NFL Legend Fred Barnett Only Convinced His Mom to Let Him Play as a High School Senior
Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.
There weren't any youth football leagues in Gunnison, Mississippi when Fred Barnett was growing up there in the 1980s.
Not that it would have mattered for young Fred.
"Football started in middle school, but it wouldn’t have mattered because my mother wasn’t going to let me play when I was that young," Barnett said.
The future Pro Bowl wideout, who played eight years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, had to sit his mother down before his senior year of high school to convince her to let him play.
“After I turned 12, my mother became a Jehovah’s Witness," explained Barnett. "She was very religious and didn’t think football was a big part of life. Life should be about preaching and teaching the Bible, and there was no room for accolades, especially from sports.
"When it was my senior year, after graduating I was going to be out of the house. What turned it around for her — and it was kind of shocking for her to hear — was me saying, 'I’m old enough to make my own decisions.'
"She took a deep breath and said, ‘You’re right, you can make your own decisions, but if you get hurt it’s on you.’ I said of course it is."
As it turned out, Fred had made a very good decision. The tall, speedy kid turned that one year of high school football into a scholarship at Arkansas State University.
"In college, I tried to explain to my parents that I was one of the best players on the team," Barnett said. "And they were like, ‘OK.' I told them I might get drafted, and they were like 'How do you know that?’ I don’t think they took me serious.’’
During the 1990 NFL Draft, Barnett's parents and friends gathered at his apartment in Jonesboro, along with a local TV crew.
“My parents were walking around wondering if this was all real,’’ he said with a laugh. “They still didn’t believe it."
They were even more shocked when Fred got the call from then-Eagles personnel director Joe Woolley during the third round.
"Joe said 'We’re taking you,' and I said, ‘I’m going to be a Philadelphia Eagle,'" Barnett said. "And you should have seen their faces. Once I made pro, they were like 'Wow.'"
Barnett's eight-year NFL career was highlighted by a Pro Bowl berth in 1992. He recorded his best statistical season in 1994, reeling in 78 catches for 1,127 yards and five TDs.
After his retirement from football, Barnett joined a group out of New Jersey called Football University. He travels around the country for football camps to instruct and teach the game.
“We work with middle school and high school kids," Barnett said. “I tell them my story, for sure, but I tell them how fortunate they are to be playing at this stage of their lives and learning the game from guys who played in the NFL."
Photo: AP/Greg Trott
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