(ATLANTA) -- At 17, Brian Banks had what high school juniors dream of. Ranked 11th nationwide as middle linebacker, the Californian had committed to play football at the University of Southern California after a series of offers from other Division 1 schools.
All of that went away the day he was wrongfully convicted of rape.
Now, at age 27, after spending five years in prison, five on probation and receiving an exoneration, Banks revived his dream and signed on to the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday.
“I can’t believe this is happening. It’s surreal,” he said in a conference call to Atlanta and national media shortly after signing his contract. “Aside from getting my life back and my freedom back, this is the biggest accomplishment of my life. But it is also just the beginning.”
In 2002, Banks was accused by a friend of rape and kidnapping. After waiting a year to stand trial and despite a lack of DNA evidence, he pleaded no contest in order to avoid a possible 41-year sentence. The plea deal resulted in five years behind bars.
After he was released from jail in 2007 at the age of 22, he was placed on probation. The restrictions outlined that he had to register as a sex offender, could not live within 2,000 feet from any school or park, and he had to keep a GPS device around his ankle to ensure that he did not leave the state.
One day, he received a friend request on Facebook from the woman who had started it all.
“She was hoping that we could allow bygones to be bygones,” Banks told 60 Minutes.
Upon meeting with her twice, he and a private detective were able to tape a retraction in which she stated, “No, he did not rape me.”
On May 24, 2012, he was exonerated by the same judge who put him behind bars nine years earlier.
Two weeks later he got a call from Jay Glazer, a trainer, the owner of MMAthletics, and a Fox Sports NFL insider.
“I said, ‘Let’s get your butt into a gym tomorrow,’” Glazer said to ABC News. “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, so let’s get going.”
Banks had let go of his football aspirations while he was incarcerated in order to focus on what was ahead of him in prison.
“Football was the last thing on mind and it wasn’t until a few months before I was actually being released from prison that I thought about possibly trying to play football again,” Banks told reporters Wednesday.
“He had a lot of room to make up,” Glazer said. “I just tried to convince him that he had already pushed himself way more than we could push him physically. If being incarcerated for something he didn’t do couldn’t break him, then nothing we could ever do to him on the field or in the training room could break him.”
Eventually, his hard work began to deliver results and he was invited to participate in the Seattle Seahawks’ and San Francisco 49ers’ minicamps. He also worked out with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers before signing on to play for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League (UFL).
Shortly before the start of the 2012-2013 season, the Falcons invited him to try out.
“He had a great workout, but the timing was bad,” Glazer said. “But the Falcons gave me their word that they would sign him. Not then but soon.”
Eight months later, they kept their word.
“We’re putting together our roster and this isn’t a charity case,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the NFL Network. “This is a great, feel-good story, but it’s also one that we believe that he has a chance to come in there and compete.”
Wednesday’s signing is only the beginning of Banks achieving his dream. Now, he must prove his ability to receive a spot on the 53-man roster.
“I don’t expect any handouts or favoritism,” Banks said. "I’m here to work like everybody else. The result of my hard work will be whatever they deem necessary. All I can do is do my best.”
“There’s still a long distance to go. He understands that. We understand that,” Dimitroff said. "Given his character and his makeup and what he’s gone through…I think that speaks volumes to his perseverance and his drive to continue to learn and grow.”
Glazer, while acknowledging the disadvantage that comes with Banks’ age and the uphill battle he has ahead, has unwavering faith.
"If there’s anybody who’s already bucked the odds it’s him,” he said. “Why not do it again?”
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