June 8, 2012 in Sports

Art Thiel: You have to be pulling for Brian Banks

 
JOHN LOK photo

Brian Banks, speaking at the Seahawks training facility in Renton on Thursday, was cleared of rape and kidnapping charges two weeks ago. He spent five years in prison.
(Full-size photo)

For every Seattle

sports fan pulling mightily against the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA finals, take a break. For a few minutes, try pulling FOR something.

If you don’t feel better after pulling for Brian Banks, something’s wrong. You must be Howard Schultz.

You don’t even have to know the cruel backstory to appreciate a top-tier athlete who says, “I’m more appreciative of this chance than deserving of it.”

As soon as Banks said that Thursday morning at the Seahawks’ indoor practice field, he won over every fan and media skeptic who has had it up to here with entitled athletes.

After five years in prison and five years of probation as a sex offender convicted for a crime he did not commit, Banks is entitled to a boxcar-load of bitterness, contempt, surliness, self-pity, victimization and resentment. He chose none of the above.

“This is by far the second-best day of my life – my day of exoneration, and just today to be out on this field to work out with the Seahawks,” he said to a media battalion of about 50.  “To be given an opportunity to have a tryout. I really don’t have words for it. This is a dream come true.”

Released from his ankle bracelet May 24, he was invited Thursday to embrace the Seahawks. For a week, anyway. After a private workout Thursday, he earned an invite to next week’s minicamp. He’s had offers from at least four other NFL teams to work out for them as well, but the guess is here he’ll be back in Seattle next week. Because it’s Pete Carroll, the guy who called a decade ago to offer him a scholarship to USC, when he was a junior at football powerhouse Long Beach Poly.

“I’m a California boy, and growing up, USC was just the highlight of the people around me,” he said. “It’s what you heard about, it’s what you saw, it’s what gave life to L.A. I wanted to be a part of that legacy. So when I first started getting recruitment letters from SC, it was the biggest thing ever for me.”

Because he’s recruited thousands of kids, Carroll had no specific recall of Banks, who was happy to fill him in on the recruiting offer.

“I was really impressed with the details (he remembered of the call),” Carroll said.  “He really recalled every bit of it. When our coaches were yelling in the background, hooting and hollering that we were excited about his future, he remembers every bit of it.

“It was a very short-lived relationship because soon after that one phone call we had in the springtime, he disappeared. He was unable to play his senior year so we lost track of him and didn’t know his story.”

Carroll and his Seahawks assistants were unexpectedly freed from normal duties Thursday because the Seahawks were the first team busted by the NFL and players union for too much contact in practice. The penalty was two practice days lost, which gave the stage to the Banks story.

So, if you haven’t heard, get a cuppa …

Banks was accused by a classmate and friend, Wanetta Gibson, of rape and kidnapping after the teenagers had a consensual make-out session in a school stairway.  Despite claiming his innocence, he was arrested and jailed without eyewitness accounts or DNA evidence. Weeks later, as the jury was being selected, the attorney hired by Banks’ mother worked out a plea deal with the prosecutor as the jury was being selected – a shorter term at an evaluation facility, or risk a sentence of 41 years to life.

The threatened sentence sounded more appropriate to a case of being young, big, black and a jock. But the prosecutor gave the kid 10 minutes to make a decision. Not even time to talk to his mother and father. Scared, he took the plea bargain, which somehow turned into six years. Meanwhile, Gibson and her family successfully sued the school district for negligent security, and split the $1.5 million settlement with their attorney.

Talk about a colossal system failure. The accuser, the attorney, the prosecutor, judge and the school district all failed Banks. This is Third World, banana republic, Coen-brothers- movie stuff.

Grimness kept rolling. Released from jail after five years, he said probation was even worse. At least in jail, he was among equals relative to their stations in life. On the outside, he was a convicted sex offender, a third-class citizen with little chance for a job or hope and no chance for redemption.

Until Gibson Facebooked him, wanting to be friends again,  to “let bygones be bygones,” she wrote.

Shocked but astute, Banks, through a family connection, found a private investigator and met her in his office, where her admission was recorded saying the rape never occurred and she made up the whole story.

Banks found attorneys in San Diego, The California Innocence Project, who read his story, jumped at the chance and, in California Superior Court two weeks ago sprung Banks – 10 years too late for justice, but maybe not too late, at 26, for the NFL.

The story is so compelling that even Carroll, who has not been bashful about cutting players with whom he has had previous ties, seem to be swept up.

“Honestly, it is emotional,” he said Thursday.  “I walked out (into the practice facility) today and he was warming up and there was nobody in this building. It was just me and him. We walked around for a few minutes and just tried to embrace the moment for him.

“He was looking at the flags and the building and the field and then he was here. I’m sure he conveyed to you how grateful he was to be here. It is emotional, But the game of football has always been about emotion and it’s always been about opportunity and achievement and second chances.”

After taping an appearance on “The Tonight Show” Wednesday in which he was as poised, articulate and refreshing as he was Thursday, Banks flew to Seattle – the second plane flight of his life, first in 15 years – with his girlfriend and attorney. He answered questions in the same gear he had on with Jay Leno – a sweatshirt that portrayed a California car-license vanity plate that read, “XONR8.”

Banks, a 6-foot-2, 239-pound linebacker, ran through agility drills. He didn’t know his time in the 40-yard dash, but says he runs 4.6-4.7 seconds. Carroll liked his athleticism but said it was obvious he lacked the “upscale training” that nearly all NFL athletes have after several years in the elite college and pro games. How fast he can learn is what the invite to the three-day camp next week is about.

“Regardless of how it turns out, it’s the fact that he’s made it to this point and he’s going to get this opportunity, I hope it helps other people,” Carroll said. “That’s an emotional exchange worth passing along.”

Ten years gone from ball, the idea of Banks making a 53-man roster in September, in Seattle or elsewhere, is an epic long shot. But none among the NFL, media or fans can tell Banks a thing about long shots. Having been victim and victor, the man is the living book on long shots.

A fresh chapter in September will be a national bestseller.

Art Thiel is a columnist for sportpressNW.com. Follow him on Twitter @Art_Thiel.


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