By Brenden West Herald Assistant Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON – Jason Banker discovered his talent with the 400-meter low hurdles late in his high school career at Clinton.
Last winter, on the eve of his senior season, River Kings track coach Tony Smith approached Banker about trying the event. Until then, Banker ran the open 400 and was good enough to qualify for both the Drake Relays and the state meet his sophomore and junior years.
The University of Northern Iowa discovered Banker’s talent for low hurdles late in his senior season. On Tuesday, Banker officially signed with the Panthers. Next season, he will compete on both academic and athletic scholarships. The latter, Smith said, was a late development after scouts saw Banker compete at this year’s Drake Relays.
“He’s not running in South Beach, but he’s taking his talents to Cedar Falls next year,” Smith said during a news conference Tuesday morning at the Clinton High library. Banker signed in front of teammates and his mother, Michele. To Smith, the event signified a career built less on talent and more on Banker’s work ethic over the years.
“As most of you know, Jason loves the weight room,” he told Banker’s peers. “His hard work ethic has paid off the most for him.”
Having never previously trained in hurdles, Banker exploded. In April, he was one of eight 400 hurdlers to qualify for Drake. Placing fifth, it was the first hurdles race Banker lost this year.
Banker said the season – let alone the scholarship offer – were surprises to him. He’d contacted UNI earlier in the year about possibly walking on to the team.
“I wasn’t going to run, but I was already planning on going to UNI,” Banker said. Then, the coach called him a week ago after seeing Banker at Drake. “They said, ‘We’re going to offer you something,’ and I’m surprised that they did.”
He plans to major in physics and engineering, for which Banker also received a scholarship.
“I’m proud these kids can come see him because he did it the right way,” Smith said. “He worked for everything he’s earned. In the classroom, he’s a great student-athlete.
“At UNI he was just talking about walking on, but the 400 hurdles gave him that opportunity. I like that these other kids can come see that hard work pay off.”
Smith added that UNI was unaware that this was Banker’s first season in hurdles. Because of that, he believes the Panthers can look forward to a lot of upside.
“You’ve got to think he’ll go up from here,” Smith said. “I think at UNI they didn’t really have a low hurdler, so he’ll be filling a spot for them.”
Banker’s signing came a day before the Clinton track team traveled to Des Moines. He will join teammates in both individual and relay events. With the signing out of the way, he’s turned his attention to wrapping up his high school career.
“I’m hoping to continue to get better and drop time. At state I’m hoping to get a medal,” Banker said.