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Exonerated of rape, Brian Banks now realizing NFL dream – in different capacity By Eric Adelson

brian banks.jpg

It's been nearly half a lifetime since Pete Carroll walked up to Brian Banks at Long Beach Poly High and said, "Hey, you can do something. You can be something."

Banks was 15 years old at the time, and to him, that message seemed clear: he had a future playing football.

But two years later, Banks became ensnared in an ordeal of injustice, anger and heartbreak that lasted a decade. On his way to possibly playing for Carroll at USC, Banks was wrongly accused of raping a girl at his high school. Rather than facing 41 years to life in prison if he fought the charges and lost, he pleaded guilty and was sent to prison for five years.

"I screamed and yelled and begged for people to help," Banks said Sunday by phone. "And even then no one listened."

Banks, now 29, was cleared and freed in May 2012 after serving five years of probation (in addition to the five years in prison) when his accuser recanted her story. He got a tryout from Carroll and the Seahawks, and then another from the Falcons. But it was too late for his original dream to come true.

It was not, however, too late for Carroll to be right in his prediction. This year, Banks has found a place where important people are listening: he is working for the NFL in New York City. And even though he just started his first real job, the league might need him even more than he ever needed the league.

The question Banks gets first and most often from everyone who wants to hear about his story is: "Have you forgiven her?" Isn't he still upset at Wanetta Gibson, who falsely accused him of raping her in a stairwell, then stood by as Banks was sent to prison, only to admit she fabricated the story after winning a $1.5 million lawsuit from the Long Beach school district?

"I often think about what I've been through," Banks said. "I've removed my emotion from what this girl did to me. It already happened. It's, 'What am I doing now? How am I dealing with it?'"

A lot of how he's dealing with it comes from the months he spent in juvenile hall, awaiting his legal fate in California. It was there that Banks met a man named Jerome Johnson, who became a mentor to him.

"He opened my eyes," Banks said. "He challenged my mind in a way that had never been challenged before. I had a good upbringing. But these were things that were foreign to me. All it took was that person to introduce me to thinking who 'the real you' is."

Banks had never really thought about his identity. He was a football player, and that was enough – just like it is for most star high school athletes. Then football was taken away, and he was sent to a place where he had no real control over his future or even his safety.

"Unless you're a killer yourself, it's frightening," he said. "It's not a place where everything is gonna be all right."

So the challenge became about separating himself from his plight, and finding power over it.

"One day I woke up and it dawned on me I had no control over what's going on in my life," Banks said. "I have control over how it affects me. I started to better myself as a person rather than let my situation be the end-all. I practiced it and I practiced it and it became a little easier."

At first, that was a process for survival. It would soon become a foundation for a career.

When he got out of prison, he craved juice. Orange juice. Apple juice. Any kind of fruit juice.

Banks drank as much of it as he could find, using that and all the time lost as fuel to try to make his lost football dream come true. Carroll gave him a shot in Seattle. He went to some other camps when that didn't work out. Somewhere along the way, he got a call from New York. It was Roger Goodell.

"I am calling to wish you the best," the commissioner told him. "I really want you to make it."

They stayed in touch. And a short time before the 2014 NFL draft, Goodell texted him to ask a favor. He wanted Banks to speak at the rookie symposium.

Banks, who was already in demand as a motivational speaker, accepted. Over the phone on Sunday, he reprised what he said to the rookies over the summer – a group he imagined himself being a part of for so long:

"The biggest thing you must remember is the mindset you have – what were the initial things you said to yourself as a young kid? Everything you said, that's who you are. That's the foundation, the essence of football. Why did you want to play? How did it make you feel? When the hands start coming out, you have to remember what it is you came here to do, why you initially wanted to do it. You have it, take pride in it. There are millions of people who went for the same opportunity and you made it. It's a blessing. It's a gift. Don't ruin this by bad decision-making."

Banks got a strong response, not only from players, but from the commissioner. Only a few weeks after the speech, the NFL hired him.

Football Sundays over the last few months have been different for Banks than he ever expected. He watched games in a control room in New York, as a member of the NFL's department of operations. If Banks saw a potentially controversial play, he summoned head of officiating Dean Blandino and asked him to take a second or third look. If Blandino needed to reach out to the officials on site, he made the call. Banks served as the eyes and ears of the league's eyes and ears.

"It's awesome," he said. "I guess I would say it's new and something I've been doing. It's the game of football. It's the love of football. It's the knowledge and understanding of it. This is my first look at corporate America."

And it came during a very distinct and disturbing year. The league's domestic violence crisis escalated almost as soon as Banks entered the door. He is a 29-year-old man wrongfully accused and then cleared of sexual assault, working for a league that is struggling to deal with an epidemic of sexual assault.

"I know what it's like to walk that path," he said. "It's something I hope to begin talking to players about."

It's difficult for Banks to speak on the subject, both because of his personal odyssey and because of whom he works for. He stressed that his thoughts are his own, rather than on behalf of bosses who are paid to address the crisis every day.

"Personally how I feel is if the crime is a serious crime, that person should not be able to play. If somebody has been accused of something, it may be best for the person to sit down until the truth is discovered, so as not to draw any more attention."

More important to him, though, is his desire to help build a better infrastructure for players so they don't get into trouble in the first place. Banks thinks outreach should start at the Pop Warner level, with kids getting the kind of mentorship at age 8 that he began to get in his late teens.

"If the NFL is going to be responsible for what someone is doing in their personal life, there may need to be preventative work early against the incidents that are happening," Banks said. "Start from contact football. Part of these programs should be one day a week where a life coach will do group sessions. He can teach critical thinking to young kids about life. You're going to learn your fundamentals in school. But there is not a category in school called 'life preparation.' How do we make sure the kids who don't have as good of a household can still receive that message? Let's make sure they receive it while playing football."

This is part of Banks' mission now – to be an "ambassador" for the NFL. Because of his past, his words have weight for kids and adults. He truly understands what it is to be a victim, and what it is to be accused.

"What is the definition of manhood?" Banks asked. "How do you obtain it? What is womanhood? Define that as well. Let's talk about respect. What is the foundation of respect? That opens the door to discussions about harassment and assault."

Banks will not be at the Super Bowl this week. Because there's only one game, he won't be needed to help out Blandino. Instead he'll be home in New York working on his department's social media strategy. He'll also be preparing for his wedding. Banks is newly engaged to a woman named Emmy who he has been dating for two years. He calls the relationship "genuine and supportive."

"People ask, 'Do I have trust issues?'" Banks said. "I wouldn't say I have trust issues. I have trust concerns. It's valuable for me to trust a person in particular.

"I've only been free for two years. I'm still always reminded by the trust that was lost when I was younger. All of that is restored by what you do now."

The NFL can only hope it can restore the public's trust after a season full of missteps and inaction. But Banks knows this is more than public relations. Somewhere this week, a college coach is telling a star high school football player that he can do something, that he can be something.

Banks' journey to that goal was diverted but not destroyed. He turned out to be something very valuable for the football community: a daily reminder that the NFL can teach more than just football.

A half-lifetime later, Banks continues to prove Carroll right.

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