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A Year After Being Exonerated Of Rape, Former High School Football Star Signs With Atlanta Falcons

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Before he was wrongfully accused of raping and kidnapping a classmate, Brian Banks was a high school football star in Long Beach who dreamed of making it to the big leagues. But to stay sane during the five years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit, Banks had to give up that dream.

"I felt at the time in order for me to exit prison with a sane mind and be able to just function as a person I had to let go of certain dreams and goals I once held in life, football being one of them," Banks told the Associated Press.

But after being exonerated of his crimes and released from prison at the age of 26, he's been given a second chance at his dream of playing football. This summer he tried out with the Seattle Seahawks, and he was recently signed to play with the Atlanta Falcons. Banks calls it his second-biggest accomplishment: being exonerated of rape charges is still his first, Banks told the Associated Press.

He calls the signing "surreal." He told the AP:

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"It's almost impossible to explain, the feeling of not having freedom, to be stripped away of your freedom, of your dignity, the respect you once had. To lose it all and watch the world pass you by as you sit inside a prison cell, knowing you shouldn't be there, knowing you're there because of another person's lies, to lose it all and then get it all back, it's a very humbling, spiritual feeling that you just don't want to take anything for granted. I've had the opportunity to see both sides of the human spirit. ... My journey has been crazy but my journey has been a learning experience that is unlike any other."

Wanetta Gibson accused Banks of kidnapping and raping her in 2002 while he was in high school. There were no witnesses and it was his word against hers, but Banks was pressured to take a plea deal or else risk faring badly in a jury trial. But Gibson later confessed that she made the story up, and he was exonerated of all charges.Banks, now 27, has been given a spot on the Falcons as an inside linebacker. He met up with coach Mike Smith on Wednesday. Banks said Smith congratulated him on coming so far, but the two of them agreed that he cannot expect any kind of favoritism on the team.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff released a statement about Banks: "He has worked extremely hard for this chance over the last year and he has shown us that he is prepared for this opportunity. We are happy that Brian will have a chance to live out his dream of playing in the NFL and we look forward to seeing him on the field."

Off-season workouts begin April 22.

Related:
Brian Banks, Exonerated of Rape and Kidnapping, to Try Out for Seattle Seahawks
P.I. Who Got 'He Did Not Rape Me' Confession from Brian Banks' Accuser Speaks Out
Star High School Football Player Exonerated of Rape After Spending 5 Years in Prison