- Associated Press - Friday, August 23, 2013

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. (AP) - Dripping in sweat after more than two hours on a steamy practice field, Brian Banks joyfully complies with every request for an autograph.

After serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, Banks doesn’t take anything for granted, not even his signature. The first letter of each name is meticulously scripted with a distinctive swoosh of the Sharpie. Right underneath, he always makes sure to add a hash tag and 53 _ his uniform number with the Atlanta Falcons.

“I loooove every moment being out here,” he says. “Regardless of what happens, this is an amazing addition to my life experiences.”

Sure, he’s just a fringe player, a huge long-shot to make the team.

But he might just be the most important guy in the NFL.

Banks is a symbol of hope to all those people languishing in our prisons, many of them serving far more time than they should be or, even worse, doing hard time for crimes they didn’t commit. For the rest of us, he’s a much-needed wake-up call that our judicial system has yet to live up to its promise of providing justice for all.

“Wrongful convictions need to be addressed in America,” he says. “There are a lot of Brian Banks behind bars right now.”

No doubt, he would love to realize his dream of playing in the NFL, a dream delayed by a gross injustice that sent Banks to prison for five years for a rape that never occurred and left him desperately trying to clear his name for another five years. There might be no better pulpit to spread his message.

But the instincts are rusty after a decade away from the game. At age 28, Banks is trying to earn a job with one of the league’s top teams when his last meaningful experience came in high school.

“I’m learning basic things of Football 101,” he says. “Other guys have had the opportunity to play college ball and get that experience. I’m starting from scratch.”

Banks barely took the field in the first two preseason games. The Falcons hope to give him a longer look in the last two.

“We told Brian he would get an opportunity to come in here and compete, knowing he’s at a disadvantage because he hasn’t played the game of football in such a long time,” Falcons coach Mike Smith says. “But he’s been very resilient. His learning curve has been really accelerated. I’m really impressed with him in terms of where he started and where he is right now.”

More impressive is where Banks is as a person. He shows no bitterness over what he went through, no anger toward those who tried to take his life away. He lost a lot, but he’s got even more to give.

Each time he takes the field, he’s wearing a wristband for the California Innocence Project, the group that helped gain his freedom. To director Justin Brooks, the Banks case is a classic example of all that’s wrong with our justice system.

“Almost nobody gets a trial anymore,” Brooks says. “The system is set up to move people toward plea bargains. Brian represents all the innocent people who take those deals.”

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