From walk-on to captain, EMU's Blake Banham perseveres
Late in his senior year of high school, back in St. Paul, Minn., Blake Banham's mother printed out a list of every Division I football program in the country.
Banham then started looking up every coach's email address, and started, essentially, cold-calling every single one of them. He figures he sent out more than 100 emails, which included your typical introduction, game film, and, well, a whole lot of begging.
He received precisely two responses.
And one of them wasn't even Eastern Michigan. That actually was one of the schools he didn't have contact info for, given it was going through a coaching change, and there was no information available on the website.
"At that point, I was maybe looking at a couple JUCOs, maybe sitting out a year. I really had no plan at that point," Banham recalled the other day, over the phone. "I was just praying and hoping."
His prayers eventually were answered via a friend-of-a-friend situation.
There was a football coach in Minnesota who was an acquaintance Herb Haygood, the former Michigan State star receiver who was joining the staff at Eastern under new coach Chris Creighton. A phone call was made, Banham, a running back, had a visit five days later, and soon had an offer to walk-on — with summer workouts in Ypsilanti starting two weeks later.
Today, he's a senior, on scholarship, and a captain about to play in his second bowl game in three years, as the Eagles (7-5) play Georgia Southern (9-3) in Saturday's Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.
What a journey.
"I didn't know much about Eastern Michigan at that point," Banham said, and frankly that was probably a good thing — given its last winning season before he arrived on campus was in 1995, and its last, and only, bowl appearance was in 1987, "I knew about them being in the MAC, but I didn't have too much information or history.
"But to be honest ... I didn't really have much of an option. I was just happy a Division I team was giving me an opportunity."
Banham red-shirted his and Creighton's first year, 2014, and then became a secondary option out of the backfield his first three seasons, rushing for 418 yards and three touchdowns from 2015-17. Much of that came in one game, against Central Michigan in 2016, when he had a 50-yard touchdown run, finished with 120 yards on the ground, and also had 53 receiving yards.
During that three-year span, though, he also two meniscus tears, both which required surgery. One of them, he continued to play through, before having the surgery.
He acknowledged, "That was not fun at all."
Much more fun was that fall day in 2016, when after a practice, Eastern Michigan coaches told Banham he was going on full scholarship.
Creighton and Co. set up the surprise, with a police officer showing up on-duty to read Banham "his rights." Both of Banham's parents — Donald and Melissa — are police officers in Minneapolis.
So, while some students might be worried to see a cop pulling up, not Banham, not having grown up in a law-enforcement household.
"There was no fooling them," Banham said, with a laugh. "I couldn't get away with too much. I learned at a young age, my parents did a good job of explaining situations and why I shouldn't do this or that. They saw in their life experiences, and they kind of brought me up on that early. It was really strict.
"So I knew I didn't do anything wrong; I wasn't worried about getting in trouble. It was just awesome the way my teammates reacted, and saw the hard work I put in."
Eastern went 1-11 his first season playing, then 7-6 — earning a Bahamas Bowl bid — in 2016. Last year, the Eagles were 5-7, but Creighton considered that season better than the year before; Eastern lost most of its games in excruciatingly close fashion.
The Eagles, despite some Selection Sunday suspense, got into another bowl this season, thanks in large part to selflessness on Banham's part.
Before the season, offensive coordinator Aaron Keen pulled him aside and asked him to switch primarily to a slot receiver. He has become the team's biggest weapon in the air gram, with 54 receptions for 714 yards and five touchdowns.
"I played running back my whole career," said Banham, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds. "But we had a bunch of people playing running back, and none of us were gonna get a bunch of reps.
"I decided to do that (switch) instead of just being in the mix at running back."
He's had three 100-yard receiving games, against Monmouth, Buffalo and Army, and another 99-yard game, against Central Michigan — as the Eagles flirted, for a while, with a spot in the Mid-American Conference championship game.
They've never played in that game, which dates to 1997.
But at Eastern, progress isn't measured in championships — not with where this program is coming from. In many respects, Banham is the perfect poster boy for Eastern, given where he came from, and all those emails that weren't returned.
And now, he's a captain of a bowl-bound team.
"Umm, I mean, it's crazy to think about," said Banham, who has three siblings, one, Rachel, who plays for the WNBA's Connecticut Stars, and another, Cole, who played football at Minnesota. "The biggest thing for me, both my parents being Minneapolis police officers, I was pretty mature for my age, I had a lot of structure in my life.
"I was taught to always do the right things, hard work always was a part of my life, and I continued to do that, continued to work hard and be a great person. It just kind of came naturally to me.
"And that (captain announcement) was a huge honor for me. The biggest thing is that your teammates think of you in that way, and the coaches, too."
EASTERN MICHIGAN VS. GEORGIA SOUTHERN
Kickoff: 5:30 Saturday, Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.
Records: Eastern Michigan 7-5; Georgia Southern 9-3