STERLING – A couple of years ago, my wife, Kayla, and I discussed one of her pet peeves.
Turns out, she found it annoying when people overused the term "blessed." Enjoying a really good chocolate milkshake? Not blessed, by her definition. Nor is it being blessed to finally find that pair of designer jeans in your size, she surmised.
Since we welcomed our two beautiful, healthy, happy twin girls into the world, perhaps the subject needs revisiting. I feel blessed at just about every turn. Most recently, I felt downright spoiled to watch a Division-I talent like Jacob Barnes wreak havoc in what might be the last sports event I cover.
As Val Gassman, who recently ended her legendary tenure as Newman cross country coach, put it at halftime, "He's owning the line of scrimmage."
It's been a long time coming for Newman fans. But it's hard to fault Barnes. See, he was blessed with a beautiful challenge. Long before filling out his 6-foot-3, 260-pound frame, he put on the pads for the Rock Falls junior tackle program at about 5 1/2 feet and 140 pounds. That's downright hulking for a 10-year-old, and he had the rarest combination of size and speed among those on the field.
"In junior tackle, size dominates," Barnes' fellow all-state Newman lineman, Jakob Vetter, said. He also stated that he and Barnes still had a lot to prove. "I'm so proud of him, but I admit I'm so jealous of his gifts – his size and his speed.
"But he proved something today."
As Newman coach Mike Papoccia and I discussed Friday night, kids blessed with the gift of size and speed can form a sort of sense of entitlement. And the feeling that all you have to do is show up to dominate creates a tough habit to break.
While I never had to worry about managing such gifts, I'd imagine I'd feel inhumane if I ever said, "You know what? I'm beating everyone's brains in, but I'd really like to get a bit bigger, meaner and stronger." So, in a twisted way, I can sympathize. Vicariously, that is.
Saturday afternoon, the man Barnes can be arrived.
"He was the difference on defense," Papoccia said. "They couldn't throw, because they couldn't block him. That quarterback's gonna have nightmares of him tonight."
Barnes was pretty doggone good in the only other game I'd seen him, a 41-0 fleecing of Fieldcrest in the first round. But that was a tough gauge. The proof was in the pudding Saturday, as he turned Mercer County's vaunted lines into just that: pudding.
Interestingly enough, he admits he'd never been so nervous leading up to the game.
"I can't describe how I felt," he said. "But I can use that nervous energy."
He basically paid it forward, turning a few of Mercer County's skill position players into nervous messes. Perhaps Staunton should do anything it can to make sure Barnes is relaxed going into the 2A title game Friday.
Simply put, he was unblockable Saturday. On the other side of the ball, he plowed the opposition into the second level like that was where they wanted to be in the first place.
After spending as much time in the Eagles' backfield as their backs in the first half, Barnes' impact was most apparent during the game's grandest series of momentum swings.
Down 8-0, Mercer County pounced on a fumble and – after Barnes' lone sack to go with seven hurries and four tackles (two for loss) – rattled off a first down on a 16-yard run by Tyson Russell.
But that play went left (read: away from Barnes). The next, a toss right, didn't. And Russell fumbled the ball like a young man in oven mitts who was thrown an eel. Much the way Spencer Wood looked uncomfortable from the first time Barnes bore down on the 6-foot-3 quarterback, Russell resembled a puppy in the brights of a Mack truck.
After all, where he dropped the pitch was about the spot Barnes was getting to about 1 second after the ball was snapped up until that point, even when the Eagles threw double-teams at him.
J.P. Neisewander was all over the recovery, and it felt like, without laying a finger on Russell, Barnes had thrown a dagger into the Eagles' hearts.
Half an hour later, he had a hard time expressing just how blessed he felt.
""This is just unbelievable," he said through tears. "I can't imagine anything feeling better than this. Nothing compares."
Obviously, he's far from done. His Comets will chase their fifth title Friday in DeKalb. Then, Barnes hopes to take his talents to Vanderbilt, whose recruiter, Tyler Barnes – coincidentally the same name as Jacob's older brother – is in hot pursuit of the rare talent. Visits to Kent State, the University of Northern Iowa and Kansas State are in order.
The young man has time. But, far more importantly, he now has the know-how.
Saturday's performance reflected the fact that he fully understands that the Lord has given him enormous blessings. But the blessed must make good on their end of the deal by putting in the work.