Competitive fire drives Eagles' Banner
Originally published July 22, 2010.
Fifth of an eight-part series
Eddie the Bully ripped the toy away from little Joe Banner. For an hour, Joe kept quiet about it to his first-grade classmate. They were playing at Joe's house - to his mother's disapproval.
"The kid was - if you saw him, you'd figure he was in the fourth or fifth grade - big," Joe's mother, Micki, remembers clearly.
Although the toy itself has been forgotten, five decades later this tale of how the smallest boy in the first grade responded still stands tall in the Banner home, just outside Boston, in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Micki continues: "Eddie had taken the toy. Joseph doesn't say a word. Eventually, Joseph says to him, about an hour or so later, 'Let's go downstairs and play'.
"At the stairs, Joe said, 'You go first, Eddie.'
" 'No, no - your house.'
" 'No, go first.' "
Joe let Eddie get two or three steps below him.
Then: " 'Eddie?' "
Eddie turned, suddenly looking up at the much smaller boy - exactly how Joe wanted it.
Whaaaaaap! Joe slugged Eddie across the face: " 'Don't ever take my toy again.' "
To figure out Joe Banner - one of the more fascinating figures in Philadelphia sports, and one of the most influential over the last decade and a half - begin with his height. That's where he begins.
"Listen, people talk about 'a Napoleon complex' for a reason," Banner said recently, sitting in his spacious office at the NovaCare Complex. "And I don't view that negatively. When you grow up with people underestimating you - at least you perceive people underestimating you because you're small - it makes you even more determined to prove that whatever limitations you have, it's not because you're small. It may be because you're human. It does motivate you."
Banner stands about 5-foot-5, but he needed a growth spurt to get there. In grade school, he wasn't just one of the shorter kids.
"The shortest - nobody close," Banner said. As far back as his parents can remember, "he was aware of his shortness," Ralph Banner said of his son. "There's something in Joe's character - to try and assert himself in ways other than being the tallest kid in the class."
As hardships go, Banner said, growing up short doesn't rate too high. But it shaped him in so many ways, he said, affecting his entire life path, right to his current position as the president of the Eagles, as a key decision-maker for some of the biggest moves in recent NFL history.
Talking about nicknames, Banner was asked if he had one in high school.
"I hate to even give you this," Banner said. "I was called 'Shorty' for a long time."
'Feeling like I lost'
Joe Banner's desk at the NovaCare Complex is busy but organized. There are six neat stacks of papers, each under a cover page in black block lettering, noting the department or the names of Eagles executives who have sent the Eagles' president material he needs to read: Finance. Marketing. Personnel.
On the right side of Banner's desk, closer to his reach, are two desktop files. One has an Eagles schedule on the front. Behind it are a 2010 salary cap folder and a 2011 salary cap folder. Each shows the projected cap, notes the players the Eagles have under contract, and then lists different scenarios and ramifications. If we sign this guy, then this happens. If we sign these three guys, this happens . . . Each scenario gets its own paper clip.
The other file has a 2010 calendar, then behind it is a folder for "contracts I'm currently working on," Banner said. The Kevin Kolb file is still there, although Kolb's contract was extended several weeks earlier. "I just haven't filed it," Banner said. (For the curious, there is no visible DeSean Jackson file).
There also are different folders for meetings with Eagles coach Andy Reid, general manager Howie Roseman, and owner Jeffrey Lurie.
Virtually the entire business of the Eagles is at Banner's fingertips.
People who deal firsthand with the Eagles - from both outside the organization and within - uniformly describe Banner as having a central decision-making role, often the decisive role. Banner may not choose the players. Andy Reid has that authority, with help from the team's scouting apparatus. But just as crucially, Banner decides their contracts, which can be the same as deciding their fate. In that role, Banner practically has the veto power of an owner.
Some caricatures of Banner suggest he cares more about dollars and cents than wins and losses. But those close to him say Banner has a hatred of losing that rivals his most competitive players. It simply extends beyond the field.
"It doesn't matter what it is," Banner said. "It can be a little debate. I don't even like losing a little debate. . . . It can be negotiating a contract with a player. One of the really hard things, if I'm negotiating a player contract, the best outcome is for both of us to feel good in the end.
"You really have to suppress your desire to win that negotiation. I have to manage myself carefully to be able to achieve that, because it doesn't come naturally. . . . To me, it leaves me oftentimes like I lost. Probably an outsider would look at it like, 'No, no, you got these things. They got these things. It's a good middle of the ground.' But the fact that I didn't get everything I think I could have, personally, within myself, I'll go home and lose some sleep, feeling like I lost."
Banner wants precedents to be studied. He gets a daily morning e-mail from a staffer noting each transaction made in the NFL the previous day, with analysis of the key deals. The bookcase at the far side of his office is full of binders with all kinds of legal documents, player contracts over the years, personnel reports, "end-of-season write-ups about players that I just keep." There also are NFL Collective Bargaining Agreements rules, sponsorship agreements, grievances that have been heard.
"He has the same level of intensity, in terms of interest and detail, in brand marketing as he does in ticket sales, in HR policies as he does in sponsorship, in what our television shows look like, what our website looks like," said Mark Donovan, chief operating officer of the Kansas City Chiefs, who was senior vice president of business operations of the Eagles from 2003 to 2008. "There's just a natural interest, wanting to know what we are, where we are. There are a lot of executives out there who are [mostly] numbers guys or marketing people. Joe has a knack of not only being interested, but wanting to be intensely involved.''
Or, as Micki Banner said of her son, "He's just like his dad. They must have their nose in every single thing."
Banner doesn't like surprises - which makes the whole Michael Vick saga even more fascinating. If enough questions are asked with the proper intellectual rigor, Banner finds that the answer often appears obvious, as it did, Banner believes, with the decision to trade Donovan McNabb.
"In these jobs, you have to make the right decision, not the easy one," said New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who said he thought Banner "deserves the lion's share of the credit" for the success achieved by the Eagles since Jeffrey Lurie bought the team in 1994.
"If you don't make the tough decision, you're not going to have sustainable success," Tannenbaum said. "There are so many things in our league designed for you not to have sustainable success. We copy a lot of what [the Eagles] do to get better."
Tannenbaum added that he admired Banner's "remarkable loyalty" to the Eagles. Even players sent away don't question that loyalty.
"Somebody has to be the bad guy, and Jeffrey Lurie, he's got the right man in his corner," said former Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown, traded to Cleveland this off-season after expressing his deep unhappiness with his contract.
"I am, by definition, the bad guy," Banner said. "It's OK. I get that, intellectually. . . .. Sometimes I am the bad guy. Sometimes I'm just perceived to be the bad guy."
Banner does pride himself on being part of a decision-making operation that can make the tough calls. He puts the decision to trade McNabb at the top of that list.
"Listen, these [decisions] are what, supposedly, should separate us from the people that are watching versus doing it," Banner said. "There are very, very tough decisions you make that determine whether you're going to be fair, good, or great."
After joining the Eagles at the behest of his friend Lurie, with no experience in professional sports, having previously owned a retail clothing business with his father, Banner quickly became the most indispensable part of Lurie's front office.
Banner is credited with both an early mastery of the NFL salary cap and with being the chief architect of the Eagles' philosophy of re-signing their own younger players well in advance of their contracts' expiring, thus locking up talented players before they hit the open market in the prime of their careers. This also allowed the team to front-load contracts, using unused money under the current salary cap, and thereby avoid salary-cap troubles down the road.
One passionate Eagles fan, Gov. Rendell, said of Banner: "I think Joe is a fairly easy person to get a handle on. He's exactly as he appears. There's no guile there. He's a hard-charging, no-nonsense business guy. Very bottom line in a business context. A tough negotiator. He's an easy guy to read, not so easy to negotiate with."
Rendell isn't merely talking as an observer. He was mayor when Banner convinced him that a new stadium should be built for the Eagles, which hadn't been the plan. The plan - as Banner is quick to remind, and Rendell affirms - had been to refurbish Veterans Stadium for the Eagles and build a new stadium for the Phillies.
Within the NovaCare Complex, any distance on Banner's part is rarely mistaken for disinterest. If Banner is busy and doesn't get to practice during the season, he can look at the film uploaded onto one of three computers in his office. He won't automatically watch, Banner said, "but if I'm curious about how something went or I want to see somebody, I can sit here and fast-forward and watch an hour-and-a-half practice in 15 minutes."
Joan Stern, a lawyer at Blank Rome and public finance specialist who worked for years on the stadium deal for the Eagles, said of Banner, "He does have practically total recall of every detail of the deal."
Stern also recalled how she once was in the midst of briefing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission when the chairwoman was handed a note. She told Stern she had a phone call - "You can take it in my office," she was told.
Stern wondered what this could be: "Blank Rome had burned down? A family emergency? A revolution had taken place?"
Banner simply had an idea about moving the stadium process along.
"I understand you found me," Stern said to Banner. "How did you get them to interrupt?"
Look at it like this: If Banner is involved in a deal, he's going to do everything in his power to avoid ending up a step below the other side, forced to look up.
'He will be in a sweater'
For almost five decades, Ralph and Micki Banner, now 87 and 83 years old, respectively, have lived in the same three-bedroom brick tudor near the end of a quiet Chestnut Hill cul-de-sac. The upstairs back bedroom now has a computer, and there is an Eagles pennant on the front wood-veneer panel wall. But otherwise, the room is about the same as when a teenaged Joe Banner slept there.
He's been away for four decades, but the bedroom still has the same bed, bureau, and end table.
"Hold on to the past," Micki Banner said, showing a visitor the room.
On the back wall, there is a bookcase with volumes of the Encyclopedia Americana, plus volumes of Harvard Classics, including Don Quixote, Pilgrim's Progress, and The Origin of Species. Joe's mother can't confirm that Joe read any of them.
"All the crazy newlyweds bought them when they came to the door selling them," Micki Banner said.
Down in the family room, his mother said, "Look at that picture right there - our 50th anniversary. Joseph has a jacket on that his wife [Helaine] just bought a half an hour before, because he wasn't coming with a jacket. We will go to Philadelphia. Ralph will say to me, 'Should I bring a jacket?' I'll say, 'You know Joseph is not going to wear a jacket. He will be in a sweater.' I used to say something to him. He used to say back, 'Mother, that's my only bad habit. Leave me alone.' Which is the truth! He didn't drink, and he didn't smoke, so I shut my mouth."
If there is any question about whether Joe Banner came from a family that valued sports, there shouldn't be. One of Ralph Banner's prized possessions is a baseball autographed by Lou Gehrig, signed by the Yankees immortal "in my presence," Ralph added, when he was a batboy for the Boston Red Sox for the 1937 season. He'd begun as a member of the knothole gang, he said, then got to know the clubhouse man by helping him carry bats after games. Then he became a full-fledged batboy, also doing Boston Braves games.
Ralph Banner brought out a Bruins program with an action shot of Phil Esposito on the cover. It cost 97 cents, plus 3 cents tax. There were also Celtics and Red Sox programs - and Eagles.
"We had season tickets to the hockey games," Ralph said.
His wife added about her husband, "We used to argue who was going to sit on his right side because you got poked all the time."
They are happy Bostonians, staying put in Chestnut Hill all these years except for summers on Cape Cod.
"Have you been to Joseph's house?" Micki Banner asked, referring to his home in Lower Merion, Montgomery County. "You will find Joseph's house on a dead end. You will find Joseph's house with a circular driveway. You will find looking out - if you're in his house - you'll look out at woods. You'll see [similar] beams in his house. The first time we were there, Ralph and I looked at each other and said, 'Gee, he must have liked the way he grew up.' "
Sense of empathy
When he was young, Joe Banner would say to his parents, "I'm short. How tall am I going to be?"
"We took him to doctors, to various places," his mother said. "Taking hormones, the various things they do now, was all new when he was a child. So we hesitated. . . . What difference, we felt, did it make if he was going to be 5-5 or 5-4 at 10 years old or 20 years old."
His father said: "I can't tell you how many nights or days my wife and I cried over that dilemma. ... We sent him to private school, took him out of public school. We tried to make it so the height differential wasn't so accentuated, whether it was Little League ball or whatever it was. I'll never forget, the first game I went to, he was playing shortstop. I'll swear to you, I could hardly see him."
Moving from public to private school before eighth grade wasn't an attempt to get away from bullies, Joe Banner said.
He explained that his new school, the Rivers School in Weston, Mass., about 20 minutes from home, had what they called a "coefficient system" for sports before the varsity level, where "they multiplied your height times your weight times your age, and if you fell into certain ranges, you played together by that team." So Banner could play with younger kids closer to his size.
"I desperately wanted to continue to play sports as long as I could, knowing that because of my size it wouldn't be that long," Banner said.
There were other activities for Banner. He became an ardent debater, "probably predictable," he said. "To whatever extent I deserve any credit for being a good negotiator, it's probably the same skills."
Also, Banner said, "I was the high school mascot, dressed up as an Indian. I rode in on a horse."
"My kids can't even picture it," Banner said.
Another trait that became important in his professional life was there all along, she said.
"You flare him up on an issue, he'll break his neck to attain that goal," Micki Banner said. "He adopts it like it's a religion. . . . Joseph doesn't move. When he got an idea, that was it."
Throughout his youth, it was not easy to get close to Joe Banner. He wasn't a talker. When he was really young, his parents would say, "C'mon, Joe, we're going to see Grandma!" Joe would say, "Do I have to talk?"
"The friends he had, he chose as if they had to pass a board," Ralph Banner said. "These same friends became his partners in life. They are still his partners."
He also had a gut-level sense of empathy from an early age, his parents said.
"He had a very bad lump on his arm when he was in second grade," Micki Banner said. "He'd had it removed. In his room was another kid who had something. We were leaving one night and Joe was carrying on, which was not him. Finally, we found out he was crying for the other child, not what he was going through."
Maybe the biggest fork on Banner's road led him to Camp Skylemar, a summer camp in Maine. That's where he made many of the friends he's kept today, first going up there when he was 10 years old for eight weeks.
"Joe was very competitive. He wanted to compete," said Arthur Greenberg, who met Banner at camp and later introduced him to another friend, Jeffrey Lurie.
Banner's own two sons have continued the tradition, annually bunking at Skylemar. When his youngest recently had a bar mitzvah, the reception was held at Lincoln Financial Field. "There were two full tables of Joe's camp friends," Greenberg said.
"He found a home there," Ralph Banner said of Skylemar.
Because Skylemar's owner was from Baltimore, Greenberg said, "Lacrosse was a huge sport at the camp. Joe was never afraid. He would be in there digging for balls, competing with guys much bigger, much stronger. People probably don't know this: He was a lacrosse goalie in college at Denison."
Denison's lacrosse media guide lists all-time letter-winners, including Joseph Banner, 1974. By that time, Banner already had joined Denison's college radio station. He hadn't planned to, Banner said. He accompanied a close friend to an audition and ended up trying out himself.
"He got hired, and I didn't," Banner said.
Now Banner had to work at that radio station.
"You talk about being small and kind of fighting to overcome that, it became a big part of my personality," Banner said. "It became like a mission. . . . A year later, I was the sports director. A year after, I was program director."
Need to compete
This past April, Banner signed a four-year extension to continue as president of the Eagles. That day, someone who goes by the message-board moniker "EvilBanner" posted a haiku on bleedinggreennation.com:
Behind his glasses
There is no humanity
It is a black day.
Three minutes later, EvilBanner posted another haiku:
The rich boys giggle.
Big yachts but no trophies.
Life at NovaCare.
In explaining why he agreed to sit down for two interviews in his office at the NovaCare Complex, Banner shrugged: "It's a no-loss for me. I've got nowhere to go but up."
Early in his time, Banner took his shots for being a rank outsider. A guy who sold suits, Lurie's buddy, with no pro sports experience. That talk waned after the Linc got built and the Eagles kept getting to the NFC title game. But the same organizational philosophies that once earned praise now often bring scorn since Banner has been here 16 years and there's been no parade - and his critics like to draw a connection.
"Most people I talk to who are in these positions," Banner said, "when they first get in the position, the criticism, which they're not used to, really aggravates them and upsets them. Then, over time they get used to it. For a long time, I didn't care. It comes with the territory. It was OK. I actually care more about it now than I did four years ago or some time ago."
On Easter Sunday, when the McNabb trade was announced at a news conference, Banner stood on a side aisle, right in front of a giant photo of Eagles Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald, as Andy Reid talked about the deal with the Washington Redskins. The Eagles' president quietly - but not silently - seethed.
"Did they accuse the Redskins of doing this?" Banner asked under his breath to an Eagles PR person. He was referring to sports-talk radio chatter speculating that the Eagles intentionally announced the McNabb-to-Redskins trade the day before the Phillies' season opener so they could steal attention from the local baseball team.
The Eagles staffer wondered if they should address the topic.
"That gives credibility to the question," Banner replied.
Tough to let go
Banner was clearly preoccupied by seemingly meaningless chatter when the cornerstone of the franchise had just been sent out of town. Why can't he let this stuff go? Why does it all bother him more now than ever?
"I've asked myself this question," Banner said. "I don't know why."
Several weeks later, talking about the timing of the news conference, Banner said, "I mean, the Phillies made the trade for [Roy] Halladay, and traded [Cliff] Lee in the middle of a four-game winning streak for the Eagles. We had to play the Giants in the biggest game of the whole year." The news of Halladay's possibly going to the Phillies broke the day after the Eagles-Giants game last December.
"It would never cross my mind, nor should it cross anybody's mind, that they tried to control the timing of it," Banner said. "It's ridiculous. As much as we traded McNabb at a time that had anything to do with anything but us running the Philadelphia Eagles . . . if we were guilty of that, it would be dishonest. It would be offensive. So people even speculating in that matter is insulting. But I'm aware that it's out there. Believe me."
Banner disputes the idea that he is worried about the amount of media coverage the Eagles receive.
"Most of the time, there's an overwhelming amount of coverage," Banner said. "Tone is an issue."
What especially irks him is the common charge that the Lurie/Banner Eagles are greedy.
"I'm not going to tell you my nerves and my blood pressure don't get a little crazy," Banner said of that assertion, especially the notion that the Eagles prize profits over championships. He points out that the Eagles added Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse in 2004 right after reaching the NFC championship game. He doesn't believe anybody has ever brought in two such expensive players after getting within a step of the Super Bowl.
"It's almost like you should be immune from any questions about how bad you want to win after that," Banner said.
How long did he feel immune?
"On WIP, about 30 seconds," Banner said with a sardonic laugh. "Some other outlets, maybe a month or two."
Banner went on to say "the No. 1 piece of evidence to refute" the issue of the Eagles' putting profits above all else was the building of Lincoln Financial Field. He doesn't deny that the Linc has been enormously profitable and increased the value of the franchise. But Banner said, "When an ownership's focus was about profitability or greed, it would have made a different decision at every turn.
"We could have built the stadium for probably $70 to $100 million less. It would have been a nice stadium. But we figured we were going to get one chance in our entire lives to do this, so we did things. We chose to put two scoreboards at the lower level of the stadium when every other team in the country was using that to drive revenue. . . . It cost us huge money, millions of dollars per year."
On this front, Banner has an ally in Rendell, who favorably compares the Linc to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
"Heinz Field isn't a bad facility," Rendell said. "But the difference is dramatic and directly attributable to the money the Eagles put in."
However, when you then ask Rendell to talk about some of the personnel decisions the Eagles have made in recent years, the governor changes on a dime.
Rendell was outspoken in his criticism of sending McNabb away. He also said, "I believe franchises should reward long-term players. They should in some degree take into account fan feelings. We're the ones who make the franchises go. Sometimes, they mistake the value of emotion in a football team."
Banner operates in a cauldron where nobody hesitates to offer advice or unvarnished criticism, on the money or wildly off mark, the governor to EvilBanner. If he pleads guilty to sensitivity, if he seems to be looking for bullies to combat around every corner, Banner does not claim infallibility in his media relations.
As you might expect, he believes much of the evidence used to paint the Eagles as arrogant isn't justified. Banner's comment last summer about the Eagles having the most talent in the league? Banner said he could have done a better job of trying to express his support for off-season personnel moves.
"You're speaking off the cuff, trying to be honest, in the moment," Banner added. "OK, you made a mistake. But what does it become?"
Or the more infamous "gold standard" comment made long ago by Lurie, which quickly entered the local lexicon. "The reality is, if Jeff could do it again, he wouldn't say 'gold standard.' He knows it was a mistake," Banner said.
In talking about his life, Banner pushes his charitable endeavors out there. Why look for publicity for this? Well, when somebody is calling himself EvilBanner, mocking your very humanity, the real Banner doesn't need to be told he has an image problem.
Banner's charitable endeavors do go far beyond photo opportunities. He was volunteering at a hospital four days a week in Boston before he joined the Eagles. He is cochairman of the board of City Year Philadelphia and a member of the national board of the same organization, which has over 200 young people, 17 to 24 years old, taking a year of service, most going into public schools as tutors and mentors. Banner began working with City Year as a volunteer in Boston and was instrumental in bringing the program to Philadelphia and in building it here.
"He's probably spending an average of five hours a week, sometimes 10, on City Year issues," said his cochairman, Art Block, a senior vice president and the general counsel at the Comcast Corp.
"He challenges the senior staff to be critical thinkers, to have questions and have answers for those questions, to anticipate the answers before he has to ask the question," Block said. "He sets a high bar. He doesn't hold back because it's a nonprofit."
Block said he also got the impression Banner recruited him specifically because they have different traits. He called Banner "a deeply caring person" who is "not as warm and fuzzy. He felt in me, I had some of those qualities. . . . I don't want to overdo that. But he thinks about those kinds of things."
"The relentless focus on what can we do better, the analysis, even when it's inconvenient and uncomfortable, that's something I learned from him," said Jim Balfanz, City Year's national president, who used to work at the Philadelphia chapter.
At a City Year banquet last year, Banner was among friends. He told the City Year crowd, "The world's cynics are active. We need to be part of the world's idealists, and we need to compete."
Anybody sitting on the other side of Banner's desk can see Lincoln Financial Field, but Banner's own view is farther north. He laughs when this is pointed out. "I get to see the baseball stadium," he said, explaining, "They put the door there. My assistant sits there."
Among the family photographs on his desk, there is one of his two sons with Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. "This would be funny for people because of my supposed animosity with the Phillies," which isn't there, Banner hastens to add, although he acknowledged he typically goes to two or three Phillies games a year only "because my kids like to go. Listen, my heart is with the Red Sox, if that's an admission."
Asked if he has any ownership stake in the Eagles, Banner said, "only emotionally."
In his office, amid the photos of his wife, and daughter and two sons, of replica football helmets that are mementos of Eagles achievements, there is a photo of a celebration - the Eagles celebrating their NFC championship.
Banner was talking a couple of days after the Flyers were beaten in the Stanley Cup Finals.
"I actually saw myself," Banner said. "I took the kids to the Flyers game and I have one son that's just very emotional. And when the Flyers lost, I saw me, and it was so the way I was as a kid when the team I was rooting for lost. That's what I was."
Banner mentioned that, of course, to make a larger point.
"Listen, if I wanted to run a business, there are much bigger, much more interesting, much more challenging businesses to run than this," he said. "I would not be here. The only reason I'm here is because of my love of sports and football and my fantasizing about doing that" - he points to the NFC title celebration photo - "with a Super Bowl trophy. That's the only reason I'm here."
His mother said, "When Joseph loses a football game, I don't think anybody really has any idea of the tremendous, and I mean tremendous, effect it has upon him. He's a tough loser."
Micki Banner talked of going to an Eagles game one time. She doesn't remember the year or the opponent.
"We were going to something at the [synagogue] afterward," Joe Banner's mother said. "The team lost. We knew Joseph would never go. We went. We're sitting at the table. Somebody says, 'Where's Joe?' Somebody else says, 'Joe's home sitting shiva' " - referring to the Jewish mourning custom.
"And he was," she said. "They lose a game, we don't see him that night. He's up in his room. The kids don't go near him. It's like he personally lost the game. Not his players or anything. He did it. If he hadn't done this, if he hadn't done that . . . 'What can I do so this doesn't happen again?' "
This is no toy he's playing with. Banner knows that. Just don't try to take it away from him, no matter your size.
"Joe, you like the job?" his mother once asked him.
"It's the most strenuous thing I have ever, ever gone through," Banner told her. "I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world."
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen
at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.