Friday, May 6, 2011

Deaf journalist wins California Newspaper Publishers Association award

From the Lodi News-Sentinel. In the picture, Lodi News-Sentinel editor Richard Hanner, left, presents sports reporter Richard Banas II with his award.

When he was 2 years old, Richard Banas II was robbed of his ability to hear by an ear infection gone bad.

His parents made the choice to raise their son in a hearing world, as he attended public schools with special programs on the side to help him learn to read lips, all the while undergoing speech therapy. No sign language.

“When I was young I was told that I was going to have to learn how to communicate with hearing people at their level. I can’t expect them to come down to mine,” Banas said. “Most people don’t know sign language and I don’t know any deaf people, so I never learned to sign.”

Banas made the most of his situation, becoming a star athlete on the football field and later on the softball diamond.

In 2002, when he was in his mid-40s, he landed his dream job, becoming a sports reporter for the Lodi News-Sentinel.

Over the last decade, Banas has become a staple in the Lodi sports community and beyond. He’s written a wide variety of game stories, features, profiles and columns. Last year, one of those stories stood out above the rest.

“A Second Chance” chronicled the remarkable story of B.J. Bailon, who was severely injured and later found to be internally bleeding after a diving attempt to catch a foul ball. The quick thinking of team mom Teresa Armstrong and the care of the entire Armstrong family saved Bailon’s life. The story recently took second place in a California Newspaper Publishers Association sports writing contest.

The award is an exemplary achievement for a man who, despite getting a late start in journalism, has carved out an impressive career even though he lacks a major tool most reporters depend on. Being deaf, Banas misses one sense in a profession that demands use of all senses to absorb even the smallest of details. He works endlessly to overcome the disability, lip reading for interviews and paying meticulous attention at events.

Banas started out as a physical therapist, but always wanted to work more closely with sports. Despite having attend Fresno City College and California State University, Sacramento in the past, Banas decided he wanted to go back to school at San Joaquin Delta College and figure out what he wanted to do.

After a cooking class proved he was not a future chef, he contemplated becoming a referee or umpire.

“I wouldn’t be able to hear people heckle,” said Banas, a man known for humorous quips that often make people laugh.

Banas decided officiating wasn’t his calling. He took a photojournalism class, followed by a freelance writing class. There he finally found what he was looking for, and his professor, Bill Davis, discovered a writer.

“He was a natural. He is smart and I think anybody who does read lips has to be smart,” Davis said. “You have to pay attention and you can’t let your mind wander. I am pleased but not surprised that he got the award.”

Seeing potential in Banas, Davis suggested that Banas write for Delta’s college newspaper. At first, Banas wasn’t so sure about the idea.

“I said, ‘I am 42 years old! You want me to work at a student newspaper?’” said Banas, who was a straight-A honor student at Delta.

But with his passion always rooted in sports and a new-found talent in writing, Banas decided to give it a go. A few award-winning stories later, Banas was headed in the right direction for a promising career. A short while later, he landed a job at the News-Sentinel and has been at it ever since.

The award is only Banas’ most recent example of the success he’s enjoyed throughout his life. A four-sport star at Linden High School, the all-league defensive lineman earned a spot in the Lions All-Star football game in 1976. One of his opponents was George Visger, who went on to help the San Francisco 49ers win Super Bowl XVI in 1982.

Being deaf never slowed down Banas, a big defensive lineman known for his hard hits.

“As an athlete, Rick was an animal. His motor ran at top speed constantly, and with Rick being unable to hear the whistle, there was never any letting up at the end of the play or he would knock you on your tail,” Visger said. “I had never been challenged as physically at that point in my career as I was by Rick.”

By the time he got to Sac State, Banas used being deaf to his advantage. Reading lips, he could see what plays teams were calling and was never fooled by hard snap counts.

“The fact that he had to rely only on movement of the opposing player instead of listening to the signals from the quarterback meant he was already able to do what is taught repeatedly to defensive linemen: Go off of movement, not sound,” said Morrison England, a former assistant coach for the Hornets. “He was therefore blessed with a skill needed to be a defensive lineman.”

As an adult, he played competitive softball. He played in two national championships and retired with over 400 home runs and a career batting average over .300.

“I was always able to really see the ball very well. My eyes are probably sharper than everybody else’s. They say when you are deaf, you have a heightened sense,” Banas said. “Plus it made me quicker because I was on top of things a little bit more.”

It hasn’t been an always easy-going path for Banas. He’s had accusations from coaches of him misquoting them, but always had the support of his editors. He’s worked through the hardship of being a diabetic while covering events that can last hours under the sweltering Lodi sun. Recently, he’s spent most of his time caring for his father, who is battling colon cancer that has spread to his liver and lungs.

Through it all, Banas has endured. England said he was not surprised that Banas is now an award-winning sports writer.

“His intelligence, drive and determination would allow him to do anything he wants,” England said. “There may be some irony to the fact that a person who is unable to hear words can write them with such eloquence.”

Covering high school and community athletics, Banas cherishes the opportunities he’s had to witness and write about historic games and athletes over the years. It’s a task he’s proud and honored to do.

“All of the games and events I have seen have been fantastic to watch,” Banas said. “I get to be part of something that a lot of people don’t get to be, and those are the kind of memories that last forever.”

He can remember being a young boy in the 1970s and accompanying his father to work, where he would grab a News-Sentinel and read it during lunch breaks. He knew then he wanted to be a sports reporter for the News-Sentinel.

“I never really thought it would happen, but at the time, that’s what I wanted to do,” Banas said. “Thirty years later, it happened.”