The best sports stories aren’t about sports. The best stories are about overcoming real-life drama — not something relatively trivial like an athlete coming back from an injury or missing a tackle, or maybe getting suspended for selling his bowl jersey or eating a plate of magic brownies.
The Falcons signed a free-agent linebacker named Brian Banks on Wednesday. In the sports world, it’s a minor transaction. In the real world, it’s the culmination of a story that we want to wrap our arms around.
As a football player, most would consider Banks a long shot. A man doesn’t get unjustly accused and convicted of rape and spend five years in prison and 10 years away from his chosen sport without seeing his athletic dreams likely evaporate.
Those comeback stories exist only in books and movies. Then again, Banks soon will be the subject of a documentary, a book and a movie.
“I went to hell and back,” he said Wednesday. “We talk about people coming from the bottom. I know all too well what that is. I know what that looks like and feels like.”
He is 27 now. He will turn 28 in late July when the Falcons are in training camp. This wasn’t the blueprint in 2002.
Banks was a highly recruited high school junior in Long Beach, Calif. He had given an oral commitment to USC. He hoped to play in the NFL. Through no fault of his own, it all was ripped away.
A girl Banks had known since middle school accused him of rape and kidnapping. Her name: Wanetta Gibson. There’s no reason to protect the only person here who did something evil and belongs behind bars.
Banks said the two had kissed and “made out,” but that they didn’t have sex, and he denied all charges. That didn’t seem to matter. There was no DNA evidence, no witness, no corroboration of any kind. That also didn’t seem to matter. He was pressured by his defense attorney to take a plea deal rather than risk losing a jury trial and going to prison for 40 years.
Banks spent five years and two months in prison. He spent another five on parole. He was a registered sex offender, was told not to leave the state and was mandated to wear an ankle bracelet.
Banks’ real freedom came only when Gibson, in a bizarre decision, sent him a friend request on Facebook. She wanted to “hang out.” Banks was stunned, but used the opportunity to get her to admit on hidden camera that she had made up the whole thing.
On May 24, 2012, Banks officially was exonerated.
Football is important, but the backdrop gives Banks obvious perspective. Regardless of how his NFL dreams evolve, “I’ve already won,” he said. “I got my freedom back.
“That’s why I work so hard. There was a time when I had nothing. I lost everything.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see both sides of the human spirit. I’ve seen those who will put you down, demean you, brand you and have a one-track mind of destruction. But I’ve also seen people who uplift you. I’ve been on a journey unlike any others.” Nobody will argue. When a man begins his news conference by thanking God for helping him endure an injustice, for “my life being given back to me, for me being mentally sane,” we get a sense where he is coming from.