MISSOULA — The ultimate football distraction took root about this time three years ago in Birmingham, Alabama.

Rumors regarding the future of the University of Birmingham-Alabama's football program swirled, even though the Blazers were on their best streak since 2004.

They finished their 2014 campaign with a 6-6 record, becoming bowl eligible for the second time since moving up to the FBS level with their win over Southern Miss. But a meeting regarding going to a bowl game never came.

Instead, players and coaches found out their program had been disbanded via internet blogs. The university president didn't even dignify the team with a meeting about the decision until days later.

At the drop of a hat, scores of players were without a home. One of those players was James Banks, now Montana's starting will linebacker.

"We heard rumors midway through the season," Banks said. "We were like, 'No, this isn't happening. It hasn't happened in 20 years or whatever.' And then we beat Southern Miss to become bowl eligible for the first time in (10) years. We were waiting on a team meeting and we hear, 'All right it's done.'

"I (found out) on our school blog or whatever with teammates. I think a lot of our coaches found out that way too. When we all found out, we were all calling and texting each other, 'What's going on?' We finally got word from our head coach and we had the meeting with our president who finally told us to our face."

And with that, Banks had to find a third school in as many years.

***

Banks' passion for football began at an early age when he started playing youth tackle football when he was six or seven.

He took that passion and ran with it, playing football at some level every year. He was a letterman all four years in high school at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore.

By the time Banks was done at Sheldon, he was an all-state linebacker, a state champion and had 182 total tackles — a school record.

But he didn't get the scholarship looks he was hoping for like some of his high school teammates. Two of them — Mike Ralston and Connor Strahm — signed national letters of intent with Montana, while Banks was still waiting on phone calls.

One and only one offer came, by way of a junior college in Roswell, New Mexico. The offer came midway through the summer after he graduated.

Banks played for New Mexico Military Institute for one season and had a standout campaign his freshman year. In 11 games, Banks he up 56 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

"It was different," Banks said of his freshman year. "It's a high school and a junior college combined. Apparently it's like the Harvard of junior colleges though. I didn't know that either until I got there. You're up at probably five or six every day. Get in formation to march to breakfast, can't go off post and have all these people looking out after you and making sure you're doing whatever.

"Thankfully I didn't have too many demerits so I wasn't in that much trouble on weekends. Those are just from not making your bed right or stuff like that. I made my bed and then slept on top of it so I didn't have to make it every morning."

Because of Banks' standout freshman season, several offers from bigger programs came in.

His first scholarship offer came from Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

"At the time, it was awesome, because I was like, 'Man, I finally got my offer. This is everything I've been working for,'" Banks said.

Other schools were interested too, like Wyoming, Georgia State and North Dakota State.

Even though Banks was thrilled about the potential opportunities at those schools, he wasn't feeling it.

"I didn't really fall in love with Georgia State or North Dakota State," he said. "I was gonna stay and end up playing another season there."

Once spring ball rolled around, the University of Alabama-Birmingham reached out.

"'We need you,'" Banks remembers UAB coaches saying. "I took a visit and I liked it. It was what I wanted in an FBS school."

So Banks packed up his bags and moved 1,129 miles from Roswell, New Mexico, to Birmingham, Alabama.

He made an impact for the Blazers almost immediately. He played in 11 games as a sophomore and had nine total tackles with a sack, a pass breakup, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery.

He didn't quite make it through the season in one piece, though.

He blew out a shoulder in fall camp and played through it after talking to team doctors. Then, in the sixth week of the season, Banks blew out his other shoulder.

"I went for a block and popped the other one out," Banks said. "It was not a fun rest of the season. The last couple weeks of the season, I couldn't make it through a practice without them popping, so I was thankful that the season was ending."

But he still wanted that bowl game that he and his team rightly deserved.

***

After the dust settled in Birmingham and several of his teammates began to make moves to other programs, Banks decided to have surgery on both of his shoulders and stay in Alabama longer than most of his teammates.

He had surgery on his right shoulder in December and followed up with his left shoulder a month later.

"I got just enough strength back in my right one to be able to have my left one," Banks said. "And like, I got pretty fat because I was eating out every day."

While Banks was recovering, he hard a hard time doing anything that required raising his arms. Luckily, he said he had pretty lenient roommates.

It took six months for him to be able to do a push-up again.

Because of his surgeries, several coaches steered away from Banks and he had to do some soul searching.

"'Am I going to go back to playing or still pursue it after this? Do I take some time off? What do I do?'" Banks remembers asking himself.

He decided to branch out and keep busy while also trying to get back in shape.

One of the hobbies he took up was flying airplanes. Banks is a certified private pilot.

"I got kinda bored," he said. "I was always interested, and my dad started getting into it. I like getting up there and seeing everything from a different view, being in control."

Though not everything was smooth sailing at the beginning.

"I was a little scared my first couple times, especially the first time I got up there," Banks said, laughing. "(The instructor) goes, 'All right you're taking off.' I was like, 'No, I can't do this.'"

***

While Banks was learning to fly, the Griz were gearing up for Bob Stitt's first season as head coach in Missoula.

Banks' former high school teammate in Strahm was coming off his redshirt-freshman season having played in 13 games and making 20 tackles.

During that time, Banks called Strahm.

"I really want to play somewhere," Banks said over the phone. "What can I do?"

Strahm gave him the number of former Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak. But that first phone call between Banks and Gregorak didn't go how Banks envisioned it would.

"The first thing Coach Ty says is, 'Hey I can't talk to you," Banks remembered. "I was like, 'Oh, come on now."

After some research and knowledge that the UAB program was shut down and Banks was technically unaffiliated, Banks and Gregorak continued talking.

"'We can work something out,'" Banks remembers Gregorak saying later.

Sure enough, as the winter months of 2015 rolled around, Montana had a scholarship available and Banks came out on a visit.

"I fell in love," Banks said.

He moved up to Missoula ahead of the 2016 spring semester and got right to work.

In the first spring scrimmage, he had two tackles, one being a sack.

He transitioned into the regular season and was a major contributor, totaling 54 tackles, three quarterback hits, a pass breakup and a pass defense.

He wasn't completely healthy either.

"Last year he was battling through groin and hip injuries," defensive coordinator Jason Semore said. "This year, knock on wood, he's been able to keep that away."

Banks being completely healthy has been a blessing for Montana.

He leads the team in total tackles, is second in the league and seventh in the FCS with 66 for an average of 11 per game. That's on pace to be close to breaking Kendrick Van Ackeren's school record of 130 tackles in a season.

"Without question, he's playing his best football. which is what you want when you're talking about a senior," linebackers coach Travis Niekamp said. "Some of his adversity and some of his journey has really shaped who he is, but more importantly, has made him grateful for everything.

"He's taken full advantage of it. He's been probably our most consistent linebacker for the first six football games and he's playing pretty dang good football right now. Pretty proud of him. He's doing a great job."

With only five games left of the regular season, Banks sees the light at the end of the tunnel. His long and windy journey as a college football player is almost over.

He wouldn't want to be anywhere else but Montana.

"They gave me a shot after I thought I was done," Banks said. "It definitely is a little touching. The program here is so great and it's awesome. It's one of the best programs I've been around."

He'd know, since he's been around so many.

Through his program hopping, Banks went from being an unrecruited player out of high school with a single junior college offer to being one of the best linebackers in the FCS.

That in itself is something his teammates — and coaches — admire.

"We spend a lot of time training our guys to be resilient and developing their character as men," Semore said. "Jimmy's a guy that he's like an adult. He has that. We don't have to develop that with Jimmy.

"Everything worked out and now he's a big time part of the success that we're having," Semore said. "Everything works out for the best in the end."

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Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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