Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 4/3/13
Eleven years ago, Brian Banks was wrongly convicted on rape charges. On Wednesday, he signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons. "I just want to thank god for the opportunity, I want to thank god for life, for getting me through five years of prison, five years of parole, of wrongful conviction, having my life given back to me, still being healthy and mentally sane to basically attain the goals I've always wanted from childhood," Banks said in a conference call with Atlanta media. While the Falcons could use an upgrade at linebacker, its hard to say if Banks will be that answer. He is 27 and has never played in the NFL. He will have to prove himself to coaches soon, once offseason activities begin. One possible scenario: The 6-foot-2, 250-pounder earns a spot on the practice squad, for which he is eligible. Banks' only professional or college, for that matter experience came in 2012 with the United Football League's Las Vegas Locomotives, posting one tackle in two games. Previously, he received tryouts with the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers and attended minicamp with the Seattle Seahawks coached by Pete Carroll, who recruited Banks out of high school to play at the University of Southern California when Carroll served as the Trojans head coach. But Wednesday was not so much about the Falcons making a major roster move, but about a story of human redemption. According to the Web site of the California Innocence Project, which helped exonerate Banks, a high school acquaintance of Banks, Wanetta Gibson, accused Banks of rape and kidnapping following a consensual sexual encounter on the campus of Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., which Banks attended. Based on Gibson's accusations, Banks faced 41 years to life in prison. Instead of fighting the charges, he opted to plead 'no contest' and accepted a sentence that would put him in jail for about five years. He served five years and two months before he was released on May 24, 2012. Gibson ultimately recanted her statements and, according the California Innocence Project, acknowledged she fabricated the whole story. The Innocence Project is a nonprofit run by California Western Law School that lists as its mission as seeking "freedom for those innocent people whose lives have been condemned to an unjust existence behind bars." The CIP presented evidence of Banks' innocence to the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, which conducted an investigation and ultimately concluded that Banks was wrongfully convicted. Judge Mark C. Kim of Los Angeles Superior Court reversed Banks' conviction last May. In a statement, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff spoke of working Banks out last year and monitoring his progress since then. "He has worked extremely hard for this chance over the last year, and he has shown us that he is prepared for this opportunity," Dimitroff said. "We are happy that Brian will have a chance to live out his dream of playing in the NFL and we look forward to seeing him on the field." Perhaps the Falcons were motivated, in part, by another NFL redemption story with Atlanta roots. Seattle drafted 25-year-old linebacker Bruce Irvin (eight sacks as a rookie), an Atlanta native, with the 15th overall pick in last year's draft. Irvin had his own run-in with the law and never played football after his sophomore year of high school. He received his GED and enrolled in junior college before eventually transferring to West Virginia, where he starred. Whatever the Falcons' motivation, Banks was thankful for their decision. He was overcome with emotion to realize the moment for which he had long dreamed might finally come true. Banks credits his mother as an inspiration and for giving him the strength to make it through his ordeal. "This is beyond me," he said. "It's about football, it's about an opportunity but it is beyond me, this opportunity. My family, my mother who has gone through so much, my mother who raised me to be the man that I am today, who stood by me as I went through hell and back. "When we talk about coming from the bottom, I know all too well what that is, what it's about and what it looks like and what it feels like," said Banks. "So, she is the strongest woman that I know and without her this would not even be happening.
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