What most people viewed as an afterthought of an exhibition game seemed more like a Super Bowl to Brian Banks.
Is it any wonder?
“It was out of control,” the Falcons’ linebacker said, beaming in the locker room after his NFL debut in Thursday night’s exhibition game against Cincinnati at the Georgia Dome. “Just running out there — the flames, the cheers, the crowd. I wasn’t nervous at all, but just the emotion of running through the tunnel, the adrenalin that comes with it, is better than any roller-coaster ride you could get on.”
The story is familiar by now. He spent five years in prison and another four years and two months on probation for a crime he didn’t commit. Exoneration gave him his freedom back. But it couldn’t give him back the years he lost, or the football scholarship to USC that would’ve been waiting for him after high school graduation in Long Beach, Calif., or his best chance to have an NFL career.
Until Thursday’s exhibition debut with the Falcons, Banks’ most recent football action had been limited to flag-football games in a prison yard (“We played flag football, but they really didn’t use the flags. There was a lot of tackling.”) and two games with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the now-defunct United Football League.
“That was just playing football. It was nothing like this,” he said.
Before the Bengals’ final offensive series of the game, Falcons linebackers coach Glenn Pires told Banks, “You’re up next.”
Only 7:57 remained when he entered. The Falcons trailed 34-10. But Banks felt like he had been shot out of a cannon.
He didn’t wait three and a half quarters for this. He waited 11 years.
Even just standing on the sideline, he said, was “a feeling that you definitely take to the grave.
“You’re out there watching the other linebackers play, doing their thing and just being patient. I was enjoying the whole thing. This is what I was waiting for the whole time. I played an NFL game today.”
He was credited with one tackle. He actually made two. He reached out to trip Cincinnati running back Daniel Herron on one rush, but the tackle was credited to Pat Schiller. (The public-address announcer announced, “Tackle by Brian Banks” and the some-10,000 fans still in attendance cheered.) But Banks did get credit for another tackle on Herron two plays later.
Banks knows he is a long shot to make the team, but it’s not as if that pressure is going to weigh on him. He’s living his dream right now.
“Do I have to make it?” Banks asked, repeating a reporter’s question afterward. “I don’t feel like I have to, but I want to — not just for myself, but for my family, for the people who’ve supported me and believed in me. For people who’ve lost hope in their own (lives). If I can be some kind of vessel, to show people that no matter the hard time you experienced, you can still succeed, I want to put out that positive energy, to never quit and never give up.”
He again credited his teammates for support and encouragement, commenting, “These guys have been working on this their whole life, from Pop Warner to high school to college to the NFL. So for them to accept me and let me be a part of it and show what I can do is more than I can ask for.”
When the game ended, Banks said, he was greeted immediately on the field by Cincinnati linebacker Ray Maualuga. “He’s one of my good buddies. We trained together back in L.A. He was the first one to run up to me and gave me a big hug and told me to keep working hard.”
Here’s the best news for Banks: The Falcons play again next week.