On a gray morning, Deion Barnes rolls out of his narrow bed with an hour commute and four hours of lifting, running, blocking, and passing on the horizon.
His season opener is in two weeks, launching the last year the championship-hungry captain will run onto a field wearing the red and black of Northeast High School's Vikings.
A chiseled 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Barnes is ranked as the sixth-best defensive end in the country by college-recruitment site Rivals.com, and he has narrowed his choices of big-time football programs to Penn State, Pittsburgh, Georgia, South Carolina, and Michigan.
With football season fast approaching, he faces his biggest challenges and decisions, some right outside his front door.
His father, Robert, 50, a tall, barrel-chested man who works as a security guard at a public library, made the all-Public League team at Olney High School as a defensive back and wide receiver and watches his son's every move on the field, having taught him to play with heart.
His mother, Cynthia, 49, a longtime community organizer who works in the Mayor's Office of Community Services, does the same for her son in the neighborhood.
Since 2007, the year Barnes entered high school, 130 people have been shot within a half-mile of his North Philadelphia home, and at least 20 have been slain. Tragedy has also darkened his family. Barnes' uncle was shot and killed at 21. That uncle's son was also shot and killed at 21, buried this summer. And Barnes and his brothers have friend after friend who have been killed in gun violence.
"I worry about them," Cynthia Barnes says, as protective as a tigress over her cubs. "We were blessed to have five good kids, but there are some who didn't have the same type of parenting. That's why I would rather for them to be in the house."
The idea to send her son on an eight-mile trek to Northeast High by foot, subway, and bus - a round trip that consumes two hours of his day - belongs to her.
"I wanted a school to want him for his grades," she says. "It was never about football."
Then again, it's always about football.
First to go to college
On the cluttered television stand across from Barnes' unmade bed, a half-dozen of his sister's shoe boxes are stuffed with college offers and brochures.
Barnes, 17, heads to the kitchen wearing baggy shorts and a T-shirt from one of the 13 colleges throwing scholarship dollars his way, thinking only of breakfast.
The youngest of five, he will be the first among them to enter college.
"My dad told me it's up to me," Barnes says of his final selection, "but I want to make a decision for all of us, where my family can see me play."
His parents, together 24 years, proudly attend every game. Last season, as Barnes lay stretched out on the field with a bruised shoulder, his father ran to him and stayed next to the field after his son got back into the game. From the stands, his mother routinely yells his name, cries over hard-hitting plays, and eyes the vivacious girls brandishing her baby boy's number on their faces.
Last season, Barnes made more than 60 tackles, including 20 for losses and eight sacks. The Vikings finished with a 7-4 record, but crumbled in the Public League Class AAAA championship game after losing the previous year's title game in overtime. The memory causes Barnes to grow silent and hang his head. On Friday, he and his team will begin anew, battling the Norristown Eagles at home.
"With every practice, with every second I'm lifting weights," Barnes says, "I'm thinking about a championship. Anything short is failure."
This summer, his focus has been like a laser, blazing and narrow, on his one weakness. "I had quickness, but not long speed," he says. (He runs 40 yards in 4.75 seconds.)
So in early June, when an assistant coach offered voluntary conditioning practices - sprints, yogalike stretches, and 185-pound bench presses for four hours day, five days a week over 10 sticky summer weeks - Barnes never missed a day. He even skipped the family's annual vacation to Ocean City, Md.
"If I was to take the summer off" from football, reasoned Barnes, who clerked in an office from 8 a.m. to noon, "someone was going to get better than me, or I wouldn't get better than someone else."
Barnes' coaches describe him as noticeably talented and hardworking, humble yet precocious, a consummate team player, a good kid with a brain and a heart. During a recent practice, a steady rain pelted the players' faces, but while several whined in pain or patted their burning abs, Barnes maintained a Zenlike state, broken only to smile or deliver a motivating message.
"Every once in a while," says assistant coach Philip Monastra, who has coached 10 years and met Barnes when Barnes was a skinny sophomore, "you get a kid who's dedicated and puts the time in, and he's that kid. He has one goal in mind, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to reach it."
The most Barnes has ever complained, Monastra remembers, was after a particularly grueling workout. Barnes sent the coach a text message: "Thanks. Because of you I can't walk today."
"But he was there on Monday," Monastra continues, "ready for more."
The long trek
Fueled with two bowls of cinnamon-flavored cereal and dressed in a gray hooded sweatshirt, navy athletic shorts, and a St. Louis Cardinals cap, Barnes heads outside under the red awning in front of his home, near the city's Tioga and Hunting Park sections. Across the street at the playground, once a lot of trash and abandoned cars that his parents worked a decade to rehab, a girl in braids laughs down the slide, and a basketball thumps on the concrete as a handful of boys practice their jump shots. As Barnes bounces down the steps, he says hello to his next-door neighbor, Mr. Anthony, who nods in return.
Barnes walks purposefully, his head high, arms swinging, north to Erie Avenue, then west three blocks to the Broad Street subway, along the trolley tracks, past a giant mural, past First Class Auto Land, past gap-toothed rowhouses and littered gardens, past the Soto Mini Market and the Black Pearl bar, and past the overgrown alley where sometimes an angry stray dog runs at him, barking hysterically.
Like many of the city's neighborhoods, his has its challenges. In the half-mile radius around his orange-brick rowhouse, with its brown porch furniture, more than a quarter of his neighbors are unemployed. The median household income is $25,635, and only 4 percent hold a college degree. Young men, with blank stares, huddle on a corner dealing drugs. And mild nights sometimes erupt with gunshots and police sirens.
For all his popularity at school and stardom on the field, Barnes is a teenager who rarely leaves the house. His evenings are usually spent doing homework, watching TV, or talking and texting on the phone. "If I get a chance, I'll hang out with friends," he says. He struggles to remember the last time.
When Barnes does venture out, to the Chinese takeout or to talk and laugh on a friend's front steps, "they keep calling me," he says of his parents, who grew up in the neighborhood. "That's why I'm not outside too much. My mom doesn't think I'm that street smart, but I know what goes on around here."
Walking by familiar faces on the street, he says, "What's up?" and maybe shakes a few hands, but keeps it moving. "What I do and what they do are two different things," he says of the young men he passes on the path to his dreams.
The subway that Barnes takes for practice empties him out at the Fern Rock station. There he leans on an iron gate across from a small white church with a red "God saves" sign and waits for the Route 70 bus. He uses the time to "zone in," to focus on his work on the field. He puts on his headphones and cranks up rapper Beanie Sigel's "Feel It in the Air":
I still paint that perfect picture
I still shine bright like a prism
On the bus headed to Northeast High, he sits in the back, legs apart, arms folded, his music thumping. The scenery grows greener and the houses become bigger and farther apart as the bus bounces and lurches its way through a stretch of Cheltenham. Midway, a chubby Vikings defensive tackle from Germantown gets on and sits nearby, eventually followed by two freshman teammates.
Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of parents in North and even West Philadelphia, determined that their children succeed academically, have sent them to high school at Northeast, on Cottman Avenue, or even farther to Washington, on Bustleton. The influx of so many African American students has diversified the student bodies and athletic teams.
Since last season, Barnes, who also plays on offense as a tight end, has grown stronger, faster, and an inch taller. But he knows he's on the light side for a D-lineman. He has been dieting on pasta and bread, and lifting weights four days a week, trying to get to 240 by next year. He also admits he has yet to be thoroughly tested.
Still, in his mind, his national ranking should be higher. At summer camps at Rutgers and Pennsylvania State Universities, "I was killing most of them," Barnes says. "I've seen the other guys, and I know what I can do in front of high-level competition. I've just never been presented with high-level competition. In Public League you're not going to see many 6-5, 300-pound linemen."
The national prospect hungers for the challenge coming with college, having strengthened his arsenal and knowing that he must face the biggest, the meanest, and the best for any chance at rising to the NFL.
"I think I have the football IQ," Barnes says. "And my speed off the edge - I don't think anybody can stop that."
Barnes is good-looking and charismatic, with warm eyes and a mesmerizing smile. He is mysteriously quiet, with a funny streak. He maintains at 2.7 grade point average at a magnet program at Northeast and has the SAT and ACT scores needed to play major-college football. His best subject is math. English is something he could do without.
But on the field, he can read a play before it starts. He sees from a formation that a toss is coming. He knows he's about to get double-teamed from the way the opposing player's foot is lined up.
"And if a guy just leaves me in the open," Barnes says, "I know it's a trap, because if something leaves, something's coming."
'Keep going, keep going'
A half-hour before practice, the bus stops across the street from the school. Barnes, the towering captain, and his three teammates exit and make their way up a slight hill. The head coach drives by in a white car and beeps the horn hello.
In the locker room, painted in the team colors, hangs the thick smell of sweat. Damp uniform pieces rest from hooks, limp from practice the day before. A sign nearby reads: "None of us is as strong as all of us."
Barnes turns on the fan to freshen the air. He quickly changes into team-colored workout gear, and lifts weights with Monastra as his spotter. Barnes bench-presses 185 pounds in five sets of 15, his zone music pumping in his ears.
As he nears the end of his third set, his sweaty face grimaces, his back arches, and his abs contract as he hisses, pushing through. "Keep going, keep going," Monastra urges, girding the bar. Barnes yells in a battle cry as his teammates chew from a box of soft pretzels, talk, laugh, or stroll in late.
"You keep trying to kill me before practice," Barnes tells Monastra, hunched over on the bench.
"And somehow you keep coming back," the coach deadpans.
Eventually a few teammates follow Barnes' lead.
The clock winds down. Fifteen minutes to practice.
"Come on, y'all," Barnes chides. "Get dressed."
His teammates scurry, tossing their warm-up gear on the floor, and transform into an armor of pads, helmets, and cleats.
Outside, the sky opens and rain comes down. Before the head coach blows his whistle, Barnes is the first player on the field.
A gallery of 25 photos of Deion Barnes
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