Most young people are told they can do anything they want in life. For Brian Banks (@BrianBanksFree) that was once the case and now it is again.
The linebacker the Falcons signed on Wednesday isn't your typical football player. In fact, he hasn't played football in 10 years, but he brings a wealth of experience that few of his teammates have ever experienced.
Wrongfully accused of rape and kidnapping, Banks spent five years and two months in prison before being exonerated last year. A year later he sat inside Flowery Branch, Georgia at the Falcons' training facility and signed his first NFL contract. As a child it was where he thought he'd end up, or he'd at least give everything he had to get there.
While in high school at Long Beach Poly High School he was one of the top middle linebacker recruits in the nation. He attended football camps. He was on the fast track to creating a situation for himself that would allow him to achieve his dreams. Banks' brother recently told KTTV of Los Angeles that Brian could have gone to any school he wanted and he knows because he took the calls from schools personally for Brian. Banks verbally committed to USC after his junior season but there would never be a senior year.
Banks went through the legal process and found himself guilty of something he didn't do and then he found himself in prison and the life he once knew and looked forward to was gone, including a life that involved football.
"I had to watch my class go on and receive scholarships and play collegiate football on a high level," Banks said Wednesday during a conference call with the media. "For me I had to let those dreams go for me to focus on what was in front of me. For me that was five years in prison that was a completely different life of violence and being away from your family and all the different elements that goes with prison. Football was the last thing on my mind."
Atlanta's relationship with Banks began last season after the 27-year-old began considering pursuing football after his exoneration and release from prison. Banks had workouts and minicamp opportunities with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers and eventually played in the UFL for the Las Vegas Locomotives and the Falcons were one of the teams that brought Banks into their facility to work out.
Banks' timing was difficult to match up with the Falcons since he came in during the 2012 preseason, just after the first round of roster cuts. There were no visible physical limitations for Banks' attempt at the NFL, but the timing was bad and the Falcons said they'd be in touch. Earlier this week they were finally in touch and Banks is expected to come in and compete at middle linebacker, but he knows signing on the dotted line is just the first step.
"I had a really amazing one-on-one conversation with (head coach Mike Smith) where he congratulated me and said that he was happy for me to be here, but this is just the beginning of a long road to taking that next step and making the 53-man roster," Banks said. "We both agreed that I don't expect any handouts or favoritism. 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."
While in prison, Banks said he studied and read everything he could, including dictionaries and thesauruses. He worked on his public speaking, doing anything he could to erase the ways others defined him.
"I wanted to be a better person than the situation I was in," Banks said. "I wanted to be better than the label that was given to me. I had no clue that I would have the opportunity to clear my name and get my life back. So what I did was study and learn and grow as a man so that this one situation that I was wrongfully accused of wouldn't define me for the rest of my life."
Everything Banks does now is in an attempt to make up for a life that he once lost and his football life is just one aspect of all of this. He's working on a documentary film about his journey and other opportunities are in the works as well. Now that he's a Falcon, football will be one of his primary focuses and he's looking forward to getting this new step in his journey started.
"I can't wait to meet all my teammates," Banks said. "To shake everyone's hands, to start to learn names and build rapport with everybody. I am honored to play with those guys but I also view everyone, from players to coaches and everyone I meet throughout my experiences, as a human being just as I am. I think it's important that I put out what I want to get back. That's respect, camaraderie and being a team player. If I put out what I want to receive, then I will receive what I put out."
Banks learned some hard lessons while in prison and saw violence and hate up close and personal. He made his way through all of it and managed to escape as an even better person than the one that went in. He holds no grudges against anyone and he sees himself as a winner. Anything can happen from this point on, but he's already won because he has the freedom that was taken away from him.
He's not looking over his shoulder anymore and he's taking nothing for granted.
"That's why I work so hard now for the dreams I want to succeed in, because there's one point in my life where I lost everything."