There will be roughly 2,800 players vying for roster spots in NFL training camps.
None will have a more inspirational story than linebacker Brian Banks.
Banks — who spent a decade trying to exonerate himself for a crime he didn’t commit — was signed Wednesday as a free agent by the Atlanta Falcons.
“I can’t believe this is happening. It’s surreal,” Banks said on a conference call with NFL media. “I want to jump up and go crazy. It’s such a big deal.
“This is the biggest accomplishment besides getting my life and freedom back. But it’s also just the beginning.”
Once a highly touted high school recruit in Long Beach, Calif., Banks was charged at age 16 with rape against a fellow student. Although he proclaimed innocence throughout and was never linked to the crime via DNA testing, Banks pled no contest on the advice of his attorney who reportedly feared he might receive a much sterner sentence if found guilty during trial. Banks was sentenced to five years in prison followed by five years of parole.
It was during his time out of prison that Banks was contacted by the rape accuser through Facebook. Wanetta Gibson was later videotaped admitting that Banks had never committed any crime against her, leading to his name being legally cleared in court in May 2012.
At age 26, Banks then began to pursue the NFL career he once thought was no longer tenable. He had 2012 tryouts with Seattle, Atlanta, Kansas City and Seattle but wasn’t signed, leading to a stint for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League before that entity folded in-season.
“It was difficult before (Gibson) came forward,” Banks said. “I couldn’t live within 2,000 feet of a school or park. It was impossible to find work. I had a GPS strapped to my ankle for five years. I couldn’t leave the state or county under any circumstances.
“When my freedom was given back, another journey was put before me to get into shape and pursue a dream of playing football at the highest level possible. It’s been a long road with 10 years missing in my football career and lot of work put in to make up for it.”
The news of Banks’ signing was first reported by FOX Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer. He has a unique perspective on the story. Glazer, who coaches NFL players and other pro athletes in mixed martial arts training during the offseason, was approached about working with Banks by agent Bruce Tollner. Glazer was so moved by his story that he has trained Banks for free since June 2012 and made calls on his behalf trying to help him get a shot at making an NFL team.
“In our gym there’s nobody more inspiring than Brian Banks,” Glazer told FOXSports.com. “All the guys we have look up to him and say, ‘Oh my God, look what he’s been through.’ When guys are on the ground tired after hitting the bag, they get up when they see him get up and start doing it again. This is a guy who can talk about overcoming and not breaking or taking things for granted.
“My favorite thing he’s told me was, ‘I tell people all the time it’s not like God made bad things happen to Brian Banks. Sometimes, bad things just happen in your life. It’s on you to overcome them.’ You’ve got to love a guy who doesn’t blame life.”
The Falcons had passed on signing Banks after his 2012 workout because their regular-season roster was basically set by that point. Banks, though, was impressive enough physically with the Falcons to warrant a shot this preseason at sticking as an inside linebacker and special-teams player.
Glazer said that Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith both promised “that they would give the kid a shot and work with him in the offseason” if he hadn’t signed elsewhere by then. Banks can now participate in Atlanta’s entire upcoming offseason workout program.
“I spoke to Mike this morning and he said, ‘I hope you never doubted us. We keep our promises,’” Glazer said. “Thomas insisted the whole year, ‘We’re going to sign him. We love the kid and want to give him a shot. It’s not just because of his story. We like the size/speed ratio of the guy.’”
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Banks knows making Atlanta’s practice squad, let alone the final 53-man roster, is hardly a given. There are more experienced players and younger prospects against whom he will be competing.
But just having that chance is everything Banks hoped for after what he has experienced.
“Regardless of whether I signed with an NFL team or would be able to play football, I’ve already won,” Banks said. “The biggest thing for me was to have my freedom be given back to me. Everything else is just me trying to live a life I once lost.”