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Brian Banks in recovery mode at Atlanta Falcons after the unkindest cut

Former promising NFL player takes wrongful prison term on the chin and is trying to revive his career with Falcons, writes Paul Newberry.

Brian Banks is trying to find his way into the Atlanta Falcons squad. AP Photo
Brian Banks is trying to find his way into the Atlanta Falcons squad. AP Photo

Dripping in sweat after more than two hours on a steamy practice field, Brian Banks joyfully complies with every request for an autograph.

After serving more than five years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Banks takes nothing for granted, not even his signature. The first letter of each name is meticulously scripted with a distinctive swoosh of the Sharpie.

Right underneath, he always makes sure to add a hash tag and "53" – his uniform number with the Atlanta Falcons.

"I love every moment being out here," he says, drawing out the word "love".

"Regardless of what happens, this is an amazing addition to my life experiences."

To be sure, he is a fringe player, one with only a slim chance to be with the team when the season opens next weekend.

But he might just be the most important guy in the NFL.

Banks is a symbol of hope to all those people languishing in American prisons, some doing hard time for crimes they did not commit.

"Wrongful convictions need to be addressed in America," he says. "There are a lot of Brian Bankses behind bars right now."

No doubt, he would love to realise his dream of playing in the NFL, a dream delayed by the injustice that sent Banks to prison for five years for a rape that never occurred and left him desperately trying to clear his name for another five years. There might be no better platform to spread his message.

But the instincts are rusty after a decade away from the game. At age 28, Banks is trying to earn a job with one of the league's top teams when his last meaningful football experience came in high school, when he was considered a very promising young player.

"I'm learning basic things of Football 101," he says. "Other guys have had the opportunity to play college ball and get that experience. I'm starting from scratch."

Banks saw minimal action in the first three pre-season games, but survived two rounds of cuts as the Falcons trimmed their squad to 75 players. The Falcons played Jacksonville last night in their final pre-season game.

"We told Brian he would get an opportunity to come in here and compete, knowing he's at a disadvantage because he hasn't played the game of football in such a long time," said Mike Smith, the Falcons coach.

"But he's been very resilient. His learning curve has been really accelerated. I'm really impressed with him in terms of where he started and where he is right now."

More impressive is where Banks is as a person. He shows no bitterness over what he went through, no anger towards those who tried to take his life away.

He says he forgives the former Long Beach (California) Polytechnic High School girl who made the rape accusation and later received $750,000 (Dh2.8m) from the Long Beach school district for a crime she said happened on school grounds. (In June, a judge ordered Wanetta Gibson to pay the district $2.6m in restitution, attorney fees and punitive damages.)

Banks has lost much, but he has even more to give.

Each time he takes the field, he wears a wristband for the California Innocence Project, the group that helped gain his freedom. To the group's director, Justin Brooks, the Banks case is a classic example of what is wrong with the US justice system.

"Almost nobody gets a trial anymore," Brooks says. "The system is set up to move people toward plea bargains. Brian represents all the innocent people who take those deals."

Banks knew he did nothing wrong, but he agreed to a plea because he faced more than 40 years in prison if his case went to trial and he was convicted.

His attorney recommended he plead "no-contest" and take a five-year sentence.

"You don't think you're going to win the case," Brooks says. "It's an all-white jury. It's your word against hers and you're a big, black teenager. You're told if you take the deal, you might get probation.

"Maybe, at worst, you get a couple of years, get out of prison and get your life back. I don't know what I would do, and I'm a lawyer. I can't imagine being a 17-year-old kid having to make that decision."

If not for the accuser belatedly acknowledging, in a secretly recorded statement, there was no crime, Banks would still be going through life with the stigma of being an ex-convict. Certainly, no NFL team would have given him a chance to fulfil his football dream.

"I feel very bad that he had to go through that," said Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons defensive end. "But I'm happy he's getting his opportunity now. Better late than never."

Physically, Banks fits in with his Falcons teammates, his 1.83-metre, 114kg frame impressively muscled. But he has missed out on so much as a player that he does not always realise the magnitude of it.

Others know instinctively where they should be. Banks often has to think about it for a split-second, and that is all it takes to get out of position and fail to make a play.

The Falcons must cut down to 53 players today before their season opener at New Orleans on September 8. Banks is unlikely to be on the list, though he could get an opportunity to do more catching up on Atlanta's practice squad. The Canadian Football League is another possibility, perhaps offering the prospect of playing right away.

No matter where he lands, Banks intends to keep making a difference. In the past year, he has worked with the California Innocence Project to clear the names of two people falsely accused.

He knows there are more where they came from.

"If this experience inspires others to chase their dreams, or get back on track of a dream they once let go, I feel like I've accomplished more than … trying to make this team," Banks says.

"There's just so much I want to do in life. Part of that is to use my story and use my experiences to give back to other people."

* Associated Press