed us a special quality. That's why he's beloved. People love to be around him."

Right before high school Zach started playing AAU basketball and learned about player ratings and rankings. Ron told Zach that when he went to Lakes, he was going to be put out there in the spotlight. "I used to ask my Dad all the time, 'Have you ever seen this kid or that guy? They are the number-one guy in the country.'" Zach said. "He used to tell me that if I focused on myself I could get there. I just lived off that. That just fueled me even more."

Allen had some great advice for Banner; if other kids got into trouble, all they would get is a phone call home. If Zach got into trouble, it would be in the morning's paper. It's something Zach has kept in the front of his mind now that his recruitment for both football and basketball has begun.

Since then, Zach has put it upon himself to lead by example. He had lunch recently with coach Miller, and Miller laid out how Zach was going to be one of the main captains on the team, and he asked Zach if he was ready for that responsibility. "I've been ready," the 6-foot-8, 295-pound sophomore right tackle said. "I've wanted to take away some of the negativity that's been on our team the past two years, but being an underclassman I couldn't possibly do that. But now that kids are literally starting to jump on my back and starting to follow me, I told him I'm ready to lead by example and I'm ready to be a captain on the team. Let's do this."

Banner has been running with the sprinters for the past year and a half, taking part in a grueling routine that has him running eight 100-yard sprints. Now he's up to 10 100's. Three weeks into that he added six 150's or 200's, then five 300's and four 400's. "There were times when I was running with the sprinters, and I was looking over at the other linemen and I wanted to go over there and throw a shot put," he said. "But if you want to be the best player in the country, you have to do this."

The hard work started to pay off after Miller challenged Banner to take the starting right tackle spot and make it his own. "I didn't realize my butt could get down that low," he said with a laugh after getting down in his stance for the first time after months of running and stair work. "I didn't know my hips could do that. The workouts the coaches had given me, I could really see a progression."

It also helped him breeze through the 'Lancer 1000's' - a running test every football player has to pass. It consists of 10 100-yard runs with breaks between each, and all of them have to be run in under a certain time, depending on position.

"I thought he might come back and ask me for another shot at tight end," Miller said, noting how Banner just decimated the mark set for the linemen.

Ron Banner was quick to add the number of times he used to wave a hamburger in his face just to test his son's resolve. And if it's resolve you're looking for, Zach has it by the gallon; he hasn't tasted a soft drink in two years.

"You know how bad that stuff is for you?" he said with a laugh.

This isn't Zach mirroring his parents' guidelines. This is a young man working from a strong foundation of support and applying his own touches.

"The difference I've seen is that he's gone from being a young man that has all this potential and doesn't really know what he wants to do with it, to someone who has decided what he wants to be and how he want to do it," Miller said.

For instance, at the end of this recent basketball season, Lakes Head Basketball Coach JoJo Rodriguez gave the team a day off. Banner didn't have to work out with the football team, because he had been excused, but he went and did it anyway. "That showed me he wanted to be good, because he wanted to do something extra," Miller added.

And he wants to be good at two sports. When he's not playing football, he's busy playing basketball - whether it's for the Lancers or for Seattle Rotary Select during the AAU season. To be able to commit to both football and basketball, Banner came up with a plan. He gets up at 5 in the morning and joins best friend Danny Davis, a junior running back for the Lancers, and they go to the weight room and get their weights done. By working out before school, it allows Banner time after school so he can shoot.

"He knew what the boundaries were, he knew what the expectations were," Ron said of Zach's ambition. "It's a natural progression of a young man."

And when it comes to how Zach plays on the field - let's just say that his teammates are a natural extension of his family. And he's quite clear on what that means to him.

"I will jump in front of a bullet for anybody," he said. "I care about what people think about me; I care about how people feel about my doings. When I mess up in practice, I say 'Sorry coach'. I don't worry about how it made me look. I feel bad about someone getting hit because of it. If I mess up, it's going to show on them - and I don't ever want that to happen."

That type of thinking comes straight from his father, according to Miller. "He does have high expectations, but you won't find a guy with a bigger heart than Ron," Miller said. "He's always there for the kids, and he'll give them the shirt off his backs. It's tough love and a genuine caring for kids."

Because of his upbringing, Zach thinks he should be the best. "With me and the standards that I've been held to, for me not to be the best person in my class - I wouldn't feel ashamed, but I wouldn't feel like I gave it my all," he said. "Since I started working out, I haven't cheated a rep."

It's not idle braggadocio; it's much like the way Miller describes test-taking: If you are a C student and you work your tail off and that's what you get, you should be satisfied. But if you have A talent and you get a C, something's wrong.

But don't expect that analogy to apply to Banner, who just registered a 4.0 GPA his last semester at Lakes. The next time you read about Zach, it'll probably have something to do with the number of offers he is currently amassing for football (he already has three - Washington, Oregon and UCLA - even though written offers can't be extended until September 1st of a player's junior season), or how he's tearing up the AAU circuit as the athletic center for Rotary.

"I think he's going to be a High School All-American, and the reason I believe he's going to do it is because he said he wants to do it," Ron said of his son. "He's going to re-establish his goals with the help of coach Miller, and he's going to do something great."

"My goal is to be an All-American in both sports," he said, without a hint of ego. He could end up as the nation's most decorated two-sport prep athlete since Terrelle Pryor came out of Jeannette, Pa. as the No. 1 player in the country for football in 2007, as well as the No. 15 small forward prospect in America by

That goal is at the top of Banner's to-do list before he leaves Lakes. A meeting with Kennedy will happen at some point, but to Zach, it's no more important than taking an official visit to a college, because it's not about rehashing the past. It's about him and how he's feeling about things as they happen.

"We always put Zach first," Ron said. "It wasn't me. It wasn't Vanessa, and it darn sure wasn't going to be Lincoln's feelings. Bottom line, it was going to be Zach and what he needed and how he needed to progress. And that's always how it's been."

And when it comes to figuring out college, the family will do it how they've always done it - together, with a mind toward making sure Zach has done his homework. For Ron and Vanessa, there will be a lot of questions, as well as a lot of deeper probing as to why certain experiences will be best for Zach. "He has to have buy-in," Ron said, matter-of-factly. "We want to ask the questions so that he brings those things out. It's going to be guidance. And then mom will kick in with the last word."

Vanessa quickly concurs, and Zach sheepishly nods and grins. He knows.

Talk turns to collegians that have succeeded in more than one sport. Tony Gonzalez? Bo Jackson? Ron's quickly gets to work.

"Do either one of those guys have a degree? I just want to make sure he checks that out," he said.

Banner is leaving all doors wide open for both sports. Recent unofficial visits to Oregon and Washington have kick-started the recruiting process for him. "I have my eyes open to every university in the country," he said. Besides UW, UO and UCLA for football, Banner has heard from UW, LSU, Portland State, UCLA, California, USF and Seattle University for hoops.

As a high school sophomore, Zach has been to events where he's met coaches like Jim Mora and Jon Gruden. "Coach Gruden told me that if it was like basketball, you'd be like a one-and-done with me," he said with a chuckle. "I'd draft you after one year. To me, it was just a great experience to meet two NFL head coaches."

Both Mora and Gruden told Zach they knew his father. His first reaction? "I thought my Dad had been holding out on me!"

Truth was, neither Mora or Gruden had ever met Ron Banner.

So there is still one thing Zach has at the top of that to-do list; telling his brother Xavier about his past. He needs to do it, as Xavier is just starting to catch the football bug, and Zach doesn't want Xavier to hear about his older brother's lineage from anybody but him. He doesn't want his brother lashing out on him like his mother was afraid he would lash out at her.

"He's getting to the age where he's going to be in middle school, and he's playing in the same football league I did," Zach said of Xavier. "That's a serious thing. There are going to be people around, and I don't want him to be confused about it."

In short, from now on he doesn't want the fact that Lincoln Kennedy is his biological father to be any more significant than his shoe size.

So what is he going to say?

"Xavier, I'm your brother," he said, reciting the words. "I'm your brother until the day I die. 'Til the end of time, we're brothers. We're the best friends God has put together and I'll always have your back.

"But there's this thing I have to tell you about. Everybody will know. And I'm glad."

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