RENTON, Wash. – The thing you can't help but notice about Brian Banks is an absence of anger. Take 10 years of a man's life for a wrongful felony conviction and you assume the words will come from a burning place, ready to scorch everyone who sent him to prison and left him to rot.
But what has amazed the NFL people for whom Banks has worked out the last few weeks is how planted he appears. He is thoughtful and deep. Everything he says has power. When he talks, other players listen. "He doesn't seem to carry hatefulness or a grudge," one of his trainers, Gavin McMillan, wrote in an email this month.
Banks is 26 and has lost part of a high school and almost all of a college career. Five years spent in prison and five more trying to prove his innocence have all but ruined his dream of being an NFL linebacker. He almost certainly will not make a roster this fall.
Still, the NFL needs Brian Banks. It needs him very much.
The league he is trying to make is one filled with dissent. Several players are fighting bounty suspensions despite what the alleged believe is any real evidence to justify the punishment. Many in NFL circles are furious with commissioner Roger Goodell for edicts that appear to come for the sake of public relations. The fires of last summer's lockout still smolder. Somewhere there has to be a place for a man with an amazing capacity to forgive.
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Everyone knows Banks' story by now. He was an aspiring football star in Long Beach, Calif., until a female classmate accused him of rape after they mutually made out in a hallway at the school. He says his attorney urged him to plead guilty, saying that as a black man he would face a 40-year prison sentence if he didn't. He got a six-year sentence and went away at age 17.
Upon his early release five years later, he was required to register as a sex offender and permanently wear a GPS band on his ankle. He had little hope for a job, life or anything good until his accuser contacted him and agreed to a meeting in which she admitted he never raped her. It was a meeting that eventually led a California court to erase his conviction.
Surely there is an NFL team willing to hire a man in its front office who can teach players about perseverance? Someone who can tell them that no matter how bad things become there is always hope.
"I feel like what I've been though these past 10 years shows that I have a determination factor of not giving up, of keeping hope in whatever it is you want to accomplish in life that you can," Banks said after trying out with the Seattle Seahawks earlier this month. "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."
He stopped and shrugged. He was standing behind a lectern set up for a press conference just off the edge of the Seahawks' practice fields. Several reporters were gathered around as was a crew from "60 Minutes" and another that was following him as part of a documentary he wants to make about his life. As he talked, nobody spoke or checked phones or drifted away to find other interviews as reporters often do during news conferences. They stood and listened.
"I feel my situation is no different from anybody else's experiences," he continued. "I always say that. It's not what you go through, but how that experience affects you. For some people it could be a near car crash that changes your life. For other people, it could take five years of going to prison for them to realize they need change in their life. So it's not really the experience, but more how the experience affects you."
Later, in a private interview with Yahoo! Sports, Banks admitted there was a time when he was angry. It came after his conviction when the overwhelming feeling of unfairness tumbled on top of him. It's an anger anyone would have had. Imagine starting a prison sentence for a crime you didn't commit and no one seemed to care.
"I had the big question of why?" he said. "But I realized sitting in the cell with all those negative thoughts: What does all that do for me? It doesn't do any good to have anger for the judge or the girl or at anyone.
"It kept me stagnant."
He paused for a moment.
"You know, there really is no method to this – to me not going crazy," he continued. "It's making a decision of, what can you do for yourself? You can do nothing or you can take on the challenge of taking on the adversity. You have got to have faith. You have to have faith in whatever you believe in. For me it was a faith in God and that there was a reason for this. There had to be a reason for this."
The man who changed him was a teacher, Jerome Johnson, at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall located near Los Angeles. Banks calls him "Mr. Johnson."
"I guess he saw something in me that he felt was worth helping me," Banks said. "He would never say that to me. But he helped me rediscover what I already knew. Basically he helped me to challenge my thoughts and challenge my emotions – to use them to learn and to want to read and to use your mind."
In a way, Banks said, he was doing this back in school. His mother made him read as a child and pushed him to be a good student. She's the one who told him he could be something big someday.
And yet it was Mr. Johnson who made Banks believe he could survive prison, who gave him hope, who turned him into the calm, focused, seemingly content person he is today. It was Johnson who made him somebody who could help lead other men.
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"He's an amazing person," Banks said. "If you have the opportunity to meet him you will understand."
Many around the NFL who have met Banks are taken by him. Many, like Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, simply wanted to give him a chance after his ordeal. They invited him as a goodwill gesture, hoping he would enjoy the experience, expecting nothing to come of the tryout.
Instead he surprised. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who recruited Banks to USC and whose interest in him was one of the things Banks has said kept him inspired in prison, saw enough in a first tryout to invite him to the minicamp. After Banks practiced for two days at the minicamp, Carroll seemed impressed.
"He exceeded my expectations," Carroll said.
"He didn't fall flat on his face," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said before adding that Banks "is a consideration for sure," for a training camp invite.
Then Schneider was asked if he could see Banks working in a team's front office, guiding players.
"There's no question," Schneider replied. "He's a phenomenal kid and twice the man I was when I was that age."
Who knows if Banks would want such a job. He has the documentary coming up and he is doing work with the California Innocence Project, an organization that helped him in his fight to be exonerated. He says he wants to be a motivational speaker, to tell his stories to as many people as possible. He says he wants to help men like himself who have dreams but no way to fulfill them.
"Everyone has their story," Banks said. "If my story can help someone to better themselves in life, then so be it. I'm willing to take that path [to help them]."
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His interest in the NFL might only be as a player. He might not see himself in a football front office. He might want something more.
Brian Banks probably doesn't need the NFL to succeed in life.
But the NFL could sure use Brian Banks.
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