Ten years after wrongful conviction, former high-school football star signs with Falcons

I feel like this story might be slightly treacherous in the wake of the Steubenville case because the roles are reversed, but it shouldn’t be. A victim is a victim, and in this case, the football player ended up being a victim of his accuser and the justice system. His accuser hurt not only Brian Banks, but real victims of rape. Banks is getting a second chance at an NFL career after five years in prison and five years on probation. Unfortunately, that’s more than many wrongfully convicted people get after emerging from the system.

Brian Banks was wrongly accused of rape at age 16, when he was a star high school football player with a verbal commitment to USC and the possibility of a professional career. After his five years in prison, Banks’ accuser admitted she lied and he was able to get his conviction overturned, with help from the California Innocence Project.

Banks said he read every book he could find while in prison and also learned to value every opportunity.

“It’s almost impossible to explain, the feeling of not having freedom, to be stripped away of your freedom, of your dignity, the respect you once had,” he said. “To lose it all and watch the world pass you by as you sit inside a prison cell, knowing you shouldn’t be there, knowing you’re there because of another person’s lies, to lose it all and then get it all back, it’s a very humbling, spiritual feeling that you just don’t want to take anything for granted.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see both sides of the human spirit. … My journey has been crazy but my journey has been a learning experience that is unlike any other.”

He will get a shot at the Falcons roster at age 27.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Banks will be given an opportunity to win a spot on the team at inside linebacker. He met with Falcons coach Mike Smith at the team’s facility Wednesday.

“I had a really amazing one-on-one conversation with him,” Banks said. “He congratulated me and said he was happy for me to be here but this was just the beginning of a long road to making that next step and making that 53-man roster. We both agreed that I don’t expect any handouts or any favoritism. I’m here to work like everybody else and the result of my hard work will be whatever they deem necessary.

“All I can do is my best and however the turnout will be, I thank God for the opportunity.”

Banks will participate in Atlanta’s offseason workouts, which begin on April 22.

His accuser, who had gotten a $750,000 settlement after the case, showed up in Banks’ life again while he was on probation, sending him a Facebook message:

Out of the blue, Gibson, then 24, sent Banks a Facebook friend request.

Banks slammed the laptop cover down and jumped out of his chair. Was somebody playing a joke on him?

He looked again. Amazing. Gibson had typed, “Let’s let bygones be bygones.”

Easy for her to say. She didn’t watch 10 years of her life go by.

“She was adamant about meeting me,” Banks says. “I asked my brother [Freddy], ‘What should I do?’ He said, ‘Whatever you do, make sure you play chess, not checkers.'”

Banks’ first move: To get everything she said on tape. He hired a private investigator and met Gibson in the man’s office, where every conversation was secretly videotaped. The tape recorded Gibson saying, clearly, “No, he did not rape me.”

Was he nervous she wouldn’t say it?

“I didn’t have to get her to say anything,” Banks said. “She came into the room expressing herself. She even came back the next day. The investigator asked her again, point blank. ‘Did Brian rape you?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did he kidnap you?’ ‘No.'”

In a world where CNN bemoans the lost bright futures of convicted Steubenville rapists caught on tape, and all media seems to disproportionately laud any major football star who shows a hint of rehabilitation after a crime—Michael Vick, Ray Lewis—I figure it’s worth highlighting a redemption story about a guy who was innocent of any crime. I wish him the best at camp.

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