Sunday, in the grand scheme of things, was just another preseason Sunday, a day after a game when players were getting treatment for the previous night's game, reviewing the film and getting ready to move on to the next week. But for a little less than half of the players on this year's Falcons preseason roster, it wasn't just another day. It was one of two cut days in the preseason as NFL teams pare down a 90-man roster to 75 players and eventually 53.
It's a traditionally stressful day for those players on the fringe of the roster, players that are playing to begin their careers in the NFL or hang on to an existing career. If you don't hear anything, you're safe and you come to practice the next day like nothing happened. If the phone rings, you know the voice on the other end may be telling you to bring your playbook and see the head coach.
For Brian Banks, whose story of exoneration and pursuit of dreams is incomprehensible yet utterly inspiring, the day was pretty much like every other day he's spent as a free man reviving a football career sidetracked by his wrongful imprisonment in high school.
"For me, it wasn't a difficult day or a nervous moment," Banks said Tuesday. "I feel like if you put your all into something and you work and try as hard as you can, it's all you really can do. After that, whatever's supposed to happen will happen. That's just how I look at things. If I'm supposed to be here and I do all that I can to be here, I'll be here. The day of first cuts, I treated it as a normal day. If my phone rang, then I knew it was time to hear the words, but it didn't and I'm still here and I'm still working as hard as I can."
Banks has spent the entire offseason and preseason with the Falcons, learning to play the game at a professional level with only a high school level of experience. He's defying the odds by just being here, but that's not enough. He said he doesn't want to leave and he's going to do everything he can to avoid that phone call. "I want to remain an Atlanta Falcon," he said and his last chance to prove that comes Thursday against Jacksonville in the preseason finale. After that, it's up to coaches that call the shots.
So far this preseason, Banks has been on the field for 21 snaps. In Thursday's game he figures to see the most action of the preseason. He and his teammates will put as much positive as they can out on the field in hopes of doing something to catch a coach's eye and earn a spot on the final 53 or one of eight practice squad spots. Banks is approaching that final game with the same ease that he approached last Sunday's cut-down day.
"My focus has always been 100 percent so that will carry over," Banks said. "I just will probably study a little bit more and prepare a little bit more. I'll ask more questions about things that may be a little confusing or not make too much sense. I'll get with my teammates and talk with them about plays. I'm just going to do everything and anything that I can to prep and be over-prepared so that when it comes game time, things just come naturally."
Banks will hit the field with that 100 percent mentality and he will leave it all out there so when he walks off Thursday evening, he'll know he gave it his best effort. Always honest with himself, he wants to be able to look himself in the eyes and know he did everything he could to prove he deserved to be in the NFL. He wants to know he was focused 100 percent of the time and his determination and passion were where they needed to be to succeed.
Banks said he knows he's worked his butt off every day and he knows he can answer yes to those questions. That's good enough for him so there won't be any regrets when he leaves Thursday night. He doesn't know what comes next, but whatever does happen, he believes the experience of his time with the Falcons has prepared him for something more. With those experiences has come a greater knowledge of the game of football and also a new extended family.
"This has been a huge challenge for me and with that comes huge growth," Banks said. "I've learned so much about me. I've learned so much about my will and how much I'm willing to push hard for something that I want to succeed in, how able and well I am at taking directions. Just overall, having the chance of having a new family — this is like family to me here. I've learned a lot, I've grown a lot and I've received a lot from this experience."