FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - 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 time for a crime he didn't commit, Banks doesn't take anything 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 loooove every moment being out here," he says. "Regardless of what happens, this is an amazing addition to my life experiences."
Sure, he's just a fringe player, a huge long-shot to make the team.
But he might just be the most important guy in the NFL.
Banks is a symbol of hope to all those people languishing in our prisons, many of them serving far more time than they should be or, even worse, doing hard time for crimes they didn't commit. For the rest of us, he's a much-needed wake-up call that our judicial system has yet to live up to its promise of providing justice for all.
"Wrongful convictions need to be addressed in America," he says. "There are a lot of Brian Banks behind bars right now."
No doubt, he would love to realize his dream of playing in the NFL, a dream delayed by a gross 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 pulpit 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 experience came in high school.
"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 barely took the field in the first two preseason games. The Falcons hope to give him a longer look in the last two.
"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," Falcons coach Mike Smith says. "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 toward those who tried to take his life away. He lost a lot, but he's got even more to give.
Each time he takes the field, he's wearing a wristband for the California Innocence Project, the group that helped gain his freedom. To director Justin Brooks, the Banks case is a classic example of all that's wrong with our 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.
Just imagine being in his shoes.
"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 finally acknowledging there was no crime, Banks would still be going through life with the stigma of being an ex-con. Certainly, no NFL team would've given him a chance to fulfill his dream.
"I feel very bad that he had to go through that," says Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "But I'm happy he's getting his opportunity now. Better late than never."
Physically, Banks fits right in with his Falcons teammates, his 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame impressively ripped. But he's missed out on so much as a player, so much that goes on in the head that he doesn't even realize. Others know instinctively where they should be. Banks often has to think about it for a split-second. That's all it takes to get out of position, to get beat.
The Falcons must cut down to 53 players before their season opener at New Orleans on Sept. 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. Just in the past year, he's worked with the California Innocence Project to clear the names of two people falsely accused.
He knows there's 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."
In that respect, he's already an All-Pro.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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