After 5 years in prison, exonerated football standout signs with NFL team

ATLANTA (CNN) — Brian Banks wore the uniform of a prison inmate for more than five years, serving time for a rape he didn’t commit.

This week, he learned he’ll be wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey.

Ten months after a California judge tossed out his conviction, the 27-year-old former high school football standout signed a deal Wednesday to play for the NFL team.

“Aside from getting my life back and my freedom back, this is the biggest accomplishment of my life,” he told reporters during a conference call.

As he signed the contract, he wore a sweatshirt that showed a California license plate that said “XONR8.”

“We are pleased to have Brian join our team,” said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “We had a chance to work him out last year and have been monitoring his progress since then. He has worked extremely hard for this chance over the last year and he has shown us that he is prepared for this opportunity. We are happy that Brian will have a chance to live out his dream of playing in the NFL, and we look forward to seeing him on the field.”

Banks, who is 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, is a linebacker.

A year ago, he was out of prison on parole, wearing an ankle monitor as a registered sex offender. The contrast with this week’s events is “surreal,” Banks said.

“Talk about coming from the bottom,” he told reporters. “I know all too well what that is and what it looks like and what it feels like.”

While serving time in prison, Banks said he was forced to abandon his hopes of playing in the NFL someday.

“I had to watch my class go on and receive scholarships and play collegiate football on a high level,” he said. “For me I had to let those dreams go for me to focus on what was ahead of me, and that was five years in prison. That was a completely different life of violence and being away from your family. … Football was the last thing on my mind, and it wasn’t until a few months before I was actually being released from prison that I thought about possibly trying to play football again.”

At age 17, fearing a potentially long sentence, the college football prospect followed the advice of his attorney and pleaded no contest to assaulting a Long Beach, California, high school classmate in 2002.

“Banks was faced with an impossible decision at the time — either fight the charges and risk spending 41 years to life in prison, or take a plea deal and spend a little over five years of actual prison confinement,” the California Innocence Project says on its website. “Although it would mean destroying his chance to go to college and play football, a lengthy probationary period, and a lifetime of registration as a sex offender, Banks chose the lesser of two evils when he pleaded no contest to the charges.”

Such situations are not uncommon, the group’s director, Justin Brooks, told CNN last year.

“Plea bargains have become the 95% solution,” he said.

Banks maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment, subsequent probation and registration as a sex offender.

His fortunes began to change in 2011, when the woman who once accused him of rape sent him a Facebook friend request.

According to the California Innocence Project, the woman later admitted that Banks had not kidnapped or raped her during a consensual encounter at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where Banks was a middle linebacker with a scholarship offer from the University of Southern California.

In court last year, an emotional Banks lowered his head and fought back tears when prosecutors said they were moving to have the conviction dismissed.

“We do not believe Mr. Banks did the crime he pled guilty to,” Deputy District Attorney Brentford Ferreira said. “Justice has been served.”

Since his exoneration, Banks has spent months in intensive training, attending San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks minicamps last year.

“It’s been a long road. It’s been a lot of hard work. It is 10 years missing in my football career,” he said, “but there has been a lot of work put in to making up for it.”

After signing his contract with the Falcons on Wednesday, Banks thanked the team’s players and personnel from his Twitter account, @BrianBanksFREE.

This article was written by CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet. CNN’s Phil Gast and Chandler Friedman contributed to this report.  TM & © 2012 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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