Each offseason, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith has his players read a book of inspiration or listen to a motivational speaker.
This offseason, Smith and the Falcons have gone a step further and brought in the real deal with Brian Banks, who signed with the team Wednesday. You can excuse Banks if his signature on the contract looked even larger than John Hancock's famous autograph.
This moment of personal accomplishment and freedom was 10 years in the making.
Banks is a living, breathing combination of the best of Stephen Covey, Joel Osteen and Jon Gordon. Ray Lewis has nothing on Banks when it comes to overcoming adversity. Smith has had his players listen to Gordon and even read some of his books, such as "The Energy Bus", "Soup" and "The Shark and The Goldfish".
Spend 30 minutes listening to Banks and you get the message better than Gordon could ever write or speak. Banks is a man who has gone from losing 10 years of his life to having a shot at a dream after his accuser finally recanted. Gordon has a future without the restrictions and disgusting reputation that went with being considered a sex offender.
"It's almost hard to explain or impossible to explain the feeling of not having freedom," Banks said during a conference call Wednesday. "To be stripped away of your freedom, of your dignity, of the respect you once had. To lose it all and watch the world pass you by as you sit inside a prison cell, knowing that you shouldn't be there, knowing that you're there for another person's lies, to lose it all and wake up one day and get it all back, it's a very humbling, spiritual feeling that you don't want to take anything for granted.
"Stepping outside your house when you want to, being able to sit on the stoop on the porch, being able to open up a refrigerator when you're hungry just to see what's inside of it. Just being able to be around people who smile at you and say hello to you and being able to say it back. Not to have to look over your shoulder in prison, behind bars. That's why I work so hard for the dreams I want to succeed in because there was one point I had nothing, I lost everything. I know it's something that most haven't experienced and I wish it was something no one ever had to experience."
The message was spoken clearly and concisely from a man who spent his years in prison reading every book he could find, looking up words in a thesaurus and practicing his public speaking even though he never knew if he'd ever use the skills he was practicing.
Banks, as has been well-documented, was wrongfully imprisoned for five years after being convicted of rape when he was 17. He was one of the top high school linebackers in the country, a junior at powerhouse Long Beach Poly High in California who had verbally committed to nearby Southern Cal.
He then spent five years on parole, having to wear a tracking device on his ankle, having to register as a sex offender, having to stay at least 2,000 feet from any school and having to endure the scorn of those who believed the accusations.
Sure, he was out of prison, but calling that freedom is akin to seeing a dog roam a yard while chained to a tree. Not only had a decade of his life been taken away, but the future held little promise. Find a job? Be serious: Banks was radioactive.
While that changed when his accuser finally admitted her story was a lie, getting to Wednesday took much more dedication from Banks. He signed his contract while wearing a blue sweatshirt with an appliqué of a California license that said "XONR8," smiling as proudly and happily as if he was 17 again. He not only used his time behind bars to better himself, he refused to give in to the violence, destruction and anger that pervades prison life. He describes the people who had a "one-track mind of violence and negativity."
"If you're in prison, especially in the state of California, you will be tested," said Banks, who was recently featured on "60 Minutes", has an Oscar-winning director following him for a documentary and is in talks for both a book and a feature film. "Riots, fights, you name it. … In order not to go crazy [in prison], I had to let go of my dreams and goals."
An overwhelming majority of people in Banks' situation would have some hint of scorn, of anger, of some negative emotion. Banks has none that you can detect and that's powerful by its absence. He thanked God and his mother for making him strong enough to resist breaking down mentally.
That, of course, is a fine segue to what Smith and the Falcons are trying to accomplish. Football is defined by mental and physical hardship, about surviving whatever is thrown at you, both as an individual and as a team.
Atlanta finally took a step this past season by winning a playoff game for the first time under Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. However, the Falcons lost the next week to San Francisco in the NFC championship game when a last-minute drive came up short at home.
In a competitive conference that features the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants among others, the Falcons are no sure thing to be in the hunt again. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which they don't even make the playoffs in a division that features the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
To get back, the Falcons will have to put the disappointment of last season behind them.
Then again, considering what Banks has had to put aside from the past decade, what the Falcons can call disappointment is almost amusing.
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