After wrongfully imprisoned for five years, Brian Banks plays in NFL game

Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It was a long – very long – time coming. Brian Banks, following a five-year prison sentence for a crime that he never committed, has been working tirelessly to make his dream of playing in the NFL a reality since his release from prison two years ago.

On Thursday night, it happened. Finally.

Most football fans out there wave off the NFL’s preseason like a summer mosquito. At best, it is an opportunity to watch the stars they recognize put on the pads and maybe work up a sweat. At worst, it is four hours of one’s time wasted watching sloppy, rusty football between players that won’t be in the league in a few weeks’ time.

But let’s calm those thoughts down for a moment. Let’s forget about the starters, and let’s forget about the perceived garbage time at the end, and look at the preseason the way coaches do. An exercise in who is going to help their team get to a Super Bowl.

In places like Atlanta, that is the only thing on the minds of Mike Smith and his staff. With an offense led by Matt Ryan and supplemented by the addition of Stephen Jackson and a defense that returns several key players, depth and special teams play could easily lead to an extra win or two when Sundays are official.

That is what made Thursday night so special, and so important to Banks.

Banks was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school. He had earned a scholarship to mighty USC and was all set to step in at linebacker for coach Pete Carroll when his life was completely turned upside down.

Only 18 years old, a girl accused Banks of rape. Before he knew it, before he even was able to get his side of the story completely out in the open, he was not on the Trojans campus wearing yellow, but instead incarcerated, wearing orange.

It took a full five years, but the girl finally recanted her lie, and Banks was finally given his life back. Except you cannot rewind the clock on your life. Banks could never go back to being 18 again, young and energetic and ready to take the Pac-10 by storm.

So instead he hit the gym, and decided to script out his present. He put on muscle. He now measures in at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds.

Immediately after his release from prison, Carroll himself gave Banks a tryout with the Seahawks, but he wasn’t ready. He returned to the gym.

Then, on April 3, it happened: The Atlanta Falcons scooped up Banks, and the franchise would be looking to make a Super Bowl run with him on the roster.

On Thursday night, he was still on the roster when the team took the field against Cincinnati to kick off the preseason.

Some fans never even turned the game on. Others merely watched the first drives to see the starters, and then went about their evenings.

Those that stuck it out until the fourth quarter, however, were rewarded with something special. They were all witnesses to the redemption of a man that never believed society would allow him one.

Brian Banks, at the age of 27, was finally playing an organized football game again. It was his first since high school.

And he was smiling. He was having fun trying to earn a spot on the 53-man final roster, and trying to help the Falcons reach their ultimate goal.