Photo by Nebraska Communications

Earning His Stripes

By Brian Rosenthal

He sees the tall, lanky freshman following him, emulating his every move in the weight room, and a couple of thoughts enter his mind.

One, Mohamed Barry allows nobody to outwork him, ever, least of all some 18-year-old who’s been on campus for a mere few weeks.

Two, how awesome and refreshing for Barry, a senior linebacker, that a newcomer on the Nebraska football team dare push him?

“I see this little string bean over there doing extra work, extra weight and stretching with me, listening to every little thing I say, passion and fire in his eyes,” Barry said. “I love seeing that, because it reminds me of myself.”

In fact, he can’t remember a freshman as eager as linebacker Nick Henrich since, well, Barry himself.

“Nick is a listener, definitely,” Barry said. “He reminds me of myself when I came in. Just looking for answers, searching, understanding that the talent is there, but not cocky, and understanding he has a lot to develop to become what he wants to.”

Barry sees similar traits throughout the freshmen who’ve been on campus for winter conditioning, preparing for the first spring practice on Monday. They’re acting like they’re supposed to, he said. A great group of listeners.

“That’s the future of that group, so there has to be somebody like Nick,” Barry said. “It’d be great to have everyone like that.”

That’s why Barry, entering his final season, values his leadership role, especially with the freshmen. He takes pride in his blue-collar approach, careful to note he’s not about fame, but about giving his all on every rep, every snap, every day.

 He wants that approach to rub off on everyone, as it clearly is on Henrich.

“You earn your stripes, something that I’m a firm believer in,” Barry said. “If you pay the price and earn your stripes, then it’s your turn to lead and continue that process, because we have to represent the values of the team first – value in hard work, value in commitment and dedication, passion to this game, to this university.

“It’s just something about how I’m wired. Even if something is easy for me, I’ve just always taken the approach of earning more stripes. I never let my talent be a crutch, let it slow me down.”

Barry is a notable player for Husker newcomers to emulate in part because of his attitude and approach, and because of the story of his upbringing, how he became who he is today, as a football player, and a person.

“What you see right now,” Barry said, “isn’t a product of something that was made overnight. It was something that was created, molded.”

It began Nov. 29, 1996, the day Barry was born in Atlanta. In following custom of his family’s Fulani Tribe, Barry, at age 1, moved to Africa, to live with his grandmother, while his mother and father remained in the United States.

“She wanted me to know my culture, my roots, language,” Barry said of his mother, Kadiatou Bah. “I’m blessed with knowing exactly where I’m from and my exact ancestry.”

Memories from his four years living there are fading, but he’s seen video tapes, and Barry still has vivid dreams of his time growing up on the west side of Africa, where he lived in a mansion in the Guinea capital city of Conakry, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. He learned to speak mostly Creole, Fula and some Arabic.

Imagine, then, the struggle a young Barry had when he returned to live with his parents at age 5, in time for the second half of his year of kindergarten.

“You didn’t know how to read. You didn’t know how to speak,” he said. “Your tongue was all over the place.”

For his peers, that’s a recipe for bullying. Not only did they think Barry talked funny, they saw a kid way too tall for his age. They belittled him, did anything possible to make him feel bad about himself.

There were tears. There also came inspiration.

“My plan was always, ‘I’m going to show them that I belong,’ ” Barry said. “I’m going to prove to them that I’m not what they say, and not only am I like them, I’m better than them in many ways.”

Barry took extra classes aside from school to learn English. What’s more, his mother worked at a hair salon, where he could hear the language spoken at a rapid-fire pace. He listened. He paid attention.

Through it all, he not only became good at reading – he once won a reading award in fifth grade – but he enjoyed it. He became hooked on “Harry Potter” and especially “Lord of the Rings.”

Barry first saw football games on television. He saw posters of big, strong, muscular men playing the sport. He admired their intimidating and aggressive nature.

“It attracted me,” Barry said, “because of how macho and masculine the game was.”

Meanwhile, Barry was getting in trouble in school for being too aggressive on the playground or in P.E. class. He remembers playing basketball one time when a classmate approached him and said, “Why are you playing so hard?”

Well, because that’s the only way Barry knew how to operate – go fast, and go hard. So when he began paying attention to football, the sport exemplified what Barry saw in himself, what was internal. He loved everything about the game.

“Just going in there,” he said, “and tearing each other’s heads off, really.”

The sport also filled the void of a masculine figure or presence in Barry’s life. He had no uncles, no brothers, and while his father lived at home until Barry’s parents divorced when Barry was 14, he wasn’t prominent in Barry’s life.

“My father wasn’t a bad man,” Barry said. “He was a taxi driver, and he believed the best way to help his kids was to stay at work and provide as much he could. The role of the dad in his culture is to be the provider and the woman to be emotional support. I didn’t know him in an emotional way.”

But Barry grew to know and love football, except for one problem. His mother wouldn’t allow Barry to sign up for fourth-grade football. Over the next year, Barry pleaded. He did household chores. He washed dishes, cleaned the living room, made his mother’s bed. One day, he left a note on her pillow, a page filled with reasons she should let her son play football.

As summer signups approached before Barry’s fifth grade year, she relented and said yes.

“I was just ecstatic,” Barry said.

His first practice, Barry wore his thigh pads wrong, upside down. He played running back but wore linemen’s shoulder pads. He felt like he was faster than most his peers, but they were stronger, and he lacked coordination, because he was long and lanky.

A little string bean, if you will.

That’s when Barry decided to get his body into shape. Most everything he learned about football and working out came from Google or YouTube. He found on-line workouts from Ray Lewis and adopted his routine for pushups and sit-ups.

When Barry returned for his sixth-grade year, people were stunned at his transformation.

“I remember my coach was like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ ”

That was just the beginning. Barry hit his growth spurt over the next year, and he adopted more workout routines. He saw videos of Walter Payton and learned to pick up his knees. He began wearing Timberland boots in his backyard workouts, to provide more resistance. He wore ankle weights as he ran hills in his neighborhood.

“I just got real strong and powerful,” Barry said. “I knew the game better. I’d play pickup football in my neighborhood, from sunrise to sunset. That was a fun time for me.”

Barry’s seventh-grade coach made sure the team’s football mentality was physical, strong. Effort had to be not only high, but nonstop.

“He would think something was wrong with me if I didn’t give the right kind of effort every day,” Barry said. “He held me to a high standard.”

As a freshman at South Gwinnett High School, Barry played both offense and defense. In one game he scored three touchdowns and racked up 10 tackles from his defensive end spot. He played the remainder of his high school career at Grayson High School in Grayson, Georgia, where he blossomed under coach Mickey Conn, now the safeties coach at Clemson.

“I was confident, I was doing very well with football,” Barry said. “That’s one thing about football. It helped me find my confidence in myself.”

Schools like Miami, Wisconsin, North Carolina State, Washington State and others offered scholarships. Barry isn’t certain how or why, but rumors began spreading that he had poor grades, and the offers “starting dropping left and right,” with Barry having no idea why, and no chance to explain.

“Nebraska gave me an opportunity when other schools quit on me,” Barry said. “I have to repay them for that. I owe them. I’m very thankful for everything this university did and see the good side of me and allowed me to show than I have more than good grades, I have great grades.”

A communications studies major, Barry is a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree and a four-time member of Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll. He’s a three-time member of the Brook Berringer and Tom Osborne Citizenship Teams.

On the field, Barry had a breakout junior season, when he led Nebraska with 112 tackles after entering the season with 44 career tackles. His 9.3 tackles per game ranked second in the Big Ten.

One source of his success was his new position coach, Barrett Ruud. Barry had heard of the former Husker playing hard and with passion, and after seeing Ruud’s NFL resume, he knew immediately he would be a coach with whom he could relate.

Barry also came to love Ruud’s ability to understand how each player is different and has different styles.

“It was refreshing,” Barry said, “because I was like, ‘OK, this man isn’t going to try to make me into something I’m not.’ He sees my qualities and sees me for who I am.”

But the individual progress didn’t mean as much to Barry because the team went 4-8 in the first season under coach Scott Frost. Lessons were learned, albeit the hard way.

“It’s one thing when coaches say the little things matter,” Barry said. “When it’s evident, when there’s a visible correlation from the little things off the field to little things on the field, it’s just insane.”

Yes, football should be fun, but there’s also a price to pay for that fun, Barry believes.

“Not only do you have pay that price, you have to make sure that everyone around you is paying that price,” he said. “People have to pay that price, and that’s something I tell my teammates now.

“Fun is great, but this is a man’s game. You’ve got to bring it every day. It’s those fine details that lost us games last year. For three hours, you have to lock in and think about nothing but football and what you’ve got to do and how your job fits into the grand scheme of things. Being disciplined, playing with passion.”

Barry appreciates those traits in Henrich, and other newcomers. He’s eager to see them transfer to the field beginning next week.

“You have coaches who want to give you the key to success,” he said, “but you have to take hold of it and practice it, or you won’t attain nothing.”

Barry has learned that in football, and in life. He wants nothing more than to give back to the sport that has provided him so much.

“I can’t imagine myself being away from this game. I’d probably go insane,” Barry said. “I almost see football as a person, a strong relationship with a person that allowed me to mature in a healthy way.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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