FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. Brian Banks is attempting to do something virtually unprecedented.
Having not participated in competitive athletics for nearly a decade, he is trying to earn a spot on the roster of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL, which features some of the fastest and strongest athletes in the world. Its as if hes trying to catch one of those Chinese bullet trains that travel 250 miles per hour from a standstill.
To Banks credit, with the first cuts looming on Tuesday, he remains undaunted.
Given what the 28-year-old has gone through -- wrongly convicted of rape and later exonerated, he nonetheless lost five years and two months of his life to a prison sentence -- perhaps its not surprising. Still, its impossible not to marvel at the dignity and tranquility with which he handles himself.
Its been nothing but just an amazing experience, Banks said on Wednesday. I actually got an opportunity to participate in an NFL training camp. I dont know, just the last few days since (the Falcons broke camp), in my mind Im just replaying this whole month of being able to be part of camp. Im just thankful for it and regardless of the outcome of what happens from here this is an amazing addition to my life experiences and the things Ive been through so I cant take nothing (away) from this.
To recap, Banks was a standout linebacker prospect coming out of high school in California and was offered a scholarship to play at USC by then-coach Pete Carroll. However, before he could get his collegiate career off the ground, he was accused of rape and he pleaded no contest to the charges against him -- charges that were later recanted by his accuser -- and went off to prison.
He was released on May 24 of last year and began pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL. The Falcons signed him in March.
Since the start of training camp on July 25, Banks has gotten caught in a numbers game. Last season, the team kept only five linebackers on the active roster. Four of them have returned, as has a fifth who spent time on the practice squad last year. In addition, Kroy Biermann, who played end his first five seasons, appears poised to make the transition to outside linebacker. Also, two undrafted rookies -- Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow -- have made huge impressions.
With regular starter Stephen Nicholas injured, Bartu could receive snaps with the first-team defense in the third preseason game on Saturday in Nashville. Worrilow has led the team in tackles in each of the first two preseason games and also has a sack, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a pass defended -- the type of performance that could win him a roster spot.
To compare, Banks played only three snaps last Thursday at Baltimore, tied for the fewest among defensive players with two others, and the previous week he played 12 snaps and posted his only tackle.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said he expected Banks to play a whole lot more in the final two preseason games, perhaps unwittingly tipping his hand that Banks could survive the first wave of 15 cuts when teams get down to 75 players.
I think thatll be a determination and a determining factor in terms of where he fits in our plans in terms of a roster spot or practice squad, Smith said of the final two preseason games.
The idea that he might play a lot on Saturday seemed to catch Banks somewhat off-guard, as the third preseason game is the one in which the starters will play the most.
I know that our veteran guys are going to see the field a lot this game coming up and I believe our last preseason game the rookies are going to be given an opportunity to actually take the field for a longer period of time, Banks said. The way I look at is Im here to make this team, not to make any decision on what happens. When they see fit to get me in the game, Im going to make sure I take the best opportunity and do what Ive been doing the whole time Ive been here is just execute. Whenever I get in, whether its one play or 10 plays or a quarter, Im going to make the best of it.
Smith, Banks and linebackers coach Glenn Pires all acknowledged the disadvantage at which Banks sits. Having never played in college, he did not have the chance to learn more advanced defensive concepts than what he knew in high school.
To use another analogy, hes having to jump from geometry to calculus without algebra and pre-calculus in between.
An NFL camp is hard work, going through the rigors and the day-to-day operation -- hes endured it very well, Pires said. Im going to keep going back to this: our guys have helped him tremendously, theyve rallied around him, theyve helped him, theyve brought him along. Hes going through the normal preseason thing. A disadvantage hes had and -- hell be the first to say it -- is he didnt have that college foundation. Thats whats been the hardest thing for him but hes endured it and hes done as good as he can.
While rookies start low on the ladder and have to go through the indignities of public singing, bad haircuts or carrying equipment during training camp, Pires agreed that the veterans two of the three starters are younger than Banks -- hold Banks in a different kind of esteem.
I think so just because of what his circumstances are, Pires said. I think the guys have a lot of respect for him and theyre really pulling for him. They pull for all the rookies. But, yeah, Brian is unique and it is a different situation so I think the guys have embellished that a little bit and thats been a positive thing for all of us.
Its not every pro football player whose story transcends the game, but Banks is one. He continues to work with the California Innocence Project, which helped to get him exonerated. He said he already has helped two wrongly convicted individuals get exonerated and is in the process of helping others. Even if he doesnt earn a spot with the Falcons, he thinks the attention his story has gained has proved meaningful.
If this experience itself inspires others to chase their dreams or to get back on track of a dream once let go, then I feel I will have accomplished more than what I have trying to accomplish making this team, he said. Theres just so much that I want to do in life. Part of that is it to use my story and use my experience to give back to other people. So thats why I never let my experiences go. I continuously talk about them, I continuously address the things I went through in life because, for one, wrongful convictions need to be addressed in America and then, two, Ive noticed that people have taken on to my story and found inspiration from it and so I want to continue to be that vessel for people to continue to push forward.
If Banks overcomes the odds and earns a spot on the teams active roster, his story will have a chance to live on and continue to inspire others. However, Smith might have hinted at a further possibility: the practice squad, which seems an ideal solution to the issue of Banks needing more time to get up to speed on learning defenses and playing at the NFL level.
A little more than two weeks remain for Banks to make an impression before the final cuts.
I dont even look that far right now because we have this game coming up and the next game coming up so how the cards are going to fall, Im not there yet, Pires said of the practice squad option. Im just looking forward to seeing what the next games going to be.
As is Banks, who said he feels all of the love and support from fans and the team alike.