Brian Banks' road to freedom and the Falcons

1:26 AM, Apr 30, 2013   |    comments
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Brian Banks

CHARLOTTE, NC -- Brian Banks is standing on stage in a Charlotte North Carolina ballroom, crying.

"It's just too much," he says.

Too much for a man whose journey to the national stage has been long and hard, but not uncommon.

On the stage with Brian, a hundred men -- all innocent, all wrongly convicted, all imprisoned... some for more than 30 years.

"My situation is nothing compared to what these guys have been through. Nothing."

MORE | Join the #RiseUpBrian conversation and send him messages of encouragement here

But the 27 year old Banks is clearly the star of the national conference for the Innocence Project. One of Banks' fellow exonerees says to him, shaking his hand, "you got a bigger platform than any one here, man. Do what you gotta do. I'm going to be right behind you."

Unlike these other men, Brian Bank's exoneration was national news.

A high school star linebacker in Long Beach California who had already verbally committed to USC, Banks dreams ended in a single day because of a classmate named Wanetta Gibson.

Banks remembers, "We engaged in small talk which led to us going to an area on campus which was known as a make out spot. We made out but we never had sex. By the end of that day I was being arrested and charged with kidnapping and rape."

Banks' mother sold her home and car to get her son a lawyer. And that lawyer told Banks he needed to take a plea deal, telling him, "We'll walk in this courtroom right now and select a jury and I can guarantee this jury will be an all white jury and they will see you as a guilty man because you're a big black teenager."

Banks took the deal and reported to prison the day after his 18th birthday.

"You have to become a completely different person when you're behind bars. You have to become a man of zero tolerance."

Banks says he felt himself becoming a convict, a number. So he made a choice. A choice to be better than his surroundings. He threw himself into books, studying psychology, spirituality.

"I studied the dictionary and the thesaurus. I wanted to understand words and what they meant and how to pronounce them. I worked on my penmanship and how to write. I worked on the way I spoke. I wanted to be better than what I was labeled."

After five years in prison, Banks spent another five years under glorified house arrest, as a registered sex offender who wore a GPS tracking device. Then one day, Wanetta Gibson, the supposed rape victim, friended him on Facebook.

"She said she was online on Facebook looking at different friends from high school and came across my page and commented on my picture and how good I looked and wanted to hang out."

After his initial shock, Banks saw a chance to clear his name. With the help of his best friend's father who was a private investigator, he recorded the meeting, where she admitted lying.

More than a year later in a California courtroom, Brian Banks was proclaimed an innocent man.

The media whirlwind that surrounded his release led to tryouts with seven NFL teams, but no offers.

"By the time I got to my last tryout with Atlanta it was my best tryout that I had with all the other teams. After the tryout coach Smith and GM Dmitroff sat me down in a room and basically said "Banks, we'll be honest with you, you look better than some of the linebackers we have at camp."

But Banks says they told him that with the season just two weeks away, and with all the attention he brought, it was bad timing.

Last month the Falcons signed Banks to a few months contract and Banks shared part of a conversation he had with Coach Smith.

"He sat me down and shook my hand and he said 'I'm so happy to have you here. We're excited for you to be here.' And after all of that he said 'You know what you got a lot of work to do. A lot. But, we need help at the linebacker core and so we brought you here for a reason.' And I looked into his eyes when he was telling me that, and I knew he wasn't playing me. He was honest."

Brian Banks has heard all the talk -- that he's too old, too long out of the game.

"I'm here for a reason. I know that i'm here for a reason with the Atlanta Falcons."

Falcons General Manager Thomas Dmitroff had this to say about Banks.

"Brian Banks has faced situations that very few if any of us in this room have faced. We didn't just bring him in for the story. We brought him in because there's potential there to continue to grow and we'll see in time whether he solidifies a roster spot."

A decade ago, Brian Banks had his future falsely stolen. He says the anger is gone. There is simply no room for it in his life.

Like every man on that stage in Charlotte who has struggled on the long road to freedom, Banks is done dreaming. It's real.

"I'm going to play. I will make the 53 man roster. Just like I said I would be signed by the NFL. Just like I said I would prove my innocence. Just like I said I would survive prison. Why stop now?"

As for Wanetta Gibson, she profited from her claim of rape. Her family sued the school district and won $1.5 million. A week after the Falcons signed Banks, the district sued Gibson to get the money back. No criminal charges have been filed against her.

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