Almost a year ago, a former standout football player at Long Beach Polytechnic High School trembled in Los Angeles County Superior Court as a judge dismissed his rape conviction. Outside the courtroom that day, Brian Banks offered cautious hope that one day, he could restart his athletic career.

Wednesday, Banks signed a contract with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, a major step in his quest for redemption.

"I can't believe this is happening," Banks told reporters shortly after signing. "This is the biggest accomplishment of my life, but it is also just the beginning."

It was his biggest accomplishment, he said, aside from clearing his name.

In 2002, a classmate accused Banks of rape. At the time, the 17-year-old linebacker was drawing attention from USC, UCLA and other schools, he said, even though he had just completed his junior year of high school.

Banks insisted that his sexual contact with the classmate was consensual, but his lawyer advised him to plead no contest rather than risk being sentenced to 41 years to life in prison in a he-said-she-said trial. Banks did as his lawyer advised and spent five years in prison and another five on parole.

Then, in 2011, his accuser reached out to him on Facebook. She admitted she had lied about the alleged rape in a conversation that was taped by Banks and a private investigator. The tape interested the California Innocence Project, whose investigators found other evidence to back up Banks' claims. He was ultimately exonerated in May 2012.

Since then, Banks' journey back to football has attracted national attention. Multiple NFL teams invited him to try out, but he was never signed.

Banks said he tried out with the Falcons just two weeks before the start of the 2012 season. Team officials told him that although he looked physically fit, the timing was bad. They sent him home, but promised to keep in touch.

Without an NFL deal, Banks spent the 2012 season with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League, with which he appeared in two games and posted one tackle.

But Wednesday, he was signing his new contract in a sweatshirt depicting a California license plate that read "XONR8" and a black-and-white Dodgers baseball cap.

"We are pleased to have Brian join our team," Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said in a statement. "We had a chance to work him out last year and have been monitoring his progress since then.

"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."

There is no guarantee that Banks will take the field on Sundays. The details of his contract were not released, and Banks must still earn a spot on the Falcon's 53-man roster.

matt.stevens@latimes.com