"You're up next."
Those three words are what any athlete longs to hear. For linebacker Brian Banks, it took more than 10 years for that sentence to be addressed to him by an NFL coach. When he heard it in a preseason game Thursday night, Banks got a taste of the life he once dreamed of — before he became a convicted felon and lost his chance to go to college, and was finally exonerated.
"It was out of control," Banks, 27, tells The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz of running onto the field for the Falcons' game. "I wasn't nervous at all but just the emotion of running through the tunnel, the adrenalin that comes with it, is better than any rollercoaster ride you could get on."
In all, Banks lost more than nine years to a rape conviction — five years in prison, then more than four as a registered sex offender wearing an electronic monitoring device. His name was cleared after his accuser, whose statement was the only evidence in the case against Banks, was videotaped saying she had not been raped.
We reported on Banks' story last spring, when NPR's Robert Siegel asked him about the mindset of a former inmate who is exonerated — and whether they're angry about it. The man who at 16 was destined to play for the University of Southern California said it's all about moving on.
"You have to realize that myself and others that have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, we've dealt with the situation," Banks said. And, "you realize that you're not going to survive in prison or progress as a human being if you allow yourself to continue to hold on to this negative energy. You keep the truth within you and understand what has taken place, but you also want to move on and move on strong."
As Southern California Public Radio's Patt Morrison reported last year, Banks cleared his name by recording his accuser, who had reached out to him on Facebook, "saying she wasn't raped and that she is afraid of coming forward because she might have to return the $1.5 million her family won from the Long Beach Unified School District in a civil suit."
Banks took that evidence to the California Innocence Project, which helped him clear his name.
Banks has said he gave up dreaming about playing pro football as a way to help him cope with prison life. But in Atlanta, Banks tells Schultz he did play in some games during his incarceration — contests he describes as flag football, but with "a lot of tackling."
In Thursday's game, Banks made two tackles, Schultz says, and drew cheers from the home crowd when his name was called late in the game.
Banks is a longshot to make it in the NFL. When he signed a contract with Atlanta earlier this year, he called the moment "surreal," as Eyder reported for The Two-Way.
The linebacker hopes to be on Atlanta's roster for this season. NFL teams reduce their ranks in the weeks of preseason games and practices, whittling the team down to 53 players by the end of this month.
On his blog that Banks is writing from the Falcons' training camp, he says he wants to make the team to help his family and to help others, as well. His goals, he said, are bigger than football.
"This is for the forgotten. The hopeless," Banks wrote. "Those who have forgotten how to be inspired, those who could use a little more."
"I think of my mother constantly," he added. "And how she sacrificed her home and car for my freedom. My family, that fact that we still struggle even today despite how things may seem."