Tall and lean, Banks McFadden hardly presented the physical picture of perhaps the state of South Carolina’s greatest all-around athlete.
One of Frank Howard’s most famous stories — If McFadden drank a glass of tomato juice, he could be used as a thermometer — is a graphic and enduring description.
But if a first impression were ever wrong, Howard’s was.
The skinny kid who looked threatened by a good gust of wind did for Clemson what he had done for Great Falls High, sparkling in football, basketball and track and field. By the time McFadden finished his college career, Howard came up with another description: great.
In remembering McFadden three years after his death, a question to consider centers on his myriad of skills: Which sport was his best?
His achievements have been well-chronicled through the years, but a quick look illustrates how baffling the “best sport” question can be.
In football, he made All-American, and his teammates voted him the best player on the team that elevated Clemson into the national sports consciousness.
In basketball, he made All-American, and he led the only Clemson team to win a conference championship in scoring.
In track and field, he set records in winning three events at the state college meet.
McFadden, the most humble of men, always gave credit to teammates for his success and did little to shed light on the “best sport” question. “I just piddled around with whatever was in season,” he once said.
Most competitors would love to “piddled around” like he did.
At 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, McFadden would not get a second look from coaches today. Even then, upon his arrival at Clemson in the fall of 1936, Howard, then an assistant on Jess Neely’s staff, scratched his head.
But the skills that attracted recruiters to the Chester County community of Great Falls and had led the Great Falls Red Devils to one state championship and one runner-up finish emerged — eventually.
The player whom a teammate, the late Walter Cox, called “the finest athlete I have witnessed” played end on the freshman team and was a reserve wingback (in the single-wing formation) his sophomore season. The substitutes scrimmaged against the varsity, and out of one practice, the All-American was born.
“The varsity was killing us, and we started dragging around,” McFadden once said. “Dusty Wiles, who was a senior that year, looked around at us sophomores and told us, ‘You’ve got two choices: keep piddling around like me or get better and make the varsity.’ I made up my mind that very day to get off the scout team.”
Switching positions in the spring of 1938 provided the last piece of the puzzle. McFadden moved to tailback, and Shad Bryant switched to wingback.
“He was terrific at wingback,” McFadden said in a 1983 interview. “He blocked better than I did, and we both found a home.”
Historians like to focus on his offensive exploits, but McFadden was a true triple threat. He set punting records at Clemson that lasted for 40 years, and Howard credited his defensive skills with winning the 1940 Cotton Bowl, the triumph that introduced Clemson to the nation.
“Mac swooped out of the sky like a big bird and knocked down a pass in the end zone,” Howard said in recalling the Tigers’ 6-3 victory against Boston College. He also averaged 44 yards on 11 punts and knocked down four second-half passes.
True to his character, McFadden dodged the accolades and pointed out the rushing of fullback Charlie Timmons. But the people who selected the all-star teams were not fooled; they named Banks McFadden to the All-America team.
The Tigers’ basketball history is hardly distinguished; the school’s only conference championship, the Southern, came in 1939 and, of course, Banks McFadden led the way.
The Southern included most of today’s ACC teams in those days, and the top eight clubs made the postseason tournament. Four teams, including Clemson, tied for the last two spots, and league officials decided to take all 10 to Raleigh.
With a 12-8 regular-season record, the Tigers figured to have no chance. But they beat North Carolina 44-43, Wake Forest 30-28, Davidson 49-33 and Maryland 39-27.
“A very thrilling experience,” said McFadden, no stranger to championships. In addition to a football crown, he had led Great Falls to a pair of state Class B basketball titles.
Football coach Jess Neely played a role in the Tigers’ success.
“He saw I could beat the North Carolina center down the floor and suggested to coach (Joe) Davis that we take advantage of my speed,” McFadden said. “Coach Davis acted like he knew that and told coach Neely he was saving it for a secret play. We did get a couple of baskets out of it and we won by one point.”
The demand for spring football practice kept the Tigers out of the National Invitation Tournament, then more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament, and McFadden did not get to show his skills on the biggest stage in the game.
But that did not matter in personal terms; the folks who pick the all-star teams named McFadden to the All-America team.
TRACK AND FIELD
Howard coached the Clemson track team, too, and decided to make McFadden a hurdler.
“I told him I didn’t know anything about running hurdles, but he gave me a book to read,” McFadden said. “He told me, ‘The idea is to get over them fast.’”
To no one’s surprise, he did.
The moments to remember came in the 1940 state college meet. McFadden set records in winning the 120-yard high hurdles and the 22-yard low hurdles, ran a leg on a winning relay team and placed third in the shot put. If that were not enough, he competed in the long jump.
“I came to my last jump trailing,” McFadden said. “Coach Howard told me he would put his handkerchief next to the pit to show me how far I needed to jump.
‘I took off, and the further I got out, the further that handkerchief looked. I came up short, and that burned me up. I knew I had made the best jump of my life, and it was short. I was mad and stomping around, and coach Howard said, ‘Let ‘em measure it.’”
McFadden could not believe the result: another state record, at more than 23 feet.
“Coach told me he put the handkerchief at 24 feet ‘just to see what I could do.’”
As always, McFadden did plenty.
At the beginning, the question centered on his best sport.
To help with the debate, his football credentials include one season in the National Football League. The fourth player taken in the draft, he led the league in yards per carry — in his only professional season.
In basketball, he led the Tigers in scoring his three varsity seasons. In track and field, he won five events in one dual meet and almost outscored the opposing team by himself.
The combination of four years of service during World War II, injuries sustained in an automobile accident and his love for Clemson kept him from returning to professional football, and he never had a second thought about the decision.
Call football his best, or basketball, or track and field, but do not forget the other side of Banks McFadden. He dodged the limelight and often claimed, “I get credit for things other people did.”
But as Charlie Bussey, who played football at Clemson during McFadden’s coaching days, said at the time of McFadden’s death in 2005: “Athletics don’t have anything to do with the respect people felt for him. The love comes from the type of person he was.”
Great athlete, better person: That was Banks McFadden.