Linebacker Shawn Barber looks forward to mentoring a young Texans' defense.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday Magazine on Sept. 9, 2007.
Texans linebacker Shawn Barber boasts 240 pounds of fast-twitch strength. Leaping to make a play on a pass, Barber appears to rely on his prototypical NFL physique.
Looks can be deceiving. Behind the brawn resides a smart playmaker who can dissect the most complex defenses in the league.
"I was always able to catch on to things quickly, and now that's probably one of my strong points in the league," Barber said. "If you ask coaches that I've been around, they say I'm very cerebral, able to pick up different defensive schemes very quickly and able to make an impact very quickly."
In fact, the 10-year veteran's high football IQ has helped him impact four different teams and has earned Barber the reputation of being a sage mentor for defensive rookies.
This self-professed thinker, however, never thought he would end up playing sports professionally, especially football.
Both of Barber's parents were teachers who valued education over athletics.
"Growing up, I never saw in person a professional athlete," Barber said. "I never even dreamed of being a professional athlete. I had dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer."
Barber worked to keep up his grades, but he couldn't deny his athletic potential. The teen dominated the basketball court at Hermitage High School in Richmond, Virginia. And his acrobatic moves immediately grabbed the attention of the school's football coach who begged Barber to try out for the team.
Barber hadn't been interested in football, but his junior year he gave into the coach's demands and decided to join his friends on the field.
"I went out there and I was a good athlete, so they put me at the free safety spot," Barber said. "They said just hang out back there. If the ball gets thrown, intercept it. I played defensive back my junior year of school and led the team in interceptions. My twelfth grade season, my coach asked me if I wanted to be a wide receiver. I started playing both ways. I was an all-state wide receiver and an all-state defensive back."
Barber's 20-yard receiving average prompted a flurry of college recruiting activity from large state schools, but boosters from football powerhouses didn't impress him.
Barber wanted to find a school where he felt he could grow as a person. He knew he'd found his match when he met University of Richmond defensive coordinator Jim Reid.
"I wanted to be a part of his defense," Barber said. "He was a very upstanding man, and I felt I could learn a lot from him as a football player and a person. I felt a kinship with coach Reid."
Barber also felt the private school would give him an enriching educational experience.
"The University of Richmond had a more academic base, where if you were a football player you still had to maintain a certain grade point average," Barber said. "They were serious about failing guys out of there. Being that both my parents were teachers and that I came from such a strong educational background, I wanted to go in and get my education from a strong school."
While strong in the classroom, the Richmond Spiders lacked heft on the field. Enter Barber. The Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year lit up games with blistering hits and enlivened teammates with infectious energy. Playing for an underdog team brought out the best in Barber.
"I love being out in positions where I'm up against the odds," Barber said. "The University of Richmond wasn't a football powerhouse so every game for us was a battle, a fight."
After a dominant senior campaign, the Washington Redskins selected Barber in the fourth round of the 1998 draft. Going from hometown hero to NFL nobody was a hard pill for Barber to swallow, but he instantly impressed professional coaches with his ability to analyze and dissect playbooks.
Once Barber established his identity in the league as a cerebral reserve, he began to focus on defining his role in the community.
Barber convinced teammates from the Redskins to hold fundraisers across Washington, D.C. to benefit victims in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His community activism became so pronounced that Barber earned a nomination for the 2001 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
"You count your blessings every day," Barber said. "Every chance you have to give back to the community, you need to."
Barber continues to live by those words. After signing with the Texans last spring, he began helping a Houston minister put together a play with strong social messages for at-risk communities.
"It's a play that's trying to spread awareness about the epidemic of AIDS, especially in the young urban female population," Barber said. "It's trying to get young females to go out and get tested. It's something that's a real cause for concern when we talk about how we're going to help the kids of tomorrow."
Barber and Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson did their part by buying over $3000 worth of tickets, which they distributed to local shelters and churches. Barber says it's a small gesture, but it's a move in the right direction.
And Barber's moves always make an impact. Whether he's on the field or in the community, there's more than meets the eye with this Houston Texan.