Brandon Banks is forever grateful to June Jones.
When Banks broke into the CFL in 2013 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, he was used predominantly as a kick returner by then head coach Kent Austin. Austin was fired in 2017 after an 0-8 start and replaced by Jones, who immediately started the five-foot-seven, 150-pound Banks at receiver.
Banks — appropriately nicknamed Speedy — responded with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons under Jones. Jones left Hamilton for the XFL prior to training camp but Banks enjoyed a banner ’19 campaign under first-year head coach Orlondo Steinauer, leading the CFL in catches (112), yards (1,550) and TDs (13) — all career highs — as Hamilton posted a league-best 15-3 record.
On Thursday night, Banks was named the CFL’s outstanding player at its awards banquet. He received 41-of-50 votes cast by the Football Reporters of Canada and nine league head coaches.
“June Jones is the reason I’m here in this position right now,” Banks said. “He’s probably the only coach to ever give me an opportunity to be who I wanted to be, no disrespect to any other coaches.
“He definitely rejuvenated my career. I always knew the player I was, I only needed an opportunity and a coach to believe in me.”
Banks will have a chance to earn more hardware Sunday when Hamilton faces the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup.
Banks had plenty of company on the podium as teammates Chris Van Zeyl (lineman), Frankie Williams (special-teams) and Steinauer (coach) were also honoured. So was Montreal Alouettes linebacker Henoc Muamba (Canadian) as the East Division won five of the seven major individual honours.
End Willie Jefferson of the Blue Bombers (defensive player) and Calgary Stampeders linebacker Nate Holley (rookie) were the West Division recipients.
CFL board chairman Jim Lawson confirmed upon receiving the Commissioner’s Award he’ll be retiring following Sunday’s Grey Cup game. Lawson, who’s also the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, was appointed CFL board chairman in 2013 and twice served as interim commissioner.
Lawson’s father, Mel, played quarterback for the 1943 Grey Cup-winning Hamilton Flying Wildcats. His grandfather, Charles, owned the Wildcats in the 1940s and was a key figure in the merging of the team and Hamilton Tigers to become the Ticats in 1950.
“It’s been rewarding, this league I love it,” said Lawson, “But it’s a difficult thing to manage.
“I’ve had seven years of crisis management and I’ve loved it. But I think it’s time to move on.”
Calgary president/GM John Hufnagel — a former player, assistant coach, head coach, GM and president during a solid tenure in Canada — received the Hugh Campbell Distinguished Leadership award.
Montreal long-snapper Martin Bedard captured the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ award. It’s given annually to the CFL player who embodies the attributes of Canada’s veterans.
Ross Folan, Calgary’s video operations director, received the inaugural Jane Mawby Tribute award. Mawby spent 28 seasons with the Stampeders before passing away in 2015.
Calgary punter Rob Maver captured the Tom Pate Memorial award for outstanding community service and sportsmanship.
Banks, 31, becomes the first Ticat to win the CFL’s top individual award since quarterback Danny McManus in 1998.
“In a humble way, it feels good,” Banks said.
Saskatchewan quarterback Cody Fajardo, who threw for a CFL-high 4,302 yards, was the finalist. Fajardo led the Riders (13-5) to top spot in the West Division for the first time since ’09.
The six-foot, 230-pound Muamba, a Zaire native who grew up in Mississauga, Ont., received 34 votes. He was second in the CFL in tackles (93) as Montreal (10-8) registered double-digit wins for the first time since 2012 and ended a five-year playoff drought.
Muamba said the honour removed some the sting of Montreal’s 37-29 East Division semifinal loss to Edmonton.
“One of the things that made me able to sleep at night after the loss is how far we’ve come as a team and organization,” he said. “That’s allowed me to look forward and be excited about the future.
“I’m humbled and honoured to accept this award. There’s a lot of Canadian talent in this league.”
Saskatchewan linebacker Cameron Judge (61 tackles, 12 special-team tackles, five sacks and two interceptions) was the finalist.
Jefferson, 28, received 39 votes after registering a career-high 12 sacks in his first season with Winnipeg after three years with Saskatchewan. The six-foot-seven, 245-pound Jefferson also had a league-record 16 pass knockdowns to go with 24 tackles, an interception, six forced fumbles and two recoveries.
“It’s something new, something nice and something fresh that I wanted,” he said. “This was my opportunity to step out on my own and find something new.
“At the end of the day I was still able to be a dominant player.”
Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence (CFL-high 98 tackles, three interceptions and four sacks) was the finalist.
The six-foot-six, 312-pound Van Zeyl captured 26 votes to secure the lineman honour for the first time in his CFL career. The 36-year-old native of Fonthill, Ont., was released by Toronto prior to training camp but signed with Hamilton and anchored an offensive line that helped the Ticats lead the CFL in passing yards (5,626), touchdowns (48) and net offence (395.1 yards per game).
“One more game to play,” said Van Zeyl, who won two Grey Cups with Toronto. “I’ll enjoy this (Thursday night) then get back to business.
“Stanley Bryant is an incredible player, I’m glad he let me win this one.”
Bryant, the Winnipeg tackle who’d who won the award the previous two seasons, was the finalist.
The five-foot-nine, 190-pound Williams secured 34 votes after leading the CFL in punt return yards (874) and added 1,020 kickoff return yards. Williams, 26, of Tampa, Fla., had two special-teams touchdowns.
“There’s a lot of quality guys who could’ve been nominated for this award,” he said. “I’m just blessed.”
Winnipeg’s Mike Miller (second-leading 25 special-teams tackles, including a CFL-record seven in a 29-14 win over Ottawa on July 5) was the finalist.
The six-foot, 210-pound Holley received 41 votes after recording 78 tackles, 22 special-teams tackles, a sack and an interception. The former Kent State star finished second in the league with 107 defensive plays.
“Three years ago I had no idea where my football future or life was headed,” Holley said. “It’s funny when you follow your dream where life will take you.”
Montreal receiver Jake Wieneke (41 catches, 569 yards, team-high eight TDs) was the finalist.
Steinauer, 46, of Seattle, received 38 votes after guiding Hamilton to a club record for regular-season wins. He also tied the CFL mark for most regular-season wins by a rookie head coach.
“I’m extremely humbled and honoured to accept this award on behalf of the whole organization,” Steinauer said. “It feels surreal because you can’t get this done without everyone in the organization.
“It’s not about you, it’s a ‘We’ thing.”
Saskatchewan’s first-year head coach Craig Dickenson was the finalist.