Up close and personal: Robert Barber speaks publicly for first time since conduct board case enveloped WSU

THE MORNING AFTER the largest Pac-12 victory in Washington State history, Robert Barber is surrounded by love. His brother Mike, sister-in-law Faasoesa, niece Linalei and nephews M.J. and Poyer are in town from their home in Puyallup. They haven’t missed a game in Pullman this season.

Along with Robert’s roommates—Shalom Luani, Frankie Luvu and Daniel Ekuale—they’ve just finished a breakfast of eggs, noodles and tuna fish sandwiches.

Good food, good friends, and a good football weekend for the fifth-year senior from American Samoa.

The only piece of this Rockwellian portrait that’s out of place is the fact Barber, a standout defensive lineman, watched Saturday’s 69-7 rout of Arizona in Section 4 of Martin Stadium with his brother's family and an aunt and uncle up from Utah. Instead of suiting up with Peyton Pelluer, he was chatting up with Mom and Dad Pelluer.

“I was excited, really excited, that we beat them bad, but I want to play,” Barber (pictured at center, above) said Sunday in the first interview he’s granted since his case with the WSU Conduct and Appeals boards became headlines across the state.

While he politely declines comment on questions related to his suspension from school, he doesn’t flinch on three points.

The first: He wishes he could go back in time and leave the July 23 off-campus-party-turned-melee the moment tensions began to rise.

The second: He hopes to play in the NFL but ultimately would like to leverage his degree from WSU, and his protective nature toward family and friends, to become a police officer.

The third: He’s been blessed by the outpouring of support he’s received from people across Cougar Nation. “There’s no other word but thanks. Without them, nothing would be going on,” he says.

His list of thank yous is long, stretching from a legend (Jack Thompson) to an elected official (Mike Baumgartner) to the moms of CougFam to the Asian Pacific Islanders Coalition. In between sit teammates, coaches, family, friends and his lawyer, Stephen Graham.

“They really care about me as a student and person, not just a football player,” he said.

On Saturday, inside and outside Martin Stadium, he discovered another source of support. Cougar fans, young and old, he said, blanketed him in one “Go Cougs!” and “Hang in there” after another.

“Coug Nation is really looking out for me. There are a lot of people behind me. I want to say thank you to them.”

And make no mistake, he says. If a Samoan high school prospect asked him about Washington State, he would tell it straight: “Wazzu is a good school – the coaches, the fans. Pullman is welcoming. I really love it out here. I would also say stay out of trouble, because a mistake can affect your whole career. Just focus on football and school.”

Two mistakes, the March 2015 “beef jerky incident” and his role in the off-campus fracas this past July, have cost him the stretch run of this outstanding Cougar football season -- and nearly his bachelor’s degree in general studies with an emphasis in criminal justice, music and women’s studies.

The suspension passed down by the Conduct Board and upheld by the Appeals Board booted him from school, meaning all the work completed so far in the current semester would be flushed, leaving him one credit shy of his diploma.

This past Friday, WSU President Kirk Schulz said Barber will be granted his degree in December but remain suspended from school.

Barber’s attorney has filed a stay of motion, and a petition for review, in Whitman County Superior Court. If granted, the stay would reinstate Barber in school. And if reinstated, Mike Leach says Barber will be back on the team. The hearing on the motion is set for Nov. 16 in Colfax.

BARBER IS SOFT-SPOKEN BUT AT THE same time very free with his thoughts and feelings. Here's a sampling ...

On what he would like Cougar Nation to know about him:

“I’m a friendly guy and a guy, if people see me, who is big and has tattoos but really likes making new friends and hanging out with people.”

On the death of his dad, from a blood clot in the brain, when Robert was in sixth grade:

“I was crying the whole day. I didn’t know what to do. I really miss him. He really loved us … My mom said we are going to get through this and to keep my head up. I also told her that, because she was sad too.” (Of note: Robert's dad passed away at the VA Hospital in Honolulu and Robert's uncle broke the news to him.)

On life in Pago Pago:

“You can get from one side of the island to the other in 90 minutes if you drive 25 miles an hour … people mostly work at the fish canneries … a lot of people grow taro, breadfruit and bananas and sell them at the local food market. We (my family) harvest those on our land but we don’t sell it, we use it for ourselves and give it to extended family and friends in the village.”

On his Mormon faith:

“My dad was a bishop and we always went to church … I don’t go to services here but I still pray every day-- in the morning, at night before bed, when we have food, before and after practices, and games too … When times get tough, you need to talk to God.”

On what his mom, Loimata, said to him following the beef jerky incident:

“I called her. She was disappointed and upset and told me to stay out of trouble. She also told me to keep my head up.”

On adjusting to life on the Mainland:

“Because English is my second language, I was too shy to speak to people (when arriving in Pullman in 2012). Also, time management with school was difficult and the school work was hard. I had help with tutors and that made a big difference.”

On the role of older Polynesian players helping him adjust:

“Toni Pole was my big brother, and for the rest of the guys (Destiny Vaeao, Daniel Ekuale and others) too. He would have us over to hang out, play video games, plays cards and have barbeques – it felt like back home. Cyrus (Cohen, former WSU linebacker) also was a big brother.”

Barber says the day WSU assistant head coach Joe Salave’a offered him a scholarship “was a blessing and is still a blessing today.”

WSU was the only major college to offer him a ride.

Salave’a and his wife Josie are like stand-in parents for him and all the Polynesian players, Barber said. “They help us a lot. They have us over for barbeques and they provide advice like parents. I have a lot to thank them for.”

Barber’s sister, Lina, underscores the esteem the entire Barber family holds for Salave’a.

“Family is the basic institution in our culture. We care for our families, whether by blood or by acquaintance,” she told by phone from her home in central Texas. “Since this incident happened, our very first thoughts were towards Coach Joe Salave’a and his family. We felt that this incident brought shame to Coach Salave’a, who entrusted Robert to uphold his standards as a student-athlete and most of all as a young Samoan man who knows how to carry and present himself.

“Coach Salave’a flew thousands of miles to our islands to recruit the finest young men to play the next level of football. He could have chosen a hundred other boys but he recruited Robert. Anything that Robert does, whether it be good or bad, is a reflection of our family, our people, our island, our culture.”

No matter how Robert’s crimson journey concludes, she says, the entire family will remain devout Cougars. The education he received and the personal bonds he developed at WSU, she notes, cannot be taken away by anyone.

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