Before a false accusation sent him to prison for years, Brian Banks was once one of the most promising young football. Eventually, he was exonerated and came to the Twin Cities on Thursday to share his story.
Banks was just 17 years old when he was pressed into accepting a plea deal versus facing up to 41 years in prison. His attorney was convinced he'd get parole because he had been recruited by USC and was still young enough to pursue his dream of a career in the NFL.
"The plan was like anybody else who loves football or loves sport," Banks said. "Go to college, play and move on to the pros."
After winning back-to-back high school state championships, Banks was on the fast-track to see that dream become reality. A California judge had other plans, however, and laid the groundwork for an entirely different journey by sending Banks to serve six years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Banks spent more than five years behind bars, but he never let go of the dream.
"I wanted to be better than the accusations, better than the environment that I was put in -- and I wanted to prepare myself for what was to come once I was released," Banks reflected.
Yet, as a convicted and registered sex offender, Banks couldn't even play for community college.
"Football was a dream that was let go. It was a dream that was taken away from me," he said.
His chance at redemption came when the woman who accused him of rape contacted him and was recorded admitting that she had lied.
"It was a feeling of: I finally have what I need to get my life back," Banks recalled.
A decade after his dream was put on hold, the Innocence Project helped use the evidence to get his conviction overturned. Within months, he was invited to mini-camp with the Seahawks by Coach Pete Carroll, who had originally recruited him before his life took an unexpected turn.
"My goal was to play in the NFL. I never put a stipulation on how long or what degree or to what level," Banks explained.
That goal was met when he was signed to the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year. Banks played four pre-season games, and he relished the feeling of running out of the tunnel to the cheers of the crowd.
Although he didn't make the team's final cut, Banks said his personal journey is about much more than football. He now works as a motivational speaker, sharing his story and advocating for others who were wrongfully convicted.
"I'm not the only one," he said. "These people need an opportunity."
Twenty-nine states, including California, have a victim's compensation fund for those who are wrongly accused, but Minnesota does not even though three people have been exonerated after lengthy prison sentences. That's something the Innocence Project hopes to change through legislation next year.