By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
It’s a few months shy of six years ago when I walked into a gym in Memphis to watch a basketball game between two private high schools.
My story wasn’t even about basketball. It was on a college football prospect named John Stokes from Memphis University School, who signed with Vanderbilt in 2007 and had an excellent career as a linebacker and deep snapper. He’ll be a doctor soon. But what caught my eye that night in January 2007 was the guy that Stokes, a long, athletic 6-5, 225-pounder who could run a 4.7 40, was battling. It was this round-shouldered, borderline chunky Evangelical Christian School post player who didn’t appear taller than 6-3. Yep, for sure, this ECS guy was an offensive lineman forced into the duty of playing Stokes physical. I figured his primary job was to use all five fouls hacking Stokes. About that time, a MUS guard threw a casual crosscourt pass and the ECS postman who looked like he would be slow even getting to the dinner table turned into a greyhound. He intercepted the pass, pulled away from the MUS guard chasing him and dunked.
Dunked? Dunked! Dunked? Who is THAT guy?
“Baaarrretttt Jones!,” screamed the public address announcer over a crowd roaring in disbelief that this breadtruck had gotten airborne and flushed a dunk. Give me that game program. Barrett Jones? Here he is. He’s a junior. Gotta remember him.
A year later, I’m taking a number talking to Barrett Jones, a senior ECS lineman that every big-game college football coach in America wants. Even Barrett’s dad, Rex, a Florence, Alabama native (as is his wife lLeslie) who played college basketball for the Crimson Tide from 1981-84, had a hard time believing his son was THAT good.
“There was this assistant from Tennessee who told me that Barrett would be a three-year starter in the SEC,” Rex says. “I’m thinking, `You must be a good recruiter, because you’re a really convincing liar.”
“And then there was the night (Alabama coach) Nick Saban and (then offensive line coach) Joe Pendry visited our house. I know nothing about football and they were throwing all these measurements at me why Barrett had the ability to play major college football.”
Leslie Jones, Barrett’s mother was who a Phi Mu back in her sorority days at the University of North Alabama, compares her son's recruiting process to sorority rush ("Coaches tell you want you want to hear," she recalls).
Just before Barrett signed with Alabama, he made clear his goals. “I want to be a starter as soon as I can,” he said. “I want to be an all-American. I want to be an academic all-American. I want to win a national championship." I’ve heard a lot of high school hotshots say the same thing (minus the academic all-American goal). For the most part, because of the way they said it – pausing between words as if they were still searching for the goals – I didn’t really believe them. But the way Barrett reeled off his goals without hesitation, adding that signing a scholarship would be his “source of inspiration to get to work”, this sometimes cynical sportswriter didn’t doubt him one bit.
Fast forward to the present, and Barrett, with one game left in his college career against No.1 Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game, has lapped his goals. After redshirting following a shoulder injury as a true freshman in 2008, he has started four straight years. He is a three-time first-team academic All-American. He has two national championship rings, two SEC title rings and two degrees, earning his Masters’ in accounting just like week. He’s won the 2011 Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman, the 2012 Rimington Award as college football’s top center and the Jacobs Award in ’11 and ’12 as the SEC’s best blocker. He blocked for Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram in 2009.
Don’t forget his pursuit of perfection on and off the field, has resulted in him winning awards for which he’s the proudest – the 2012 National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell Award based on a combination of academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership and the 2011 Wuerffel Trophy which is based on many of the same principles.
Only now, with the end of his college career in sight, does Barrett catch himself in moments of reflection, and they don’t last long. He has a job to finish, but he wonders where the last five years have gone.
“I’m trying not to get sentimental, because I want to focus in the (BCS national championship) game,” Barrett says. “But it’s been a great ride and I always remember this place and the people. “The championships have been great, but I’ll never forget the people who helped me get to where I am now. The biggest honor I’ve had is my teammates nominating me for team captain. It’s one of the reasons I came back for my senior year.”
If college coaches and pro scouts would have seen Barrett back in elementary school, they wouldn’t have believed that the kid who failed to score a point in his entire fourth grade basketball season would become one of the most decorated linemen in college football history.
“I remember coming home at the end of that season and telling Leslie I didn’t think Barrett would ever functionally play high school sports, because I never thought he’d be coordinated enough,” Rex says. “We laughed and said, `Maybe he’ll be a violinist the rest of his life and if he does, that’s good with us.’ It was at a time when Barrett was like a big puppy dog trying to get his feet under him.”
Rex isn’t kidding about Barrett being violinist. Because Rex wouldn’t let him Barrett play football until sixth grade, Barrett poured himself into playing the violin. He became so proficient that he started performing at weddings to make extra money.
“He had a natural gift for it,” Rex says.
When Barrett finally started playing football in sixth grade as a linebacker, he loved the hitting. He broke his arm while diving to block an extra point. Barrett grew eight inches between the start of the seventh and eighth grade. He measured 6-3, 200, as an eighth grader. During Barrett’s eighth-grade year, a teacher introduced him to Scrabble. Barrett went to school twice a week at 6:30 a.m. to practice, and he and a partner finished 15th nationally in their age group. About that time, Barrett broke one of his fingers playing football. When he got home, he told his mother he didn’t think he could practice the violin that day. She looked at the gnarled finger and said, “I guess you can take a day off.” One day turned into two, then three, then four before Barrett decided to give up the violin. He loved football.
“I was kind of tired of the violin,” Barrett admits with a laugh. “That was one of the reasons, eventually I just didn’t have time to do both. If I had to choose between football and violin, I was going to choose football.”
Still, a lot of kids, especially boys, would have rebelled if their mother originally registered them for violin lessons. But Leslie Jones wanted her children to be well-rounded, investing in more than just athletics. She also knew that Barrett had a thirst for learning everything.
“Barrett was just a smart little kid, and I knew he had all this energy to learn,” Leslie says. “He wanted to know everything at a really early age.” That’s why Barrett looked at learning the violin as a challenge. “It’s kind of like everything else, you do something and want to become great at it,” Barrett says. “I practiced a lot and I wanted to become good at it. It really taught me a work ethic at a young age, and I got that from my Dad. Whether it was working in the yard, or practicing a sport, he taught me how to dedicate myself to become great at it. That’s something I’ve always carried with me.”
Both Rex and Leslie taught Barrett and his two younger brothers Harrison, a sophomore Crimson Tide tight end, and Walker, a graduating high school senior who has committed to Alabama, that football is just a tiny part of the world in which they live.
All the Jones boys have been on international mission trips. Barrett’s last few spring breaks haven’t been spent on the beaches of Destin or Gulf Shores, but in Haiti working with Memphis-based Eikon Ministries.
Barrett made his first mission trip to Haiti in March 2010, two months after a 7.0-magnitude quake left more than 230,000 dead and 1.3 million homeless. He returned in the spring of 2011 to construct basketball courts, among other projects. “I don’t want to be a football player who does other things – I want to Barrett who happens to play football,” Barrett insists. “That’s part of who I am. I love giving back. It really brings me great joy to do that. “If you have your identity all wrapped up in football, that it’s who you are as a person, then it is hard sometimes. That’s not my identity. It’s part of what I do. It’s not who I am. After football, I hope to have a long and successful professional career.”
First, though, Barrett will have a chance at long and successful NFL career. His athleticism, durability, mental and physical toughness and versatility make him a wanted commodity.
Barrett began his college career undergoing reconstructive right shoulder surgery. He dislocated the shoulder twice in preseason camp as a true freshman after dislocating his left shoulder in high school. He played in three games as a reserve before the pain became too much, leading to surgery and a medical redshirt season. Barrett underwent surgery shortly after the 2008 SEC championship game. Normally, it takes four to six months to rehab such an injury. But when he had to stand in street clothes and watch his team get upset by Utah in the Sugar Bowl, he decided to take his rehab to warp speed. When Barrett showed up for the start of spring practice, then-offensive line coach Pendry was stunned.
"Barrett never missed a day, never missed a rep in the spring, and that was remarkable to me," Pendry recalls. "I tried him in several positions, and wherever I put him, he did his job and did it well. He's a smart, tough guy, who puts himself in the best possible position to use his assets."
Barrett’s extensive film study, his attention to detail, his consistency on rarely taking a wrong step, and his nimble feet put have kept him ahead of the curve. Barrett’s thirst for knowledge and need to be constantly challenged is why he has played every offensive line position at Alabama, something almost hard to believe. He started 26 games at right guard his first two seasons, 11 games at left tackle as a junior (also seeing snaps at left guard, right tackle and center) and started all 13 games this season at center.
“Playing all the positions gave me a greater understanding of the schemes and concepts of the entire offensive line,” Barrett says. “It helped me understand the big picture better.”
Saban obviously understood the type of player he was recruited when he laid out his plans for Barrett. “Barrett Jones is probably as fine a person as I have ever had the opportunity to coach in terms of character, attitude, intelligence, willingness to give of himself to help other people," Saban says. As for Barrett, he knows why he said `yes’ to Saban and `no’ to the rest of the coaches. “When you're getting recruited you go around to a lot of different places and you hear every coach sitting in their office tell you that they're going to win a lot of games and you're going to be a big part of that,” Barrett says. “But when Coach Saban tells it to you, you believe him. “He looks you in the eyes and says, `We're going to win championships.’ And he lays out a specific plan how he's going to do it. And I think that's what guys buy into. I know me, personally, I knew when he told me that we definitely were going to win championships, and that's what's happened. It's been great to play for a guy like that who has a specific vision and really knows how to get there, who has done it before. He explained the process and if I bought into it, I wouldn’t just be successful as a player but also as a person.”
When Barrett recently accepted his Campbell award at the NFF dinner, he explained Saban’s affect on him. It was at that gathering that Rex Jones saw the former Tennessee assistant who told him his son was good enough to start three years in the SEC.
“I guess he was wrong,” Rex laughs. “He started all four years.”