Whatever he chooses to do, he’ll be successful. That’s the most important thing, is that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still bet heavily on him doing something special with his life. —Jim Fassel, Former University of Utah coach
SALT LAKE CITY — The story of Brian Banks is both too awful and too good to imagine. A teenage kid with unlimited potential, a big college prospect, is falsely accused of rape and spends five years in jail, another four-plus in an ankle bracelet.
Then there’s the part that transcends. His accuser contacts him on Facebook after his release and later confesses she fabricated the story. Soon after he is exonerated. But the great part is that he forgives her and refuses to be the victim, saying bitterness won’t do.
Now he brings a third angle to the story. His dream of football remains. Last week he played in the closing minutes of the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason game against Cincinnati and registered one tackle. Realistically, he won’t stay in the league. At 28, he’s a half-dozen years older than most prospects. But football is just part of the picture after overcoming what he did. He says he will use his experience to serve others, whatever the field.
Jim Fassel, the former University of Utah football coach, had Banks on his Las Vegas Locomotives team during the waning days of the United Football League. Banks was cut by the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, so Fassel brought him on. The season lasted only four games. It was enough, says Fassel, to see Banks is destined for success.
“My bet is if he doesn’t make the NFL — and that will be difficult; you can’t miss college and (easily) just go play in the NFL — whatever he chooses to do, he’ll be successful,” Fassel said on Tuesday. “That’s the most important thing, is that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still bet heavily on him doing something special with his life.”
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These days the stories flood in, bringing along their dirt and debris. Players at Vanderbilt are charged with rape. NFL receiver Aaron Hernandez is accused of murdering his friend. Thirty-one NFL players are arrested between the Super Bowl and the start of training camp in late July.
Like many of his fellow news-making athletes, Banks was arrested, convicted, imprisoned. But occasionally a story soars.
Banks and Wanetta Gibson had a physical encounter in the stairwell of their Long Beach, Calif., high school, a decade ago. She later admitted it was consensual, but back then she called it sexual assault and her family won a $1.5 million judgment against the school district. He pleaded no contest to avoid a harsher sentence and because he had no prior criminal record. But he didn’t get off lightly.
The conviction caused him to lose a scholarship offer from USC, a legendary supplier of NFL talent. It wasn’t until Banks was released from prison, and had slogged through a series of low-paying jobs — what other kind are there for ex-cons? — that Gibson made a friend request on Facebook. He fought the impulse to block her. Instead, he requested a meeting and hired a private detective to record their conversations. That was when Gibson admitted she had invented the story. The California Innocence Project helped get the conviction dismissed in 2012.
Banks tried out with the Seahawks a year ago but was cut, so Fassel invited him to join the Locomotives. He visited Fassel’s house several times, where they discussed the player’s future. The coach’s reaction was the same as everyone’s: incredulity that the man wasn’t bitter.
“He said, ‘Life isn’t fair in all areas. This is devastating but I’m putting it behind me and I’m going to make something out of my life. I’m not going to let it stand in my way,’” Fassel said.
Banks is probably too old to have a reasonable shot at playing with the Falcons. But as he allows, miracles happen. There are “Rudy” stories out there. However, in the Banks case, it’s more than filling a lifelong dream of making the team. This is a man whose accuser requested that he “let bygones be bygones” — a woefully inadequate expression for what Banks endured.
“I have to share my story,” he told The New York Times. “Not for me, but for the people who might go through the same thing, for juveniles who have gotten in trouble. It has to be talked about for them, to show them that there is hope beyond what you can see with your own eyes.”
And share he has. Banks has a Twitter account, @BrianBanksFREE, with over 27,000 followers. Among them: Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who himself has over 2.7 million followers.
Banks told reporters after last week’s preseason game, “I don’t have to make the NFL. I do want to make the NFL. But it won’t define who I am and what I’m about. What I’m trying to accomplish in life is a whole lot more. I want to make the NFL for myself, but also for so many others. For my family and those who supported me. For those who lost hope and need a reason to keep going.”
On Aug. 10 he posted an Instagram of himself making a tackle against the Bengals.
“Daydreams became reality,” he wrote.
Fassel, the 1997 NFL Coach of the Year, calls Banks “a very, very balanced person,” who, when he first entered prison, was “very, very bitter, but talked to himself enough that he finally said, ‘I can’t do this; I can’t be bitter like this.’ He’s an outstanding young man He’ll be good at whatever he chooses to do.”
It’s a shame that the majority of news stories on athletes are negative, Fassel continues. There are good deeds done all the time that aren’t acknowledged, while slip-ups are often section-front or even front-page news.
At the same time, so is the story of Banks.
After his first — and perhaps only — NFL appearance, he spoke of being “some type of vessel for others, to show them that you can get through it and get whatever you want out of life, then that’s my path, my goal.”
Finally, a break in the action: A sports story truly worth following.
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