When their lives were viewed only on paper, brothers Erikk and Justin Banks simply had too many strikes against them to be successful.
Their mother left before they were school age. Their father had run-ins with the law that kept him out of their lives for periods of time. They lived in a small town in economically depressed Southwest Virginia.
The two could have easily fallen through society’s cracks, but the Banks brothers had other ideas.
“Those two kids had it tough growing up,” said Matthew Hamilton, who coached both Erikk and Justin on the football team first at Coeburn and then Eastside. “But they were two of the toughest kids I’ve ever seen.
“Their work ethic and their desire overrode everything. They were both very talented, but even better than their talent was their work ethic and their desire to get better.”
GROWING UP FAST
Life was not easy early on in the brothers’ life.
“We faced a lot of adversity growing up,” Justin said.
Justin, the younger of the two by two years, said Erikk had to take on a lot of adult responsibilities at a young age.
“He had to grow up quick. He just had to be the man of the house at an early age,” Justin said.
Erikk learned many lessons from those days.
“Everything is not fair,” Erikk said. “You just have to do what you can do. It made for some tough skin.”
Growing up rough also helped them develop goals for their lives.
“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want,” Erikk said.
He wanted to make a life for himself and he wanted to play football. And he was willing to do what it took to make himself one of the best.
“While other people were sleeping, I was working out,” Erikk said.
Justin was right there with him.
“We would get up and be to school by 6:30 in the morning and run stadiums and then shower in the locker room and go to school,” Justin recalled. “Then we would stay an hour after practice doing more workouts.”
Erikk knew he had to work harder than others did if he wanted to be better than them on the field.
“A lot of people don’t realize this, but Justin was more naturally gifted than me,” Erikk said. “I had talent, but I had to really work for it.”
THE BIG YEAR
Erikk’s senior year in high school was big for both him and Justin.
The elder Banks drew major attention from the media and college scouts while leading Eastside to a Cumberland District championship, a title he shared with his teammates and his younger brother.
“That was special,” Erikk said. “It was nice to be able to share that with him.”
For Justin, the title and the attention on Erikk were just more evidence of the rewards of hard work.
“It was great,” Justin said. “Just seeing how hard he worked for everything and it really paid off for him. He had a lot of drive to be successful and it was just really inspiring.
“He just raised the bar so high at Eastside.”
LIFE GOES ON
Erikk had ambition off the field as well: He wanted to go to Virginia Tech and be an engineer.
He did not get an athletic scholarship with the Hokies, but he was a preferred walk-on.
While most in his position walk on the field and then walk right back off, Erikk’s drive and determination were difference- makers again.
In his early football days at Virginia Tech, he played on the scout team. But his redshirt sophomore and junior years, he was on the roster and traveled with the team despite dealing with injuries.
Erikk was used to tough times and things did not get much easier for him in Blacksburg.
“Football takes up a lot of your time. And then I had classes and I had to pay my way. Sometimes I worked two or three jobs to keep going,” Erikk said. “I got tired and sometimes it was tougher than other days. But I just reminded myself that there were a lot of people that would kill to be where I was. I said there were people that didn’t get to eat today.
“So I stopped feeling sorry for myself and did what I had to do.”
A coaching change, his nagging injuries and a demanding schedule led Erikk to choose not to play his senior season for the Hokies.
“When football was going strong, I was going to school and practice and working seven or eight hours a day. When football wasn’t going strong, I was going to school and working up to 15 and 16 hours a day,” Erikk said.
Erikk graduated last year and now oversees construction projects at his alma mater as a project manager for a Blacksburg-based company.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
After his older brother graduated from Eastside, Justin made a name for himself as a top football prospect in Southwest Virginia.
“I had to step out of his shadow a little bit,” he noted.
Justin did just that, but he also endured a setback after his junior season of football when he suffered an ACL injury during basketball.
But he found a benefit even in that situation.
“I had to go to rehab and to this day it was the hardest I’ve ever had to work,” Justin said. “It was also one of my biggest blessings. I found out that I loved the grind to get better and I loved the work.”
Justin, now a professional trainer in Blacksburg, used that passion to work his way onto the football field and earn a degree at Emory & Henry.
IT’S ABOUT FAMILY
In 2017, the brothers endured the worst time of their lives when their younger sister died.
“It was devastating, but it made me want to work harder to not let her down,” Justin said.
Such a crushing blow could have cost Erikk his goals of playing football and getting a degree.
“I went through a really dark time then,” he said.
But their father helped pull his sons through.
“He’s made some mistakes, but he’s a really good man,” Erikk said of his father. “People look at him and look at us and say, ‘How did that happen?’ But he’s not a bad man. He taught us things that were really important in life. He wasn’t always there, but when he was there, he was always there.”
As the Banks brothers move into the next chapter of their lives, putting football in the rearview mirror, one thing is certain: They will be there for each other.
“Just about everybody else in our family are either dead or in jail. I will do whatever I can do to make sure my brother is successful,” Erikk said.