Brian Banks was 16 years old in the summer of 2002, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker with speed at powerhouse Long Beach Polytechnic High in Southern California, as promising a football player as any high school kid in the country.
As one of the most highly recruited middle linebackers in the nation, he had a verbal commitment to play on full scholarship for Pete Carroll at USC.
What could be better than that?
“I would go to these football camps and just dominate,” Banks says. “I had my own mailbox at school because I was getting so many recruiting letters.”
Life isn’t fair, Banks says over and over in the life-coach talks he gives now, a devastating message that took flight for Banks on July 8, 2002. He was taking summer classes at his high school and left the classroom for what was supposed to be a quick call to a documentary crew preparing a feature on the rivalry with De La Salle High School in Northern California.
“I stepped outside to make the phone call and I ran into a classmate of mine,” Banks says.
Her name was Wanetta Gibson. She was a friend. She was 15.
“We met, hugged, started talking and agreed to go to an area on our campus that was known as a make-out area,” Banks says. “We went to this area and made out. We never had sex.”
By the end of the day, Banks was in custody, accused of raping Gibson on the school’s campus. But we never had sex, Banks pleaded. Nobody believed him.
“I was being arrested and accused of kidnapping and rape,” he says. “I was taken into custody that same day and the judge put a bail on me that was too high for me to post bond. It was over $1 million.”
He languished in juvenile hall for an entire year before his case came up. He was to be tried as an adult and if found guilty, faced 41 years to life. His football dreams effectively died that summer day in the stairwell of his school.
Life isn’t fair.
Brian Banks was an innocent man.
After turning down three plea deals that would have put him in prison for 25, 18 or nine years, Banks was told on the day of jury selection “that I had no chance in trial because I was a big, black teenager and the jury would be an all-white jury and they would automatically assume me as guilty because of that,” Banks says.
Gibson was also black, as was Banks’ attorney. As the jury was about to be selected, Banks was offered a deal to plead guilty to one count of rape under the condition that the other charges would be dropped. He would then undergo a 90-day observation at Chino State prison and would be interviewed and evaluated by psychologists and counselors “who would determine on a ladder system whether I would receive probation or three or six years prison,” Banks says. “I was promised and guaranteed by my attorney that I would get probation if I took the plea. I was also told that if I didn’t take it, I would more than likely be found guilty and receive life in prison.”
He was 17 years old. “Do I plead to a crime that I did not commit and receive a small sentence or do I roll the dice, risk my entire life behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit?” he says. “I realized that day, regardless of whatever my decision was, neither one of them was going home an innocent man.”
All he could think about was getting his life back, going home, playing football, finishing his high school education, enrolling at USC. They put him in a room and gave him 10 minutes to make his decision. He sat there crying. “I was unable to speak to my mom. I was denied that right,” he says. “At the age of 17, I felt like 90 days was doable after already spending a year behind bars.”
He underwent the 90-day observation. The psychologist and counselor recommended probation. The judge gave him six years. He had never been in trouble before, not even a speeding ticket. He sat in the holding cell, held both hands up, shaking uncontrollably as he figured out that he would have to serve 85% of the six years. He had already served one year. That meant he still had just over four years remaining.
“Just the trauma and the stress that I had already dealt with that first year, it was unimaginable how I was going to do another four years,” he says.
He went to jail with career criminals. He was angry, depressed, hostile. He saw fights, stabbings, killings right in front of him, riots, lockdowns.
He saw hell.
Banks lost 10 years of his life, a frightful five years and two months in prison followed by five years of high custody parole.
After his release in 2007, he moved back in with his mother, a second-grade schoolteacher who had sold her house and car to pay his attorney fees. At 22 he tried to resume his football career at Long Beach City College. He played in a game two days after his release, a good way to take out aggression. But after playing a handful of games before the season ended, a new law went into effect in California requiring sex offenders to wear an ankle GPS tracking device, making it impossible for him to play football.
He had already registered as a sex offender and couldn’t live within 2,000 yards of a school or park. He had trouble finding work.
“I wanted revenge,” Banks says. “I wanted people to be held accountable for the things that happened to me.”
Life’s not fair, Banks thought. I’m an innocent man.
Three years ago, Banks was checking his Facebook account and got a start. He had been home for four years working odd jobs, still carrying the label of sex offender. But there, staring him in the face, was a friend request.
“It was her,” Banks says, “the girl who had accused me nine years ago.”
Banks still doesn’t know her reasoning for selling him down the river when she knew they never had sex and there was no DNA trace on her underwear. Maybe it was the $1.5 million she collected from the Long Beach school system, claiming it was an unsafe environment (the city is trying to recoup $2.6 million from her now). Banks thinks maybe Gibson was afraid her older sister, who went to the same high school, would find out she made out with him and tell her mother. Or that he would brag to friends. Maybe she thought he would just be suspended. He doesn’t think she was trying to put him in jail. He also thinks perhaps a school security guard saw her leaving the stairwell with him, asked what she was doing and if she wanted to do it.
“Oh well, then he raped you,” Banks surmises the guard said.
“We don’t really know what the truth really is as to why she lied,” he says. “I never really got a clear reason.”
Banks never had contact with her from the day they made out until that day on Facebook in 2011.
He asked why she would request him.
“I was hoping we could let bygones be bygones,” Banks says Gibson wrote. “I was immature back in the day, but I’m much more mature now. Let’s hang out. I’d love to see you. I’ve seen your picture on Facebook. You look real good. I would love to hook up.”
Banks obviously had no interest.
His parole agreement didn’t allow him any contact with her. Banks called a private investigator and said he felt there was an opportunity for her to tell the truth and he wanted it recorded.
“In the event that I violated my parole conditions coming into contact with her and was sent back to prison, I wanted them to at least know what was said,” Banks says. “I took a big risk. I knew this was the only opportunity to prove my innocence by her admitting she lied.”
He invited Wanetta Gibson to the investigator’s office. They spoke with the investigator monitoring in another room. Banks wanted her to understand what she did to his life. He asked her to come back the second day to speak to the investigator.
“Did he rape you? Did he kidnap you?” the investigator asked.
Banks said she laughed it off and said, “Of course not. If he raped me, I wouldn’t be here right now. We were just young and having a good time, being curious, then all these other people got involved and blew it out of proportion.”
It was all on tape. Banks took it to the California Innocence Project, which took his case and appealed it.
One year later, three months before he was to come off parole, Banks was cleared.
On May 24, 2012, the same Los Angeles Superior Court judge who had sentenced Banks to six years in prison when he begrudgingly accepted a plea bargain for a crime he did not commit after he was led to believe he would get probation, took less than one minute to dismiss his conviction.
He was already a free man. But now he had his freedom.
“My record is cleaner than yours,” he says.
He’s not bitter, he’s not looking for an apology. He didn’t sue anybody.
“When you put yourself in position where you have to make a decision whether you forgive somebody or you don’t, that means you are still dealing with it,” Banks says. “I’m not dealing with it anymore. The past is the past. It already happened. Tomorrow is a mystery.”
Banks tried football again after gaining back his full freedom. Carroll, the coach Banks wanted to play for at Southern Cal and the first coach to give him a tryout once he was exonerated in 2012, and who will be coaching in his second consecutive Super Bowl next Sunday, brought him to Seattle for a tryout the day after all charges were dropped.
Banks remembers when his cell phone rang.
“I’m looking for a linebacker. You know where I can find one?” the caller says.
“You got the right number. Who is this?” Banks says.
“Pete Carroll,” he says. “You’ve been out of the game 10 years. I don’t know what the hell you can do. But I’m going to fly you out here because I know how hard you work. I just want to see what you can do.”
One year before he was exonerated, Banks had been up to 290 pounds. He then started training and within three months was down to 245 pounds when he went to Seattle.
“It was a terrible tragedy in a young man’s life, to be falsely accused like that and have to give up years of his life,” Carroll said in an e-mail to the Daily News. “I don’t think anyone could’ve handled something like that any better. He was strong, gracious and compassionate, and he exhibited great character and integrity.”
Banks was thrilled to hear from Carroll.
“We reconnected and it was like we were back on that same path to where we left off recruiting,” he says. “Here we were once again.”
But the football part didn’t work out. It had been too long.
“I tried out. They were impressed,” Banks says. “They invited me back to camp. I trained in camp with them. They decided it was a little premature and they decided not to roll with me.”
He had tryouts with the 49ers, Chiefs, Vikings, Chargers, Eagles and Falcons.
Nobody signed him. It had been 10 years since he had really played.
“You could tell he had missed some years of ball,” Carroll says. “He missed out on the physical development a college athlete gets and all that comes with that process. He missed the opportunity to hone his physical and mental skills as it relates to football, but his competitiveness shined through and he battled so hard for that chance, and did a phenomenal job with his opportunity.”
Former Giants coach Jim Fassel then signed Banks for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. He played linebacker and special teams before the league folded during the 2012 season after Banks had played in just a couple of games.
“I heard about his story and as a coach, you just say ‘Gosh sakes, what this man has gone through and his attitude is still positive,’ ” Fassel says by phone last week. “This guy deserved somebody to give him a chance. It was amazing he wasn’t bitter, but he was really, really raw.”
The Falcons reached out again in 2013, signed him in the offseason, brought him to camp. He played in all four preseason games, but was let go on the final cut from 75 players to 53.
Banks, officially, was done. He was just 28 years old. His formative years in football were spent shuttling between adult prisons in California.
“He was an all-star player and set himself apart in high school, so if he had gotten the chance, it’s clear he definitely could’ve been a legitimate NFL prospect,” Carroll said.
Who knows what would have happened to Banks if his life had not been derailed?
“I don’t really wonder. I know,” Banks says. “I know I would have been a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.”
Banks is 29 now and dressed in a dark suit sitting in the office of Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, in the league’s Park Avenue headquarters. He began working for the NFL in the football operations department at the beginning of the 2014 season. On game days, he helps out in the officiating department with replays.
Vincent and Roger Goodell brought him in because he’s a bright and eager guy. He also has a riveting message that might make an impact on some of the players in the NFL.
“Very few people could even endure what happened to Brian, much less emerge with such resilience and determination,” Vincent says. “I saw a young man who was dealt a bad hand, but he refused to allow it to deter him from pursuing his dream to be part of the NFL.”
Now he might be on his way to becoming a star in the NFL office.
“He’s a great guy,” Goodell says.
For Banks, the dream is once again alive.
“If you ask me, I made an NFL roster and that’s here in the front office in New York,” he says. “I still wear the shield. I accomplished a dream that was taken away from me.”
He now does volunteer work for the California Innocence Project. A movie is being made about his life. Banks also has developed a business speaking to schools all over the country. He has a strong message and an appropriate T-shirt.