|Less than a month after being cleared, Brian Banks is going on a whirlwind tour of NFL minicamps. (AP)|
IRVINE, Calif. -- Bruce and Ryan Tollner had pretty much seen it all, spending their entire lives around football, running an agency with over 65 years of combined experience guiding careers and placing players with NFL teams. But nothing could truly prepare them for the events of the past three weeks.
They're facing one of the more daunting and unprecedented challenges of their careers -- unquestionably one of their more rewarding endeavors -- and enjoying every minute of the task. You see, the Tollners have been charged with directing the football career of Brian Banks, an extraordinary young man who is jetting around the country for tryouts having recently been exonerated of a false rape charge.
The story has international appeal, and the response to Banks -- a once-promising college football prospect who was away from the game for nearly 10 years due to this tragedy of justice -- from the NFL community has been overwhelming. The demands for media (Banks, 26, has appeared on The Jay Leno Show, among others) and the difficulty of juggling so many requests from NFL teams has kept the Tollners, who are cousins, quite busy during what is normally a mostly dormant time in the NFL business calendar.
Through it all they've been relying on instincts and contacts, trying to figure out where the best roster opportunities rest and devising a schedule that continues to maximize training time for a prospect attempting to make up for a stolen decade. The job also includes acting as a resource and sounding board for a young man who has gone from wrongful incarceration to being flown around the country to show his wares for the likes of Pete Carroll, Norv Turner and Scott Pioli.
"There is absolutely no template for this," Bruce Tollner said from the Rep1 Sports offices in Orange County, where calls from interested teams continue to come in. "This is something that's never been done before in the history of the NFL, and the timing is a real challenge."
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Trusted with this possibility of getting Banks a contract, every decision is critical.
"It's a long shot," Ryan Tollner said. "But this is a very special person."
Sorting through which teams may have the greatest need at middle linebacker and on special teams, where teams believe Banks best projects at this level, is just part of the equation. Coaches and executives are heading for vacation and teams have different OTA and minicamp schedules. Which are just kicking the tires, and which would be more serious about truly bringing Banks to camp?
How do you maximize every second, every opportunity to work out for an NFL decision maker for someone who has already been deprived of years of freedom, fun, family, football? Serving Banks, whose spirit, humanity, forgiveness and maturity have unanimously overwhelmed those in contact with him since his release, is paramount for the Tollners, who feel blessed and privileged for the chance to work with him and get to know him.
"If you spend any time with him, you wouldn't have any idea what he's been through," Bruce Tollner said. "He is so happy to have this second chance. He is such a positive person. He's one of the most articulate, accountable, hard-working people we've ever worked with. He's just a great young man and we want to help in any way we possibly can."
The Tollners, whose office is not very far from Banks' hometown of Long Beach, reached out to Justin Brooks, a lawyer and professor who represented Banks in his quest to prove his innocence, shortly after Banks was exonerated on May 24. They also happened to be friends with one of the trainers working with Banks, who invited them down to one workout to meet him.
That meeting went well, and then shortly thereafter Banks and Brooks came into their offices here for a sit-down, after which he decided to make them his agents. Brooks is also still intimately involved in the non-football part of the process, and has accompanied Banks on some trips to work out for teams. ("The next step is he has to look at all options and decide the best tryouts for him," Brooks said via email while on the road with Banks.)
The focus now is purely on football, with Banks conducting no media interviews outside of the group sessions that are a part of a team's minicamps. The Seahawks were the first team to show real interest -- Carroll was very familiar with Banks' story and football career from the coach's time running Southern California -- so Banks had his first tryout there last week, then went on to San Diego, the team closest to his home.
He spent Monday and Tuesday in Kansas City, and, though invited to stay all three days of the Seahawks minicamp, Banks is leaving early to be in Minnesota on Friday. He had to cancel an opportunity with the Redskins.
"We hated to make that call, but there was only so much we could fit in his schedule," Bruce Tollner said, "and work around [team's coaches and scouts] vacations."
Banks will head to San Francisco on Saturday and participate in the 49ers' minicamp next week, with other visits after that still possible depending on how this first wave of teams responds.
"It's a very fluid process," said Bruce Tollner, whose father, Ted, was a coach for more than 40 years, including stints as head coach at USC and a long run as an NFL assistant.
The Tollners decided to double back with Seattle over the weekend, when Carroll called to express a desire to see Banks in a more team atmosphere running around with other prospects at minicamp.
"Normally, the biggest factor with an undrafted free agent would be the opportunity on the roster," Bruce Tollner said. "But the biggest factor with Brian is, how much do they believe in him? Do they really want to give him a chance? Do they have a vision for what he could be?"
Banks is measuring in at a little over 6-feet and 246 pounds. He is running his 40s between 4.7 and 4.9, and benching 225 pounds 14 times. His vertical is approaching 36 and his metrics keep improving as he throws himself into workouts (the Tollners have an extensive plan set up to get him ramped up from the time these visits conclude and training camps begin at the end of July).
"He's not nearly ready to play now," said one football man who was blown away by Banks' personality during a visit. "But you can tell at some point he was a damn good football player, and he's a great kid and you want to see how he can continue to progress as he gets in better football shape. There's no question he has physical tools to work with."
The Seahawks fell in love with Banks, and all that he represents during his first visit. His first impression was stellar.
"He's an extremely impressive individual," said Seahawks GM John Schneider. "He gives you hope for our society in that he is an extremely well-spoken, heartfelt person, he looks you in the eye directly and he does not have an ounce of bitterness towards the girl [who falsely accused him].
"He is very much enjoying his freedom and he's just so excited to get going. He was so excited just to get on the plane and come out to see us and he was extremely thankful for the opportunity. I couldn't imagine being in that situation at that age, and with the way he's come out of it, it gives you a lot of hope for our society."
This week, Schneider and Carroll relish the opportunity to learn more about the gains Banks made in the past week and where he stands from a football standpoint.
"This will be a good gauge for us," Schneider said. "We were the first ones able to put hands on him a little bit. Now we get to bring him back for minicamp and gauge to see what kind of progress he made in a week in terms of conditioning and working with coaches on a limited yet consistent basis."
While football is the here and now, Banks, and all he represents, goes far beyond the gridiron. Whether or not he ends up on a training camp roster (I wouldn't bet against it), or ends up on a practice squad, or ever plays a down in the NFL, is in some ways irrelevant.
Where once he was shackled wrongly, forced to register as a sex offender and required to wear a monitoring device and stay away from schools, now, he can be a tremendous teacher to us all, with lessons of compassion and a positive outlook we would all do well to adopt.
He has varied interests and a moving story to tell. I cannot urge you strongly enough to view this trailer for a potential documentary on him, The Brian Banks Story. The project is seeking funding at Kickstarter.org, a website that provides a forum for public funding of creative projects. The Banks documentary needs to hit $40,000 in funding by June 28; as of Tuesday afternoon 222 backers had pledged $11,400.
Regardless of whether it's football-related or not, the Tollners have been touched by the outpouring of support for Banks. Since they have been working with him, offers of services, facilities, people just wanting to help in some way or another, have been pouring forth. Though less than a month in, the process is one they will never forget, and they are better already for having had the chance to play a role in the next chapter of Brian Banks' life.
"Just being involved in this, it's given us a great feeling about our country," Bruce Tollner said. "People just want to help. For me, it's been great just to be able to see. This is a great American story."