By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Next man up is familiar phrase in the game of football.
Players on the sideline know they are just a play away from being in the lineup and the rotation. This past preseason new arrival DJ Barker went from backup senior center to starting senior center.
The newcomer from St. Augustine, Fla., was thrusted into the offensive line and had to take charge of it.
“I was just around him a little bit and then I just knew he was a ball player,” Brighton Offensive Line Coach James Comer said. “Everything I asked him to do, he wasn’t used to the system coming from Florida. I put him in there at center. Actually he was the backup center. Our first-team center got hurt and he never loss the job.
“He’s very, very smart,” he added. “From day one I saw his football intelligence. No matter what the defense was, he was able to adjust to it. Our center makes a lot of our calls up front. He does a good job of doing that.”
That combination of intelligence and strength helped Barker gain the attention of Rhodes College. And on Nov. 16 in the Brighton High School Library, he inked his national letter of intent alongside his family parents Donald and Tatiana and brothers Dima and Dominic.
The 5’10, 200-pound DJ was in the center just like on Friday nights for all the photos. Once his family broke formation, Tatiana explained her son’s journey to the prestigious Rhodes College in Memphis.
“He’s really good in academics as well,” she said. “Right now he has straight A’s. I think for this semester he has a 4.0 GPA. The way the door has open up at Rhodes, he would like to play football in college.
“And Rhodes has always been the No. 1 school for us because of the academics,” Tatiana continued. “We were looking into getting him into a summer camp at Rhodes. He was looked at and then they open up for him to apply. I guess with his abilities at football and academics he was offered.”
Donald said his son’s gift made him an attractive asset to many colleges.
“It’s a special skill to be able to snap and block,” he said. “It’s like playing the guitar and singing. That’s a special skill to be able to do both at the same time. Playing the guitar is one thing and singing is another.
“Snapping and blocking is two different skills,” Donald added. “He’s been able to combine those two skills with some strength in that size. The No. 1 thing is he’s not afraid to stick his head out there.”
Comer said that was evident to him after the season opener. Since August Barker has improved his play and leadership sparking the Cardinals to the Region 8-5A championship and to the furthest postseason point.
“He’s been very vital to our run just being a hard-nose kid and doing whatever we tell him to do,” he said. “He started out the beginning of the year he went up against a kid from Houston. He was about 325 or 330 pounds.
“I had him doing a lot of one-on-one blocking against him,” Comer continued. “And he was able to do a pretty good job. He never backed down from him. He just does whatever I ask him to do.”
DJ said the game he has played since he was 5 years old has taught him to never back down from a challenge.
“I’m very undersize to be a center,” he acknowledged. “I just make sure I get lower than the guy who is in front of me and I make sure I don’t stop until I hear that whistle.”
Donald wouldn’t be surprised by his son’s response and him earning the starting spot at a new school.
“Hopefully that is a result of lifelong teaching,” he said. “What we teach at home or mantra is ‘We strive for excellence.’ We’ve been teaching them that since they were little. Everything he goes into or every piece of work he creates, he strives for that excellence. That’s showing himself through this opportunity by striving and giving all he can.”
Rhodes is a symbol of academic excellence in the world. Barker will join Jim Ryan’s Lynx program next fall and play NCAA Division III Football in the Southern Athletic Association. Ryan was named head coach of the Lynx for the 2016 season. He came to Rhodes after serving four years as defensive coordinator at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU). Ryan was named the 2015 NCAA Division III Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association in 2015.
Barker will have to adjust once again after moving to Brighton in November 2016. The game that helped him overcome his shyness opened up an avenue to friends and lasting relationships in a year.
One bond was formed along the O-line with Alex Belue, Enrique Toliver, Jordan Johns, Tyler Carmack and Zach Dickinson.
“All together we know we’re not going to be on television or anything like that,” DJ concluded. “So we understand whenever our running backs or quarterbacks do well we did our job. And we’re happy with that.”
By Thomas Sellers Jr.