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Shaq Barrett

Once a ‘little chubby kid’ searching for recognition, Baltimore native Shaquil Barrett won’t be overlooked in Super Bowl LV

Childs Walker
Baltimore Sun

​This article ​is written by Childs Walker and was published in the Baltimore Sun on February 3, 2021.​

Why did they keep missing on Shaquil Barrett?

Was it his everyman stature? Could they not find the out-of-the-way locales ​where the Baltimore native terrorized quarterbacks?

We can’t call it a fluke. First, the major college recruiters took a hard pass after Barrett made all-state as a defensive lineman at Boys Town High in Omaha, Nebraska. Then, 32 NFL teams said no thanks in the 2014 draft, dwelling on his unremarkable measurements from the scouting combine rather than his remarkable pass rushing in the Mountain West Conference. Even after four years as a productive cog on a Super Bowl-winning defense in Denver, he had to settle for a one-year, $5 million deal in free agency, and only after the Cincinnati Bengals left him at the altar because of what he called a phantom shoulder injury.

No one, however, could miss Barrett in this year’s NFC championship game. Again and again he pushed past blockers who outweighed him by 60 pounds to short circuit Green Bay Packers superstar Aaron Rodgers. On a stage featuring two of the 10 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, he shined as bright as anyone. He might have to do it again in Super Bowl LV on Sunday if his Tampa Bay Buccaneers are to defeat another splendid quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.

Barrett’s playoff performance backed up a 2019 breakout in which he led the NFL with 19 ½ sacks. After the 28-year-old linebacker played this season under a $15.8 million franchise tag, he’s about to hit the free-agent market again, with a chance to sign a deal commensurate to his production.

But why did it take so long?

“I honestly don’t know,” said his older brother, Kevin. “He wasn’t a freak athlete. Wasn’t the fastest, couldn’t jump the highest. But you put him out there and he would work as hard as anybody. He could get the job done.”

Barrett never looked like the next Bruce Smith. He’s three inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than his Tampa Bay pass-rushing partner, Jason Pierre-Paul. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

“Oh, he’s always been pudgy,” said his father, Steven. “Even in college. My kids, they’ve always done well in sports, but none of them was a physical specimen.”

To understand why Shaquil kept fighting for his place in a football world that refused to look, we have to go back to the city that shaped him.

“Growing up in Baltimore is an experience I wouldn’t take back or trade for anything,” he said. “It’s dog-eat-dog. You’ve got to grow up fast. When you’re in Baltimore, that’s normal, just part of the culture there. It makes you tough-skinned. … It makes you focus on yourself and not let too much outside criticism bring you down or too much outside positivity take you up. You’ve got to stay even-keeled through everything.”

The Barretts crisscrossed Baltimore as they bounced from one home to another. At times, the six siblings — five boys and one girl — spread across three households. Difficult and chaotic as it was, their parents never disengaged.

Their mother, Donyetta Hawkins, worked as a crossing guard and teacher’s assistant, gifting her sweet, patient disposition to Shaquil. Steven, a stern bear of a man, was the one who nudged the boys to wrestle and play football, counting on sports to keep them off the city’s darker paths. They learned to chase quarterbacks at Leon Day Park as members of the rec-league Charm City Buccaneers.

Shaquil and Kevin formed a unit within the family unit. Steven laughed, recalling how his sons would even go to the bathroom at the same time.

“We did everything together,” Kevin said. “We definitely had different personalities. I was the mean type and he was the nice type. But with my oldest brothers being so much older, we did everything together.”

Kevin — nicknamed “Grump” at an early age — was Shaquil’s protector, recognizing the dangers that lurked around so many Baltimore corners.

“It made you fearless,” he said. “But it also taught you what to do and what not to do. You had to develop street smarts.”

A spate of middle-school suspensions told Kevin he was drifting off course with no good ending in sight. So with the encouragement of a wrestling coach and ultimately, his parents, he left Baltimore for Boys Town, a strict boarding school founded by Father Edward J. Flanagan and memorialized in a 1938 film that won an Oscar for star Spencer Tracy.

That decision proved fateful for Shaquil. With his closest companion 1,100 miles away in Nebraska, he lost focus, skipping classes and practices as he let his body go soft. He was a sharp, likable kid who made good grades at Baltimore City College, but he still almost got himself kicked off the football team. Away from school, he was robbed of his wallet and cellphone in an incident that frightened his parents.

“He fell off tremendously,” Steven recalled. “I think it had to do with him missing Kevin but also us just letting him be lazy, letting him loose a bit.”

At 15, Shaquil made a grown man’s decision to follow Kevin to Boys Town.

“I just wanted to be somewhere where there was more structure,” he said. “It was a culture shock but only good things — not having to watch your back 24/7 or having to worry about wearing the wrong colors in the wrong place.”

“He needed it,” Kevin said.

The brothers roomed together. Kevin moved down to the 189-pound weight class so Shaquil could wrestle at 215 pounds. In football, they lined up on opposite edges of the defensive front — a glimpse of Charm City terror for the young passers of Omaha.

“That’s when I became a real athlete,” Shaquil said. “I became more technical, more physically in shape.”

Shaquil rushed toward manhood as rapidly as he closed in on opposing quarterbacks. He married his high school girlfriend, Jordanna, when he was just 19. By the time he was 22, the couple had three children. He worked overnight shifts for a road construction crew at the same time he set pass-rushing records for the Colorado State Rams. Jordanna juggled three jobs.

“That just gave him motive right there, to make the most of all his situations,” Kevin said.

That meant fighting his way onto the Broncos as an undrafted free agent and into the rotation for a defense led by Pro Bowl pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. When his role in Denver diminished and the Bengals backed away from a two-year free-agent offer, he made the most of his chance in Tampa.

A Pro Bowl trip and a Super Bowl berth later, he’s done having to convince anyone to take notice.

Shaquil has a home in Colorado with hopes of establishing a longer-term base in Tampa if the Buccaneers pony up for an extension. Kevin lives in Missouri with his family. But their parents, their older siblings and most of their extended relatives remain in Baltimore.

Shaquil said he hasn’t been home in 2 ½ years, and that’s fine with Steven, who doesn’t see much upside in the city his son left 13 years ago.

“I don’t want him to come here, because there are a lot of people who would not be happy for his success,” he said. “I’d rather go see him.”

The world Shaquil has constructed, in which he’s a doting pushover with Shaquil Jr., Braylon and Aaliyah and an indispensable element of the Buccaneers’ success, is a happy one.

Steven has watched the NFL for most of his life, so he still has trouble computing that it’s his flesh and blood out there, chasing Rodgers and Mahomes. When the Broncos won their Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California, he hugged his son on the field as confetti rained around them.

“You go back and say, ‘That’s the same kid who was sleeping in that room right there. Just a little chubby kid asking if we could go to McDonald’s,’” Steven said. “And then you see his name across the TV screen and it’s the same name as yours. It seems so odd, so unbelievable.”