In a different world, Brian Banks might have been an All-American linebacker at USC, a high NFL draft pick, and the owner of multiple Pro Bowl nominations by now. Instead, Banks' story and journey to the pros has a far more compelling narrative.
Falsely accused of rape at age 16, the former high school standout linebacker spent five years in prison and another five years on probation before he was finally exonerated in May. Banks, who had lost 50 pounds in the last year as he trained against all odds for the chance at the NFL he had been so cruelly denied before, immediately received interest from several NFL teams. Banks attended some summer minicamps, flew back to his Los Angeles home to begin work with elite NFL trainer Travelle Gaines, and bided his time.
Now, Banks has taken a significant step forward on his road to the NFL by signing with the Las Vegas Locos of the United Football League. The team announced the move on Wednesday.
That early list of NFL teams included the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach, Pete Carroll, had received a verbal commitment to USC from Banks a decade before. In June, Banks went to Seattle for a test workout, which went well enough for Banks to be invited back for the team's mandatory minicamp later that month.
"I didn't even know if I was going to have a number, a jersey…I didn't know what to expect when I first got here," Banks said. "I got to my locker and saw there was a jersey in it — number 43. And I just wanted to take a picture of it just for myself. It's just amazing to see my name on the back of it. It's an honor to be taken serious and to be given this opportunity."
The most impressive thing about Banks from a purely competitive perspective was that after so long away from the game, he looked like an undrafted free agent who would probably come up short on first cuts. Banks ran to the ball with average speed in non-contact drills, he showed decent speed and flexibility in his drops, and he certainly appeared to be a step late to the action at times ... but given the circumstances, it was pretty impressive.
"Size-wise, strength-wise, and all that kind of stuff, he's in the right kind of profile," Carroll said after that first practice. "So he did a good job. We've got to look at the film and see what's going on with that, but I was really proud of him today."
"Well, you know, he's a little behind -- he might be a little rusty," Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. added. "But there's the foundation. Does he look like a ballplayer? Yes. Does he move well? Yes. Is there a chance? Absolutely. The idea is, can he line up, and can he chase the ball? It's about making a first impression, and I liked the first impression he left."
Banks went away without a contract offer, but he's been on the minds of those who run personnel in the NFL.
"He's further along that I would have thought," Seahawks general manager John Schneider told me in June. "As a group, we'd all say the same thing if we were sitting around the table. He really exceeded expectations. I thought he'd be somewhat out of shape, which he was, but he knows he has a long way to go from a training standpoint. But he fit in, and it was surprising throughout the weekend how well he did. He moved well, he saw the ball well. He knows he's a little late with things, and he's got a way to go. But we talked about it, and I think that he has a chance to be a practice squad player somewhere toward the middle of the season, when there are a lot of street [free agents] who become part of practice squads. I think that would be a great thing for him. In my mind, that would be his starting point.
"He's really a guy that you hope -- whether it's here or somewhere else -- he's on a practice squad, learning how to play again."
As Gaines told me during the three days I spent at his gym in West Hollywood in July, Banks changed the feel of the place from the moment he walked in. Gaines, who offered to train Banks free of charge, said that other players in the gym were more inspired to go through their workouts when perhaps they weren't feeling optimal, because they could see how much the chance meant to Banks.
Aware of his impact, Banks wants to be an inspiration.
"I feel like what I've been through these past 10 years shows that I have a determination factor of not giving up, of keeping hope in whatever it is that you want to accomplish in life that you can," Banks said in June, when asked what he can offer to teammates in a mental and emotional sense. "And I'm more than willing to be that person on any team that if someone is feeling down one day, or someone is feeling like giving up, or someone is feeling like they can't get to that next step in their life, I'm definitely there to talk to them and be that person of encouragement.
"At the same time, I feel like my situation is no different from anybody else's experiences. I always say, 'It's not what you go through, but how that experience affects you.'"
He's not where he wants to be just yet, but Brian Banks still has a chance to be affected by the NFL experience in a more permanent sense.
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