Barnett's Battle

Freddie Barnett is working hard on and off the field at Trinity Valley Community College to make sure he is a Razorback once again.

ATHENS, Texas -- American and Texas flags wave briskly around the downtown square in this pleasant east Texas city on another warm, but humid mid-September day.

Parking spaces are limited as drivers search for an area to rest their air conditioners to save precious fuel instead of circling around for the next available legal piece of pavement.

At nearby Trinity Valley Community College, less than a mile southwest of the town square, a student-athlete plants his head in a textbook, hoping, at times valiantly praying, there's a way out of this boulevard of broken dreams.

He accepts the hand dealt him because he wasn't educated enough by some standards to be in a bigger city, playing college football in a bigger arena on Saturdays.

His biggest exposure here comes from a four-page-or-less sports section in the local newspaper or a low-power radio signal from nearby Palestine.

Meet Freddie Barnett, a living, breathing man-made project, who may represent what is good about junior college football players in America the Bible-Belt, and beyond.

He truly upholds the integrity of athletics.

Freddie Barnett is friendly. When one meets him, the first thing one notices is his pearly whites which integrate well with the rest of the keys of a piano.

He's extremely polite -- he always says, "Yes, sir," or "No, sir," -- and clearly is appreciative of his God-given ability.

But ...

Barnett isn't here by choice.

He's here, not because his grades were way below C-level when he left high school on the Arkansas side of Texarkana almost two years ago, but because his academic standards weren't high enough for admission into a Division-I football program.

Barnett was, is, being recruited by Arkansas. It's been that way since he left his home as an academic refugee from Arkansas High.

Since he's been here, he's learned to realize it's not how many pounds he can bench press. How fast he can run the 40-yard dash, or how quick he can get to a quarterback.

It's how hard one can hit the books like a blocking sled.

"I stayed up here all year, went to both sessions of summer school," he said. "I'll graduate in May."

His hope, his dream, is to sign a letter-of-intent with Arkansas, and honor a commitment to his favorite team.

"We (Arkansas) were the original Razorbacks," Barnett said. "I know they changed their names in 1900-something from Cardinals (ironic, isn't it? Cardinals being the mascot at Trinity Valley?), but we were the Razorbacks first.

"I want to be a Razorback again when I finish here."

With lunch time approaching, Barnett, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound defensive tackle, still has a hunger to learn.

Still has his head planted in a textbook.

Because ...

He knows he has to hit the books harder than a scrambling quarterback or he'd never get out of the deep, depressing academic hole he has dug for himself coming out of high school.

Today, he's paying for it, and dearly.

Simply put, he couldn't make the NCAA grade and because of it he's not playing in front of 70,000 people on Saturdays.

Crowds vary in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference, richer in tradition than gate receipts, in venues that line State Highway 31 from Coriscana, through Athens, Tyler and Kilgore, home of the internationally famous Kilgore College Rangerettes.

"It's nothing like it is in Razorback Stadium," Barnett said. "Here we play in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands, not a bunch of thousands of people."

ESPN doesn't have much airtime -- if any -- for these highly athletic but low academic castaways in the pecking order of publicity.

Trinity Valley (formerly Henderson County Junior College) has put out a ton of successful athletes through the years, not only into major-college programs but professional football as well.

Barnett hopes to join them in the future.

"Freddie has played nicked up all season," said Trinity Valley coach Mark Sartain. "He's started every game, fought through it."Freddie is a coach's dream, he really is. He's a great athlete. He's also one of the hardest workers on the team. He's also one of the most conscientious kids we have. He's a very pleasant kid to be around. He's just a pleasure.

"He's a kid that could help a Division I team, but he's not."

Being an all-conference pick last year and preseason All-American selection this season doesn't mean people are flocking to Freddie Barnett for autographs.

"Oh, some people recognize me," Barnett said. "Maybe, because I'm so big. Hard to miss. You know.

"I appreciate it."

Being unnoticed because you're undereducated by NCAA standards isn't what Freddie Barnett had in mind when he was overpowering opponents at Arkansas High.

What he had in mind was running through the snout of a red, plastic, inflated Razorback head with adjacent snarling teeth in the north end zone of Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturdays during home games.

"I'm still thinking about it," Barnett said. "You know, I am."

Still, one hears no complaints. No bellyaching from this big, baby-faced manchild in a one-on-one chitchat.

Even in unguarded moments, this big, beefy, bulky sophomore doesn't flinch. Doesn't waver like a politician desperate for votes on a particularly tough issue at election time.

This spoonful of medicine didn't go down easy, but Barnett has swallowed it like a man.

"It's my fault," he said. "I've got no one to blame but me. I know what I did wrong.

"Should have got my books."

Barnett's younger brother, Brandon, a 5-9, 191-pound speedy running back, also an Arkansas recruit from Arkansas High, is in the same academic boat, but floating at a different latitude.

However, the attitude is the same.

"Should have got my books," Brandon says with almost the same tone as big brother.

He's redshirting at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., this fall.

When we last left Brandon Barnett, on June 24, to be exact, in Razorback Stadium, he was finishing up his preps career as the Most Valuable Player in the Arkansas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game.

He rushed 9 times for 96 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown run. He scored two other times and caught 3 passes for 31 yards.

Pretty impressive.

Far more impressive than his test scores.

"When I was at the All-Star game, I had taken an ACT test," Brandon Barnett said. "I asked God, 'Please, let me pass it.'

"Of course, I didn't."

That meant he had to follow the same lonely, mostly underpublized path as his older brother.

"Man, it hurt," Freddie Barnett said. "I had to go through all that. I thought he would have learned from my mistakes and gotten down to business and handled it.

"Yeah, I was disappointed, but at the same time, you've got to stay positive about the situation."

That's the approach Brandon Barnett has taken.

"I mean, it's like ... it taught both of us how we had to take care of business in high school," he said. "Once we get to the next level, it'll be a lot better for us.

"Yeah, I know Freddie was upset with me because I didn't qualify, learn from his mistake. I was disappointed, too.

"I've just got to get my books.

"Me and my brother said, 'We'll never fail if we don't stop trying.' We'll never stop trying, so we'll never fail."

Freddie and Brandon Barnett both said they are grateful for a second chance.

"A lot of kids like Freddie would be bitter," Sartain said. "He's not. Freddie is just grateful and thankful for the opportunity (to play in junior college) he's been given."

Why?

Sartain picks up the narrative:

"Probably the last 20 years, junior colleges have gone from being primarily guys coming out of high school who were a little bit slow, not quite as developed, matured and they needed a couple of years to become Division I capable.

"The last 15-18 years, the vast majority of our kids are Division I capable athletically. They have academic issues. So, it's become a different type of game. It's not the developmental league that it once was, it's just more of a detour right now.

"About 75 percent of our kids, if they had academic qualifications, they wouldn't be here. About 25 percent of them were those who were playing out of position or weren't recruited but have the opportunity.

"Now they have a place to prove that they can.

"It used to be the other way around. Now, they are the ones who are proven athletically or they wouldn't have been recruited by Division I schools that have to complete academics."

Arkansas High coach Bill Keopple, a former Razorbacks assistant, thinks it was a wise move for both brothers.

He coached both at Arkansas High.

"The pros? No. 1, he gets two years of college football under his belt," Keopple said. "There's a lot of talent in that league in Texas, like Kansas. It gives a kid time to grow up, show what he can do even before he gets to a (big) college campus.

"It's a good deal."

Keopple said he definitely thinks both can make it at the next level.

First, there is Freddie Barnett:

"As a high school player, he was an outstanding player. Good kid. Good worker. Kids that are 300 pounds, that can move like him, strong like him, are ... now they are a hot commodity.

"Those are hard to find."

Second, there is Brandon Barnett:

"Brandon was the fastest guy in Arkansas for two years. Whether he's a running back or defensive back, he's the kind of kid you look for in your program.

"You can't teach speed."

Freddie Barnett didn't have a game last Saturday (Sept. 24) -- his team was supposed to play in Cisco, Texas -- because of probable severe weather from Hurricane Rita which postponed the game.

So Monday night he went back to Texarkana

There he spent precious time with his girlfriend, Lynzi Dansby, and their son, Savion, who'll be 2-years-old on Oct. 23.

Barnett wasn't thinking about the 14 tackles and 1 1/4 sacks he had in the first four games -- his team was 3-1 -- or his injured right ankle which has hobbled him all season.

"It's good to be home," he said. "It's good to see my family again. I miss them a lot. It's tough sometimes being at school while they all are here."

Admittedly, his son is Barnett's pride and joy.

"I let her (Lynzi) pick the name," he said. "I just gave him my middle name and last name.

"Yeah, it's kind of unusual, but original."

So, what's the deal?

"I found his name in a ... I was looking through the baby books and I found his name in one of those books and I asked Freddie, 'What do you think?'" Dansby said. "I thought that name was real unique. I've never heard of one person with his name. Unless ... the famous tap dancer Savion Glover (of "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk" fame) counts. I thought, I have never heard anyone around here say that name.

"So, I thought that would be a good name for him.

Freddie approved.

"Freddie is a good daddy," said Dansby, a junior college student herself in Texarkana, who'll soon be working as a bank teller in her spare time. "This little boy knows his daddy. Every time Freddie leaves, he cries for his daddy. He doesn't even cry when I leave.

"He cries for him.

"He can kind of talk, mostly is jibber-jabber right now."

Barnett's mother, Carol Larry, understands the language.

"When Freddie's around, he (Savion) can't see anyone else," she said. "He doesn't live with us but when he comes over here to visit and he sees Freddie's pictures ... put it this way, they have really bonded. He'll go get one of Freddie's pictures and he'll say, 'My daddy, my daddy.'

"He knows."

By all accounts, Betty Carol Larry -- her friends call her Carol -- did a good job of raising her three sons, Dwayne, Freddie and Brandon Barnett, as a single parent in-between marriages.

"She's a wonderful person," Freddie Barnett said. "At one time, she raised us boys by herself. She tried to raise us right. She's a good praying woman. She always stayed on us to make sure we knew the right way to go, what was right and what was wrong."

Said Brandon Barnett: "I mean, it was pretty difficult at times growing up but my mom made sure she took care of us boys. She worked two jobs to make sure we had what we needed.

"She's a special person."

She was married for a little more than 11 years to Freddie Barnett Sr. and then married John Larry more than a decade ago.

"Freddie and his real daddy get along," Carol Larry said. "Matter of fact, his father doesn't live too far from us ... like I said, the husband I'm married to now ... he really stepped up to the plate and took those boys into his life.

"I know he loves those kids."

"At the time, they didn't want me to have another husband, have another boyfriend. They just wanted it to be just me and them. I explained to them, 'Sometimes things don't work out the way we plan.'"

John Larry said he's proud of being part of this parenthood.

"This was my first experience of trying to raise boys," he said. "I helped raise all of them. I was happy to do it. I love all of them.

"I'm proud of them."

Yeah, Freddie Barnett definitely has learned it's not how many pounds he can bench press. How fast he can run the 40-yard dash, or how quickly he can get to a quarterback for a sack.

And then some.

"Oh yeah, there's a lot more to football than that," he said. "I know that now, and I appreciate the fact I've learned it."

Barnett doesn't appreciate the long bus rides or the long hours of study but he knows it's necessary to get his ticket back home to Arkansas.

"That's definitely my goal, playing at the next level, going back to Arkansas" Barnett said. "Really, I think coming to Trinity Valley has taught me a lot.

"Made me appreciate what I have, or what I could have had."

Carol Larry said her middle child has learned his lesson well.

"I've very, very proud of Freddie," she said. "He's made me happy for being so strong inspite of all the obstacles in front of him and all the things he had to focus on at first, far as Arkansas.

"Same time he had a little baby. I don't know if you know how that is. Yeah, he's had a lot of obstacles.

"He was disappointed at first that he had to go to Trinity Valley. He knew he had to go there and make the best of it to get to the university.

"He has really proved himself and to a lot of people."

Of course, it wouldn't have had to come to this for one reason.

Freddie Barnett will tell you, straight up.

He's not ashamed to say it.

"Should have got my books."


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