Falcons' Brian Banks finally getting his payback

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionAugust 3, 2013 

ATLANTA -- This is what happens when somebody makes that rare transition from convicted felon to hero. You move from one smiling face and outstretched arm to the next, signing autographs, posing for pictures and listening to praise and thanks from people you've never met.

There is a line of fans standing two or three deep, extending from one end of a football practice field to the other, but Brian Banks, after a two-and-a-half-hour workout in the heat of a Georgia summer, seems rejuvenated and reborn and is determined to satisfy as many fans as he can.

"This is the best revenge," he later said.

It has been like this almost daily during Falcons training camp. Banks even heard a chant go up the other day, "Brian, Brian," although he soon learned hero worship has its limitations, depending on who's standing next to you.

"It became, 'Ryan, Ryan,' as soon as he walked behind me," Brian Banks said laughing, referencing Matt Ryan.

"They went crazy. That's OK."

He is happy for any speck of a spotlight. He is happy just to see light. Banks, who spent five years in prison and four years, two months on probation because of lies, agendas and a legal system too screwed up to care. A 15-year-old girl, a high school classmate of his, fabricated a story that Banks raped her during summer school. There was no evidence, just the word of a teenager who was messed up, evil or both. It didn't matter because the prosecutor wanted convictions and the defense attorney wanted a settlement and the next thing Brian Banks, impending high school senior with a football scholarship waiting for him at USC, knew he went to jail.

Anger consumed. It would any of us. The remarkable thing is at some point, he let it go.

"The rest of us would be agitated every day for the rest of our life," said Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons' general manager.

So Banks doesn't complain about the crowds and the autograph demands, the sudden celebrity status. He embraces it. This is how gets back at the mixed-up girl, the legal system, the defense attorney who pushed him to take a plea deal that backfired.

"I used to leave my house and try to go unnoticed and try not to be seen because I was a registered sex offender," Banks said. "I had a GPS tracking device on my ankle. So to go from that to walking down the street and have people randomly know who I am, to get off an airplane and have people say hello to me, it's healing. This is my payback. Right here. Every day. Success, love, support -- it's all payback. Payback doesn't have to be negative. It doesn't have to be, 'Fight fire with fire.' At some point you have to put the fire out.'"

Getting a chance

His story angers you.

His presence inspires you.

This is the best story in Falcons camp. It's not a draft pick or the potential of the Falcons' offense or the many digits in Ryan's contract. It's a third-string middle linebacker who is happy to be free and being given a chance to play football in some place other than a prison yard. ("We had prison teams. We played flag football, but they really didn't use the flags. There was a lot of tackling.")

Banks turned 28 the day Falcons players reported to camp. (Perfect). He dropped to his knees and prayed before the first day of practice. (Yes, this will be a movie. And a documentary. And a book.)

He signed with the Falcons in April, the year after he was exonerated for rape and kidnapping charges when he was 16.

The story has been told and retold. It still doesn't seem real. He "made out" with a girl, Wanetta Gibson, consensually, but the two didn't have intercourse. The nightmare began later that day when police banged on his door, awakening him from a nap.

He went from a holding facility to juvenile hall. There were countless delays. He was scared and confused. He was so fearful of what other inmates would do to him if they knew he was being charged with raping a minor that he made up a story.

"I told them I was in jail for home invasion," he said.

Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. His mother sold her home and car to pay for a defense attorney, H. Elizabeth Harris. "That led us to nowhere," Banks said.

Harris told Banks because he was black, a jury likely would find him guilty. She recommended he plead no contest, believing a judge would sentence him to 90 days (time served) or, at worse, three years (one year already served). Banks took the deal. He got six years.

Harris vowed to appeal. She didn't. She went on to become a judge. Gibson sued the Long Beach, Calif., school district. She won $1.5 million.

Finally, the truth

The mother of market corrections came last May. Exoneration. It came only after Gibson -- nearly 10 years after falsely accusing him of rape -- stunned Banks in 2011 by sending him a friend request on Facebook. She wanted to rekindle their relationship. Banks wondered if it was some cruel joke, but he played along. He contacted a private investigator, set up a sting operation and got her to admit on videotape that she fabricated the rape charges.

(Gibson and her mother recently were ordered to pay the school district $2.6 million in damages, but their whereabouts are unknown.)

Banks has always been a spiritual person, but never more so than after this experience.

When he was in prison, he often read scripture verses that his mother sent him. He devoured books on psychology and sociology to broaden his mind. "It opened up a whole new spectrum of life," he said.

He believes in his heart that everything happens for a reason. But it should go without saying: The "why?" here may never be answered.

"I think that's the overall purpose of life, that journey of enlightenment, that walk to discover what is your destiny and the real you," he said.

He speaks with such serenity. It wasn't always this way.

For a year following his sentencing (and after two years behind bars), he burned with anger. He wanted everybody to suffer. The girl, the attorneys, the judge. He would later say in interviews, "Sometimes I feel like I've been raped."

Letting go of the anger

When and why did he change?

"It was just wakening up one day in a cell, realizing the negative energy that I had and the emotions inside of me were eating me alive," he said. "They were emotions for people who didn't realize I even had these emotions. I was basically destroying myself. I had no control over the situation, but I did have control over me. So I started focusing on me."

He received a lot of support and guidance along the way, particularly from his mother, Leomia Myers; everybody at the California Innocence Project; and Jerome Johnson, a teacher in juvenile hall in San Pedro. Banks said of Johnson: "He put me on path and guided me spiritually, as well as taught me how to control myself emotionally. It was a big transition in my life."

He has a website (BrianBanks.org) where you can read his story, learn about the California Innocence Project and purchase shirts with his logo: "XONR8" depicted on a license plate. He also has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, BrianBanksFree, which sends out messages with the hashtag DreamChaser.

He's chasing one now.

Making the Falcons' roster seems like a long shot, but please, don't talk to this man about long shots.

He had tryouts with several NFL teams. He had a cameo with the Las Vegas franchise in the recently disbanded United Football League.

Dimitroff and Falcons coach Mike Smith, who worked out Banks last year, decided to give him a shot this camp.

"If anybody can do it and hang in there, Brian can," Smith said. No elaboration was necessary.

Banks has eventual plans to be a public speaker, but his focus now is on chasing this dream, a dream postponed because of lies for far too long.

"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," he said. "Sure, I'd be disappointed. But I feel like I'm a winner already, just getting my life and my freedom back."

Hero worship is justified.

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