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Bryton Barr’s twisting, winding path to UMass By Thomas Johnston

Photos by Caroline O'Connor and Katherine Mayo

The third quarter is winding down, and the Massachusetts football team is in dire need of a stop.

With UMass trailing by a pair of scores against Georgia Southern, the Eagles are driving in Minutemen territory. The snap sails high over quarterback Shai Werts’ head, colliding with his shoulder before plummeting onto the turf.

“BALL!” the entire UMass bench screams in unison.

After a loose scramble, the UMass defenders begin pointing the opposite direction. As the pile dwindles and the referees get a look at who came away with possession, they signal the Minutemen have recovered. Out of the pile comes Bryton Barr — his long, blond hair flowing out of the back of his helmet, nearly down to his nameplate just above the number 44 on his white and maroon jersey — the ball raised high in the air while celebrating a game-changing turnover.

Barr was never supposed to be in a position to make that play for UMass; hell, he wasn’t even supposed to be playing college football at this point in his life. But after changing schools a week before high school signing day, sustaining three potential career-ending injuries in a row and making a plea to the NCAA to gain more eligibility and a school transfer, here Barr stands, captaining the Minutemen defense.

In Pennsylvania, high school football is a way of life. Year after year, some of the top players in the country come out of the state, which has produced the most players in the National Football Hall of Fame. For many in the state who play football, the goal is to play well enough to earn a spot on the Penn State football team and to one day run out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel, donning the classic blue and white jersey.

Born in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania and attending nearby Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School, Barr was ready to live out that dream, earning a preferred walk-on spot to join the Nittany Lions after being named a two-time Keystone Conference Player of the Year as well as two First Team All-State selections.

After he committed, he broke down crying — this was a dream he had envisioned since he was a young kid playing youth football, ready to play for the school he had grown up watching and admiring.

Then tragedy struck.

Just a week before signing day, Barr was watching television when he saw the news that longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was being charged with rape and sexual abuse of young children at football camps that were held at Penn State. Just like that, Barr’s childhood dream school was embroiled in scandal and out of the picture, and he would have to scramble to find another place to play college football.

He began calling every school that had given him an offer, but it was too late in the process and most of the schools had run out of scholarships to give out. Eventually, Barr settled on Towson, a Football Championship Subdivision and Colonial Athletic Subdivision school.

"It was really stressful going to signing day and not being anywhere,” Barr said. “Obviously I wanted to play at the top level collegiate football but Towson is [FCS] and in the CAA, which in my opinion is the best conference in [FCS] football.”

The dream of playing at Penn State was crushed, but Barr wouldn’t let that halt his college career. Playing for the Tigers, he started from his opening day as a freshman, finishing the season second on the team in tackles (74) while also making five tackles for loss and recording two sacks.

It was an ideal start, making the most of his opportunity and playing like a high-end Division I recruit. His sophomore year started with more of the same, but during the second game of the season against Holy Cross, Barr went to make a tackle, and when he came up he had a weird vibrating feeling in his right armpit, almost as if he had been hit in the funny bone.

When he later got x-rays, it revealed that he had torn his right pectoral tendon, an injury that would require surgery and end his sophomore season.

It was the first major injury he had suffered in his career, and one that would require rigorous rehab to get ready for the following season. Right before he was ready to head back to Towson for camp, he was training at his local gym doing drills when he had a freak collision with another player. He took an elbow to his left armpit, and felt the same vibrating sensation he had felt a year before.

“As soon as it happened I felt the same sensation that I had felt in my right and I knew right away,” Barr said. “I went down to the dumbbells and I couldn't bench press a 20-pound dumbbell. Right then and there I was crushed.”

This time, he had torn his left pectoral tendon. Another surgery. Another season down. Another offseason of rehab.

It’s easy for a player to give up after two surgeries, but Barr wasn’t going to let it derail him. He had a year to get healthy, and was finally feeling like himself again before his senior season. Preparing for the first game against East Carolina, Barr was sprinting down on a kickoff drill when he took a blindside cheap shot from his own teammate. He had his knee taken out, bending in an awkward direction.

He knew right away that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. A third season in a row over, before it could even get started.

“I was asking myself and asking God, 'What's your plan for me?'” Barr said. “I was asking him 'I can't do this by myself anymore. Just show me what this is all about.’”

He was crushed. He began reconsidering whether another tough recovery was worth it, as the rehab for an ACL tear is far more demanding than what he’d been through with his pectoral tendons. Doubt began setting in his mind, but then he sat and thought about how he had only had one collegiate season under his belt. He didn’t want his career to be defined by injuries, and decided to give it one more go, as he still had a year of NCAA eligibility.

“I took it and said I've done this twice before, why can't I do it again,” Barr said. “I love the game of football so I rehabbed and got back at it.”

The rehab was harsh and tenuous, but Barr would get healthy and play the entire 2016 season with the Tigers. After the year, he talked to his coach, who told him he could apply to the NCAA to get another year of eligibility due to his lost seasons with injury. After some research, he learned that he could apply for two extra years, something that had only been granted to a small number of players.

After the application, Barr was granted the sixth and seventh year of eligibility. Looking for a fresh start, he decided to transfer out of Towson.

Barr, Andrew Ford and Adam Breneman were some of the top players in Camp Hill while in high school. The three trained together in the summers since they were kids, with Ford and Breneman playing at Cedar Cliff High School. Even while playing at rival schools, the three developed a close bond, going on college visits to schools up and down the East Coast, talking about how it would be awesome if they could link up and play college football together.

They all went their separate ways, though. With Barr going to Towson, Ford heading to Virginia Tech and Breneman living that dream at Penn State, it looked like their football paths would never cross again.

Then, in 2016, Ford and Breneman decided to leave their respective schools to come play at UMass. After their first year, Bryton gave them a phone call, telling them how he was considering applying for his extra years of eligibility. Ford and Breneman told him he should come play with them for the Minutemen, almost jokingly. When Barr was serious, Ford and Breneman went and talked to UMass coach Mark Whipple to see if there was a spot for Barr.

“I was like, is there any chance they have a spot for me, maybe at a walk-on position or anything,” Barr asked, “and they talked to Coach Whip and Coach Whip trusted those two guys, and still do, and I'm really thankful Coach Whipple gave me a shot up here.”

“We talked to Coach Whipple about it and he said ‘yeah, we’ll see if we have a spot for him.’ We didn’t have any scholarships at the time so it took a little bit more convincing,” Ford said. “We needed Bryton to get a highlight tape because Coach Whipple didn’t have any tape on him.”

Barr put together a film package for Whipple, which showed him, as a true freshman, playing against Louisiana State University, a college football powerhouse, and recording double-digit tackles and recovering a fumble.

That was all Whipple needed to see. He trusted the word of Breneman and Ford, but after watching Barr on tape he knew he had a diamond in the rough. Barr signed to come to UMass, got a house with Ford and Breneman and made a wish of playing together come true.

“They said they had worked out with him and that he’s a really good kid and a really good player,” Whipple said. “I said ‘you guys are great guys and great leaders’ so we watched his tape, we watched him against LSU and somebody else, maybe Villanova, and he came up and we talked to him on the phone and he came up with his father, he visited. It’s worked out great for both parties, I think he’s happy and we’re happy to have him, especially for two years. It’s worked out well.”

Barr didn’t practice in his first spring with the Minutemen, but as soon as Whipple saw him put the pads on in training camp, he knew he would be a starter due to his instincts and his ability to slip blockers. Barr had played outside linebacker while also being used as a stand up rusher at Towson, but Whipple moved him back to middle linebacker, the position he had played through high school.

Since then, Barr has exceeded all expectations. He has stayed healthy and turned into the leader of the UMass defense, recording a team-high 105 tackles in his first year.

“If you asked Adam the same question, he’d say he was hands down the best player that we ever played against in high school,” Ford said. “You can see the kind of production he has on Saturdays for us. He’s made Adam and I look pretty good with that recommendation.”

As one of the older guys on the team — his teammates often jokingly call him “Dr. Barr” due to how long he has been in college — Barr has adopted a leadership role, being named captain this season. As a middle linebacker, he has adopted the role as the signal caller on defense, making sure everyone is lined up in the right position and knows their assignments.

“You see these legends like Lawrence Taylor, Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis, those kind of guys, Tedy Bruschi who's one of my favorites,” Barr said. “I always wanted to be like those guys and play at that level and be that guy, be that leader and lead by example. I really took charge of that role when I got up here and lead these younger guys and show them the way and make sure that they don't take anything for granted, because it could be taken from you just like that. I know best.”

Barr doesn’t want his football story to end after the season, hoping to give it a shot in the NFL if he is given the opportunity. For now, he is focused on trying to get UMass to its first bowl game since 1972.

There will be doubters about a 24-year-old making it in the NFL as a rookie, but if there’s anyone who knows how to carry on a journey and never give up on reaching their goals, no matter what obstacles are thrown in the way, it’s Bryton Barr.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.

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