Chris Banjo may be small by NFL standards, but the 5-foot-10, 207-pound safety is taking on an increasingly larger role with the Green Bay Packers.
Banjo, who has been a core member of the Packers’ special-teams units this season after spending most of 2014 on the practice squad, is now also taking the place of injured safety Sean Richardson in the team’s Big Okie package (in which a third safety subs in for a perimeter cornerback in run-stopping situations). Banjo also sees time in the dime, which features six defensive backs.
“Chris is smart, he can run … he’s just short,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said. “But he can do all of the things that we ask our safeties to do. He’s plenty physical enough and plays hard and he understands what we’re trying to get out of our packages on the field.”
After a standout college career at SMU, Banjo participated in rookie minicamps with the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers during the summer of 2012 but wasn’t signed by either team. Banjo landed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent but was waived before the start of 2013 training camp. He signed with the Packers in July of 2013 and impressed the coaching staff with his play on special teams, earning a berth on the 53-man roster and appearing in all 16 games (plus a playoff game) that season.
Banjo was among the Packers’ final cuts at the end of training camp in 2014 and spent most of the season on the practice squad. This season, Banjo survived cut-down day and has been a key special-teams performer.
“He’s a smart player, he’s the quarterback of the punt team,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “He’s got enough experience….we put an awful lot on him, and obviously they are on defense as well, and he can handle it.”
Banjo, a 25-year-old Houston native who resides in Dallas during the offseason, spoke with Press-Gazette Media about his role and his NFL career:
Did you ever picture back at SMU that someday you’d be playing in Green Bay? Did you have the NFL dream?
In college I definitely aspired to play in the NFL. But the No. 1 thing was getting my degree (in sports management). Every year that went by, I was hoping, hoping and praying, praying that I could get to the NFL. I never thought I’d be in Green Bay per se, but it’s been real nice. I thank God for it.
Were you concerned that your NFL chances might be over when you didn’t make it after rookie minicamps with the Raiders and Steelers?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I wouldn’t say I thought it was over, but I knew it was going to be tough. Looking back it was only by God’s grace that I persevered through it. It’s definitely been an interesting ride.
Your first year with Green Bay you made the 53-man roster, played in every game. But then you didn’t make the final cut in 2014, spent most of the season on the practice squad. What was that like?
It was difficult to accept as a competitor. I wanted to be in a position to help the team as much as I possibly could and to not make it that second year was definitely tough. But I always use situations like that to learn from.
What’s it like on cut-down day every year, do you have a routine that you follow?
I usually like to get some ice cream, go catch a movie or something. Try to get your mind off of it. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. In training camp you’ve got to make sure to do everything you possibly can so whatever does happen, you’re not necessarily going to say OK, but you know you did everything you could. All three years here in training camp, I’ve given it my all and let the chips fall where they may.
You’ve used special teams to carve out a niche on the roster. What’s your mindset with special teams?
Just compete. Same as it is on defense. That’s the name of the game in the NFL. There are so many talented guys, so it’s not always about who has the most skill set, it’s about competing. I’m not the tallest guy … I definitely have some tools in terms of being a little bit faster, but it’s all about competing.
Do you ever wonder, if you were a couple inches taller, what the difference might have been?
We can play the what-if game all day. I used to when I was high school in terms of people getting recruited. Now I just thank God for the tools he has blessed me with and I just try to make the most of them.
Does it concern you when you see something like the neck injury to fellow safety Sean Richardson?
Definitely. To see how much of a physical specimen he is (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) and still have that happen, it’s definitely something that crosses your mind playing this game. But at the same time, my love for the game is what allows me to keep playing and I just pray every single day that I can stay safe and healthy and make the most of what I’ve been able to do.
You’ve got big shoes to fill stepping in for Richardson …
What’s your role replacing Richardson in the Big Okie defense? Is it primarily a run-stopping defense?
I guess you can say so. I know a lot of people like to think of it like that. The thing about Sean is, he can cover as well. It may have looked like that because he’s a bigger guy but I think our personnel out of that package can cover as well.
You lost your mother to sickle-cell anemia and I know you say she inspired you. Was she your driving force when you started playing football?
Growing up, all I saw her do was struggle with her health. For her to continue to fight and persevere through all that just reminded me of how blessed I am to be able to do the things I’m doing. I try to apply everything she did in terms of fighting for her health to everyday situations, especially the game of football. There’s a lot of adversity you’ll come across so I just try to approach it with a similar mindset of being able to conquer everything that’s thrown at you.
What do you like to do outside of football?
I like to think I’m a pretty good bowler. I haven’t gone much this season, but when I get some time I do like to go bowling. … Me and some of the guys on the team tend to bowl. Nate Palmer is a good bowler; Davonte Adams is really good and also Richard Rodgers. I enjoy it a lot.
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