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Wounded vets fish with Falcons at annual event

Photo: Andrew Morgan Atlanta Falcons player Brian Banks fishes on Lake Lanier with local veterans on Wednesday afternoon.

Photo: Andrew Morgan Atlanta Falcons player Brian Banks fishes on Lake Lanier with local veterans on Wednesday afternoon.

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Photo: Andrew Morgan Atlanta Falcons players Martel Moore and 2013 draft pick Kaemal Ishamel hold a fish they caught while out on Lake Lanier with veteran Paul Van Drie and local boat captain Mike Maddalena on Wednesday afternoon.

BUFORD -- Sgt. 1st Class Angel Sanchez Torres needed a break Wednesday.

After months of rehabilitation for injuries he suffered while in Iraq, including chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, the native of Puerto Rico and 18-year Army veteran was able to escape from his reality for a few hours during the sixth annual Fishing with the Falcons at the Lanier Harbor Marina on Lake Lanier.

The event involved 44 players from the Atlanta Falcons, seven coaches and cheerleaders, paired with 30 wounded veterans -- 15 from Fort Gordon and 15 from the Wounded Warrior Project from across the nation. The event featured four hours of fishing and food after the event.

"It's a great opportunity to say thank you to our servicemen and women," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "It's a fun day for everyone and just a small token of our appreciation."

Sanchez Torres didn't realize how rehabilitating the event would be until he was paired with recent free-agent signee Brian Banks.

Through the fishing event, both were able to tell their stories and encourage each other as their journeys continue. For Banks, it's realizing his dream of playing in the NFL. For Sanchez Torres, it's fully recovering from his wounds as he prepares for retirement in November 2014.

Banks was accussed of rape by a high-school classmate and spent five years in jail. After her confession was secretly taped, Banks was released from prison and worked his way into playing shape for the NFL.

"After hearing his story, I was just like 'Wow,'" Sanchez Torres said. "How could he forgive her? He's been through a lot."

It was those stories and encouragement that Sanchez Torres said will help him as he continues to heal from his wounds.

"We were just able to talk about life," he said. "It was a time to get away after having been through so much. It was a relief in a sense.

"It's crazy how we both came from very different backgrounds and here we were encouraging each other. It's given me that extra push. I know now I'm not going to quit."

For center Joe Hawley, who is expected to be the Falcons' starting center in 2013, the event took on special significance as well.

His brother-in-law recently returned from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan, giving Hawley an appreciation for what the wounded vets had gone through.

"I know how much these guys go through," he said. "More than that, I know what their families go through. I'm just here to give my thanks."

Smith said the event brought a lot of joy to not only the veterans, but the players.

"They're all competitive -- veterans and players," he said. "They want to win those prizes for what they caught."

Hawley said he's amazed at how humble the veterans are.

"They don't blame anyone for their injuries," Hawley said. "They're selfless and just say they were doing a job."

Sanchez Torres echoed those sentiments.

"We're not heroes," he said. "We had a job to do and we did it. We do what we do for our country, and for the guys on our left and our right."

He said he's excited to see what the future has for him, adding that he and Banks have a connection he'll never forget.

"We've both had it rough, but we're going to keep fighting," he said. "He told me he was proud of me. That brought a tear to my eye."