Welcome to February! February 1st marks the start of Black History Month in America, where we pause to recall the achievements that black people have made and the many things that black people have provided this great nation and the world. It’s also a chance to reflect on the many hardships black people have endured throughout American history and continue the conversations that will lead to the changes necessary to improve life for black people moving forward.
What I decided to do this month is to bring some of that to the soccer world. Soccer is a sport that’s rich with history, and a lot of the iconic moments, players, or events that define the beautiful game’s history is a result of black people. So, over the next 29 days, I will bring you quick, daily stories about a black player, an iconic moment in black soccer history, or other soccer achievements made by a black person or team. Some will be domestic stories, while others may span the globe. In the end, it’s an opportunity to recall some great things that you may have already known while some days learning something new. By doing this, I hope to gain a lot of new knowledge, and I invite you to join me on that journey.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub.
When you think of some of the better defenders in American soccer history, you may think of guys like Eddie Pope, Steve Cherundolo, and Desmond Armstrong. However, one guy that was right up there with some of the best to ever play is Jimmy Banks. Banks, a product of Milwaukee, spent his entire career playing in his hometown.
He was one of the nation’s best players, beginning at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. However, he was still in college when he was noticed by the United States Men’s National Team, and he made his debut for the USMNT on February 5, 1986 against Canada. He was one of the first American-born black players to debut for the national team. Banks performed well enough in college and with the national team to eventually earn a spot on the team for the 1987 World University Games and the 1987 Pan American Games while graduating from UW-Milwaukee.
After graduation, he was the #1 pick in the 1987 Major Indoor Soccer League by the Kansas City Comets. He was also the #1 pick in the National Professional Soccer League by the Milwaukee Wave. Banks decided to stay home to begin his professional career with the Wave. He continued to excel with the Wave and the USMNT, and when the USMNT qualified for the 1990 World Cup, its first World Cup in 40 years, Jimmy Banks was one of two black players (the other being Desmond Armstrong) that made the team. Banks started the matches against Italy and Austria in that World Cup. Desmond Armstong, in an interview with Stars & Stripes FC a couple years ago, said of Banks:
“There were two of us. My roommate Jimmy Banks, he and I we met when we were 15 with the National Sports Festival. We became fast friends because we were the only two black guys out there playing for our respective teams. From that, we continued every year to try to make it to the national team, and in 1987, we both made it.”
Banks’ time with the USMNT ended in 1991, having made 35 appearances. He finished with the Milwaukee Wave in 1993, though he still played on an amateur level with the Milwaukee Bavarians. In 1999, UW-Milwaukee inducted him into their Hall of Fame, while he was inducted into the Milwaukee Wave Hall of Fame in 2013.
Jimmy Banks then made his way into coaching, becoming the head coach of the Milwaukee School of Engineering in 1999. He would hold that position for 20 years. He also was the director of coaching for the Milwaukee Kickers while continuing to play at times with the Bavarians. He also was on the youth soccer scene throughout his hometown. He founded a youth camp in the inner city, and he volunteered with the Milwaukee Boys and Girls Club. Milwaukee honored him with the Community Spirit Award. In 2002, he was among several honorees in a “Decade of U.S. Soccer” celebration.
Jimmy Banks remained an active part of the Milwaukee soccer community until he passed away from stomach cancer on April 26, 2019. He was one of America’s best talents, but he was Milwaukee’s son. One day, his efforts could be honored with a call to the National Soccer Hall of Fame, where he can join many of his fellow 1990 teammates. Still, America will not forget Jimmy Banks and all he gave to soccer in this country. We all would be better to follow his example in our local communities.