ATLANTA (AP) — Brian Banks said signing with the Atlanta Falcons is his second-biggest accomplishment.
The biggest was Banks' exoneration of rape charges one year ago.
Banks, 27, signed with the Falcons on Wednesday, giving him an opportunity he said he did not believe would be possible when he spent five years in prison and five years on probation following his conviction of rape and kidnapping charges a decade ago.
"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 said.
Banks said he "couldn't have asked for a better place to be" than with the Falcons.
"I can't believe this is happening," he said. "It's surreal."
Banks was a 16-year-old junior and had made a verbal commitment to sign with Southern Cal when a Long Beach Poly high school classmate accused him of the rape.
The woman recanted her claim and offered to help Banks clear his name after he was out of prison. That helped lead to the conviction being overturned by a California court and Banks' record cleared on May 12, 2012.
Banks said he read every book he could find while in prison and also learned to value every opportunity.
"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," he said. "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."
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Banks will be given an opportunity to win a spot on the team at inside linebacker. He met with Falcons coach Mike Smith at the team's facility Wednesday.
"I had a really amazing one-on-one conversation with him," Banks said. "He congratulated me and said he was happy for me to be here but this was just the beginning of a long road to making that next step and making that 53-man roster. We both agreed that I don't expect any handouts or any favoritism. I'm here to work like everybody else and the result of my hard work will be whatever they deem necessary.
"All I can do is my best and however the turnout will be, I thank God for the opportunity."
Banks will participate in Atlanta's offseason workouts, which begin on April 22.
The Falcons are the first NFL team to sign Banks, but he has had chances with other teams. He took part in the Seattle Seahawks' minicamp last June following workouts with Kansas City and San Diego. He had one tackle in two games with Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League (UFL).
Banks also worked out for the Falcons before the 2012 season.
"We had a chance to work him out last year and have been monitoring his progress since then," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff in a statement released by the team. "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."
Banks has become a spokesman for the California Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly accused.
He said he is working with producer James Moll on a documentary about his story. He said publishing companies are interested in a book.