Just past 5 p.m. last Friday evening, Brian Banks was at Sport Science Lab in the fieldhouse of JSerra High in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. He had already spent six hours working out, performing such drills as hopping sideways over nine-inch-high hurdles to boost his agility and carpet-skiing on thick, black plastic pipes to improve his balance. It was the end of a grueling day, and yet he turned to his trainer, Gavin MacMillan, hoping there was one more drill to be done.
Banks's desire to wring every second out of every day is understandable. A former blue-chip middle linebacker at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High, he lost a scholarship to USC in 2002 and much of the next decade of his life when a former classmate, Wanetta Gibson, accused him of raping her. Banks spent five years and two months in prison, and then five years on monitored parole, an electronic device strapped to his ankle. Last year Gibson admitted to Banks and a private investigator that she had lied, and with the help of the California Innocence Project, Banks cleared his name at last on May 24. Now the 26-year-old hopes to revive his football dream and make an NFL team.
"The main thing for me is to reinvent myself as a person," Banks says. "I want to be known for who I really am and not what this system has labeled me as being. That starts with football."
Banks begins the first of six tryouts with NFL teams on Thursday, when he travels to Seattle to work out for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the man who recruited Banks to USC a decade earlier. He reportedly will also work out for the Redskins and the Chiefs, though Banks's lawyer Justin Brooks won't confirm any of the teams.
At 6'3" and carrying 245 pounds, Banks looks like an NFL linebacker. His vertical leap is nearly 40 inches, he can broad jump more than 10 feet and has been clocked at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Free-agent cornerback Will Blackmon, another MacMillan client, stopped by the field at JSerra last week and came away impressed. "The athletic ability is something you always have. It's not something you lose and try to pick it back up," he says. "[Banks] was jumping through the roof when I saw him and is running really well. For him [to get signed by a team], it's not that far-fetched."
There is precedent for an NFL team signing a player who had a sex-crime conviction overturned. Jets defensive end Marcus Dixon was 18 years old in 2003 and had a scholarship to Vanderbilt when a 15-year-old female student accused him of raping her at school. The jury acquitted Dixon of rape but convicted him of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation—the latter a felony with an automatic 10-year sentence. In May 2004 the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the aggravated child molestation conviction after he'd spent 15 months in jail. Dixon enrolled at Hampton University, where he was named all-conference twice, but he still went undrafted. Following a failed stint with the Cowboys, he landed with the Jets and, after a year retooling his skills under former Eagles All-Pro defensive end Clyde Simmons, became a solid role player. He appeared in all 16 games for the Jets last season and made 16 tackles.
Banks, for his part, is confident and undaunted by the prospect of auditioning for the NFL just two weeks after his exoneration. It wouldn't be the worst thing if he failed, because it will never be worse than what he has already endured.
"I'm confident I'm physically able to do the work," says Banks. "The physical aspects of the game, it's probably the highlight for me. It's a way for me to get a lot of anger and stress off of my shoulders."
MacMillan, who has also trained Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu and who volunteered to work with Banks after reading about his case, insists the effort is not just for therapeutic benefit. "If we weren't here talking about this as a story of someone who had been put in prison, you'd be talking about the football career that he was having," he says. "Someone needs to give him the opportunity to get on the field and let those gifts he possessed back out." Adds MacMillan, "Name a person who doesn't want to see a positive end to this."
You certainly won't find any such person at 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan, otherwise known as NFL headquarters. During an off-season darkened by the Saints' bounty program and the suicide of Junior Seau and weighed down by discussion, most of it important and well-intentioned, about the safety of players, Banks and his remarkable story have managed, ever so slightly, to turn the focus back to football, to remind fans that the game has a place for the dreams of hopeful young men.