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Eagles' Derek Barnett driven by mother's work ethic

The Eagles are attracted to Barnett's character as much as his football skills.

Derek Barnett and his mother, Christine, during the red carpet event prior to the 2017 NFL Draft at the Art Museum in April.
Derek Barnett and his mother, Christine, during the red carpet event prior to the 2017 NFL Draft at the Art Museum in April.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

Afternoon had already turned into evening when the final whistle sounded on a Saturday training camp practice, and most of the Eagles filed off the field.

Derek Barnett remained.

Five minutes passed, 10, 15. He didn't leave. He stayed with Jason Peters, a potential Hall of Fame left tackle, and worked to refine his spin move until no other players were left around them. Barnett, the Eagles' No. 1 draft choice this year, still hadn't caught his breath nearly 20 minutes after practice finished.

It's more notable if a player makes it to the NFL with a lousy work ethic than a laudable one; effort is often required as a price of admission. But for Barnett, there's something intrinsic about the way he works, about the "motor" described in scouting reports that helped him break Reggie White's sack record in three years at Tennessee, about how he didn't balk at needing to change in a makeshift locker even though he was a first-round pick who signed a $12.8 million guaranteed contract a month before his 21st birthday.

It's because of his mother, Christine Barnett.

"Single parent, multiple jobs," Derek Barnett said. "At a young age, I saw how hard she worked. That instilled in me a work ethic. I felt I need to match her — or do better."

Barnett's father was not in the picture. He was raised by Christine, who juggled two to three jobs, seven days a week, to support three children. Barnett attended a prestigious private high school in suburban Nashville that did not provide athletic scholarships. Christine needed to help with tuition. She worked the overnight shift at UPS — she has since become full time, reducing her employers to one — so Barnett would often awaken to his mother's returning from work. She took him to school, then went to another job.

Sometimes it was waiting tables. Sometimes it was cleaning houses. The trait was inherited, which was why Eagles executive Joe Douglas described Barnett as "Philly tough" and why Howie Roseman said Barnett "stands for what we want to be."

Whether he can sack quarterbacks in the NFL will ultimately determine if he was the right choice with the No. 14 overall pick. But after enduring their share of first-round draft mistakes, the Eagles are banking as much on Barnett's makeup as they are on his pass rushing. And compared with  what Barnett witnessed in his mother's schedule during the last 20 years, developing a counter-move against Peters after practice is a breeze.

"When you're younger, you don't really understand all the sacrifices people do for you," Barnett said. "But when you get older, you start understanding how hard it is to balance all those things. I definitely appreciate it the more I get older."

Convinced of his talent, toughness

Barnett started playing football in the yard outside his family's apartment in Nashville. When his mother worked or rested, sports with his friends become a respite.

"I tried to do nothing bad because I knew she was always tired from working a lot," Barnett said. "I tried to stay out of the way of everything and not get in any trouble."

His talent earned him interest from private schools. Another school first pursued Barnett, but it was farther than Brentwood. With a 9-1 student-teacher ratio, a strong athletic program — and tuition that now nears $25,000 — the school provided an opportunity that intrigued Christine.

"Brentwood prepared him for college," Christine said. "We fell into that. We weren't looking for a private school."

He developed into a four-star prospect, and when he danced around a touted offensive tackle during the first game of his senior year, Brentwood coach Rudy White became convinced of his talent. When Barnett gritted through a playoff game with a broken hand, White became convinced of his toughness.

He stayed in-state to play college football at Tennessee, and Christine was then grateful that her son attended college. When Barnett called her to ask if she would be in the crowd for his first game, she confessed she couldn't make it to Knoxville. She needed to work. Plus, he was a true freshman. How much would he play?

"That kind of pissed me off," Barnett said.

Christine wemt at her son's urging. She never missed a home game. She watched Barnett tally 10 sacks as a true freshman, becoming the first true freshman to start on the Volunteers' defensive line. He matched that total as a sophomore. That's when it started to become apparent to Christine that her son could earn a fortune playing football. She kept "drilling in his head" to focus on his degree. Twenty sacks as a teenager in the Southeastern Conference could offer enough evidence to do otherwise.

"I realized it probably last year," Christine said. "My goal for my son was to go to high school. …  go to college, and obtain his degree. I had no idea football was going to blow up like this."

During two-a-days in the summer before Barnett's freshman season, his defensive line coach, Steve Stripling, first saw Barnett separate himself. He had  practiced with his high school track team, showing conditioning seldom witnessed by freshmen defensive linemen. And then Barnett never hit the freshman wall.

"Separated himself from day one," Stripling said. "He had the best effort, toughest guy."

By his junior year, Barnett broke White's record with his 33rd career sack in his final game of the season. White's widow, Sara White, called Barnett the next week to congratulate him. They're both from Nashville. Barnett wants to visit.

"Even though I broke the record, I told her Reggie is still Reggie," Barnett said. "I don't think I'm better than Reggie. I told her thanks a lot, and I really appreciate it."

Stripling said Barnett is an "alpha male kind of guy" without saying much. Barnett hardly made a peep, and he didn't require motivation from the coaches because he was committed to working. Stripling never felt the urge to nudge him.

"He's always been what I would term a low-maintenance player," Stripling said. "I never once worried about his academics. I never once worried about him going to class. I never once worried about him getting in trouble off the field. He was just one of those young men who proved early that, 'I'm going to do my job, and you don't have to spend a lot of time worrying about me.'"

That didn't mean he lacked the mean streak defensive linemen require. There was once a fight on the field, and a player on the other side lost his helmet in the skirmish. Stripling told Barnett not to fight on the field and not to fight someone without a helmet.

"Well, next time I'll take my helmet off!" Barnett responded.

"He's just got that mentality about him," Stripling said. "He's a get-after-it kind of guy."

Scouts who went to Tennessee saw a top prospect, and Barnett left Tennessee after three years. He was a projected first-round pick, and the annual scouting combine offered a chance for prospects to cement their stock. The combine emphasizes athletic testing — the book on Barnett is that he's more football player than athlete — so his 40-yard dash was never going to wow onlookers. When he caught the flu in Indianapolis, it was a worthwhile excuse not to test.

He still went through workouts, just as Christine went to work all those days when he was a kid. The results were as pedestrian as expected. The subtext to competing while ill might have been more revealing.

"I knew I probably wasn't going to test my best," Barnett said. "But I knew it was an important job interview and I knew I had to go out there and grind it out …I didn't put much thought into [sitting out] because I knew how important that interview was."

‘Working hard is not optional’

During the week of the draft, Barnett wrote a letter to NFL general managers published on The Players Tribune. It listed his accomplishments. It identified his career objective as winning  "multiple Super Bowl rings." He wrote about his college career.

And he discussed his mother.

He told the story of watching his mother work throughout his life and how that influenced him. He called her "my best friend and inspiration."

"Working hard is not optional," Barnett wrote. "It's in my DNA."

During draft night, when Barnett walked down the red carpet, Christine was on his arm. When the Eagles selected him and he drove down Broad Street the next day, Christine remained in his company.

Now that Barnett had reached the NFL, he asked Christine to leave her job at UPS. That rookie contract is guaranteed, and Christine has certainly paid her dues. She refused.

"I want him to make sure he's going to be set for his life," Christine said. "I'm not going to be sitting around at home doing nothing. I'm just going to continue working. You never know."

So she will stay in Nashville while  her now-21-year-old son is in Philadelphia. Christine was born in Westfield, N.J. She knows what the Northeast is like. Unlike her son, who has lived only in Nashville and Knoxville.

"This is going to be a complete change in environment," Christine said. "It's going to be a lot faster pace. …I think he'll adapt."

Her plea to him before training camp started was to worry only about his job. She'll help him find his apartment and move in. He relies on Google Maps to get around, and he has found even strangers on the street to be helpful. Philadelphians can show some Southern hospitality, especially to a player who  can sack Dak Prescott. He wants to learn about his new home, and he'll have time to explore. This summer is not the time.

Right now is for Barnett to be quiet and work. That's why he stayed with Peters after practice on a Saturday night. That's why his response to changing in a temporary locker was that he needed to earn a permanent one.

The team finally gave him his own locker. He now wants to show that he can keep it.

"My mom … always told me, 'Stay humble and put your head down and just work,' " Barnett said. "I think I get that attitude from her."