Ten years ago, a 16-year-old linebacker from Long Beach Poly High made a verbal commitment to Pete Carroll's USC football team. That linebacker, Brian Banks, never found out what might have been, because he was wrongly accused and convicted of rape and spent five years in prison. The five years after that, which were spent on parole, saw him wearing an ankle bracelet and having to register as a sex offender wherever he went. Two weeks ago, Banks was finally exonerated, and on Thursday, he finally got to work out for Pete Carroll with an opportunity to make Carroll's team.
Only now, and with 10 years away from big-time football in the interim, Banks was trying out for the Seattle Seahawks. His story reached Carroll as it did the rest of the NFL, and of all the teams trying to get Banks into their facilities to see what might be, Carroll's got the first shot.
"When we first heard the story about Brian, I thought it was some remarkable circumstances and a guy up against all odds, extraordinary circumstances, but not until I talked to him on the telephone did I realize what kind of guy this guy is and that he deserved a chance," Carroll said after Banks' workout. "Given other circumstances, he would have earned it under our eyes, but this is a guy that just deserved it."
And it's not hard to create an alternate reality in which Banks would have gone on to star at USC as one of many linebackers Carroll developed, and even made a serious dent in the NFL. Banks can't think about that reality, though -- all he's got is the reality left in his 26-year-old body. He's taken off 50 pounds in the last year and has been running 4.6 and 4.7 40s on his own, and Thursday was his time to show what he could do. Just two weeks away from a different and much more restrictive world, the difference was overwhelming.
"This is by far the second best day of my life," Banks told the Seattle media. "May 24, my exoneration, and just today to be out on this field to work out with the Seahawks. To be given an opportunity to have a tryout. I really don't have words for it. This is a dream come true. I know a lot of people work hard to get to this point. I've also worked hard myself. I'm just thankful for the opportunity. I really am."
Yes, it's a great story. But now that the rubber meets the road, how realistic is it to expect that a player who never had a junior or senior year in high school, much less any college experience, could actually make an NFL squad under any circumstances? As Carroll said, it was time to temper expectations.
"He looks like a guy who has not been schooled and worked out in the fashion that our guys are at this level. It's going to take him some time and I think our expectations need to be fitted to that. He's not had the upscale program and individual workouts and the kinds of things that guys do to get here. So to look as good as he did under those circumstances was worth noting."
Worth noting enough that Banks was invited back to Seattle's mandatory minicamp next week. Banks has other obligations in the meantime -- he's working out for the San Diego Chargers Friday, and there's talk about a trip to see the Redskins as well -- but the bond between Banks and Carroll went deeper than Carroll really knew. When Banks was going through that decade of pain, the USC offer was one of the things that kept him going. When the two men met again, Carroll was taken aback by how much Banks remembered.
"I was really impressed with the details. He really recalled every bit of it. I can see why to us, we've recruited a lot of kids -- but when our coaches were yelling in the background and hooting and hollering that we were excited about his future, he remembers every bit of it. So it was kind of fun for me to recount with him how it all went down. It was a very short-lived relationship because soon after that one phone call we had in the springtime, he disappeared and he was unable to play his senior year so we lost track of him and didn't know his story. We had really just moved on. But to him, it was so meaningful and he remembers it verbatim. It's great that it stayed with him and helped him along the way."
Banks worked on basic position drills with the Seahawks' coaches, and he had the facility to himself from a player perspective after Seattle was docked two practices for too much OTA contact. In a way, that made the event bigger, but it still leaves the question unanswered: How will Banks do when he's up against the NFL's best? His trip to San Diego will answer that a bit, and he'll know more when he starts training with Travelle Gaines in Los Angeles later in June. As Gaines told me recently, Banks will be going up against running backs like Chris Johnson and LeSean McCoy down there, "and we'll find out pretty quickly" how much work needs to be done.
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It's not out of the question for a team to believe enough in Banks to take a long-term flyer on him -- there are some interesting precedents. In the early 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers monitored running back Rocky Bleier over two full seasons as he fought his way onto the active roster while recovering from injuries suffered in Vietnam. Bleier went on to star as a lead blocker for several Super Bowl-winning teams, and he ran for over 1,000 yards in 1976 -- back when it was a 14-game season and that was a notable landmark. Patience can sometimes be rewarded in situations like these. In Carroll's own case, he brought former USC receiver Mike Williams back from football purgatory after Williams ate his way out of the league, and helped Williams find a measure of professional redemption. Carroll believes in second chances -- he's the beneficiary of one himself right now -- and if you know his history, it becomes easier to see the Banks "experiment" as more than just PR.
"It's against all odds that he could get to this point, but we're going to support the chance and have a vision for what he could become more than what he is today and see where it goes," Carroll said. "It's going to happen quick. This is the highest level of competition you can find in the world of football and it's going to be very difficult, but he deserves a chance. He's a living testament to [the idea that] if you keep hanging and you're tough and you don't give up on what you believe in and your dreams, then you can make things come to life. He's done exactly that. I think that's the message of Brian Banks that will continue to go out, and he deserves every bit of that attention."
For Banks, it's the balance of living one dream (freedom) and trying to make another (football ) come true. "It was overwhelming," he said, when asked about the fact that so may NFL teams are checking the tires. "There are really no words to express that. The offers that I received, the opportunities that I received — men dream of those days. They get up every morning and they work hard for that type of offer. I just want to make sure that I'm prepared to…OK, I'll tell it to you like this. I told the coaches today coming out here — and I absolutely mean it — I feel more appreciative for the opportunity than I feel deserving. I'm honored to have all of these people, all of these coaches from different teams, give me this opportunity with not seeing me play for so long."
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There are many opportunities in Brian Banks' future. If he isn't ready for the NFL now, there's the specter of the CFL or another "alternate league." He may have used up his NCAA eligibility by playing for Long Beach City College in 2007, but you'd think that even the NCAA might give him a pass on that one. Perhaps coaching or scouting could be in his future. He has no doubt that he wants to work with organizations like the California Innocence Project, which helped him get his life back. It's a big menu, but right now, Banks is just glad to have it all in front of him.
"It's taken some getting used to," he concluded. "Two weeks ago, I was a guy who was just sitting inside of his house trying to get through parole and deal with the situations that I've been through. Today, having all these cameras in front of me only shows that I have not only the support of my family, but support of people who are just finding out about this story who feel like there is an injustice within our system, flaws that need to be fixed, and I'm realizing that I'm giving people hope to overcome the situations they're also going through.
"And if that is my calling, I'm ready to answer."
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