Luther Banner

High-School Athlete Gets "Lucky Break" Thanks to the FIRST Robotics Competition

Luther BannerFor some people there’s a time in their life when everything changes — a turning point when one direction rather than another is chosen. Perhaps it’s because of a special teacher, an innovative organization, or an unexpected event. For Luther Banner, former member of FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 1985 of St. Louis, Missouri, it was all of the above.

In 2008, as a student at Hazelwood Central High School in Florissant, Missouri, Banner was determined to pursue a football career until he broke his leg during freshman year. However, thanks to physics teacher Cathy Sylve, an unhappy accident became a life- altering experience when she convinced him to join the local FIRST team.

According to Sylve, who was the team’s coach for seven years, “Luther was not only injured; he was also trying to maintain an “A” average and caring for his grandmother, who was battling cancer at the time. He definitely needed a positive outlet and we wanted him to know that FIRST was fun as well as educational.” The now-retired high-school teacher says that Banner was able to find that outlet through his experiences with FIRST and was also motivated to take a bus across town every other day to attend an accelerated physics class at a sister school.

During his sophomore year, Banner became one of the team’s co-captains, along with Jaylen Taylor and Evan Mensinger. The trio had several goals, one of which was to make sure Sylve was the first woman at the local FRC St. Louis Regional to win the Woodie Flowers Award — an award given annually to a team Mentor for his or her contributions to the students on their team. Mission accomplished.

“It felt great to make good on our promise to the woman who pulled the three of us into the team. In my opinion, we couldn’t have shown her how much we love and appreciate her in a better way,” says Banner, who is currently a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Thanks to a full scholarship and significant financial aid —as well as his stellar high-school grades and activities — Banner is now hard at work at the Ivy League college.

Banner, whose father died while his mother was pregnant, was raised by his mom and paternal grandmother. Growing up without a dad was difficult at times, but the college freshman says both women were positive role models and had a strong impact on his childhood.

Banner says his initial years with FIRST were not without some obstacles. Transitioning from a star football player to robotics enthusiast was not easy. “Honestly, I was a closet nerd. It was weird to be openly nerdy and turn down hanging with my buds to go to robotics practice. But somehow I found a balance and discovered that I really loved learning about robots and engineering, and working with my FIRST team,” says Banner, who also played baseball while at Hazelwood Central.

Apparently the “nerdiness” paid off for more than just Banner. As a member of Team 1985, he was responsible for creating the area’s FIRST LEGO League (FLL) mentoring program, as well as helping to develop FLL teams at each of the six middle schools in the Hazelwood School District. For his efforts, Banner was named to the FIRST Dean’s List, an honor recognizing 10 students from the United States and abroad for their leadership and dedication to the organization.

Banner says the most valuable take-away from his involvement with FIRST was learning how to be an effective leader. He adds there’s a difference between just being a better person in charge and being a leader. “You have to take into account everyone’s personalities and home and social life... motivate everyone and get the best out of them,” says the mechanical engineering major. “You have to know how to get through to every member on the team and let them know they are an important part of what is taking place even if they don’t feel that way,” says Banner, who also was a member of the National Honor Society, the Future Business Leaders of America, the Student Workshop Theater, and the band while in high school.

Banner admits that if not for FIRST he wouldn’t be attending one of the world’s most prestigious colleges today. In fact, he doubts he would have chosen to major in the field of engineering. “The problem solving and teamwork I learned through FIRST has come in very handy when working on difficult problem sets in the classroom.”

The college freshman hopes to one day start an engineering firm where he’ll have an opportunity to create products for the medical sector. “I love helping people and feel like the easiest way for me to make an impact in people’s lives with the blessings I have received is to target the medical field.” Banner also hopes to stay connected to FIRST through coaching or mentoring once he is fully acclimated to his MIT schedule.

“I’d like people to know that FIRST is a life-changing program. Even for kids not interested in the engineering profession, there is something for everyone. You learn a lot about teamwork, leadership, and professionalism and it would be a great experience for anyone.”