LONG BEACH, Calif. — A former Long Beach high school football star who spent more than five years behind bars for rape but was exonerated after his accuser recanted her story came closer to his dream of playing in the National Football League today when he was signed by the Atlanta Falcons.

Brian Banks, 27, gushed thanks on his Twitter page to the team’s management and players, saying, “Thank you for accepting me into the family.”

Banks was exonerated in May 2012 after a judge in Long Beach agreed to throw out his 2003 conviction for forcible rape involving a girl on the campus of Long Beach Polytechnic High School a year earlier.

Banks had dreamed of playing professional football and was expecting to attend USC on a football
scholarship when he was arrested.

Although he received some interest from NFL teams since his release — including from former USC coach Pete Carroll, now the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks — Banks went unsigned. A 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker, Banks played last year for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League.

“We are pleased to have Brian join our team,” Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “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,” Dimitroff said.

Banks was 16 when he was accused of rape on July 8, 2002, and 17 when he pleaded no contest to forcible rape in exchange for a six-year sentence — considerably shorter than the 41-year-to-life term he could have faced if he had gone to trial and been convicted.

Last year, however, the alleged victim reached out to Banks and admitted she had lied, leading to his exoneration.