Erie Avenue cuts a nearly straight pathway through North Philadelphia.
Some stretches are lined by welcoming row homes where multiple retail shops and their accompanying street lights set the aging city pavement aglow. Other portions are more desolate, marred by abandoned lots and vacant homes — breeding grounds for urban chaos.
Just off of Erie — before it is bisected by Philadelphia’s most famous Broad Street — on 11th is the four-bedroom home of the Barnes family. Connected to both houses to the left and right, the two-story house, with a sizable front porch protected by a white overhang, has served as a sanctuary and proving ground for the youngest member of the family.
Deion Barnes, now in his redshirt freshman season at Penn State, hasn’t been home much in the past year. The day-to-day grind of a full class schedule combined with new found responsibilities on the football field have kept him away.
Barnes estimates he’s been back to the neighborhood maybe four or five times in the last year. Sure, he misses his family — three older brothers, a sister, mom, Cynthia, and dad, Mike — but he doesn’t forget, he’s concentrated all of his efforts to escape for now.
“It was definitely a rough neighborhood, but I was fortunate enough to have a mother and a father, which a lot of people around my neighborhood didn’t have,” Barnes said. “They didn’t have somebody to control them. They would be running the streets, doing whatever they wanted.”
He saw all of this firsthand. He watched as his dad came home from shifts as a trash collector before starting work as a security guard at a nearby library. He watched his mom act as a go-between for local residents and the mayor’s office, working as a community organizer and on outreach projects for the city.
In the midst of the positive influences, there was the violence.
Barnes remembers the first time he heard the echo of gunshots, saw a fight or a friend turn to drugs. He can recall watching his back as a 14-year-old when other teenagers wouldn’t think twice to stick kids like him up for a pair of sneakers or a jacket in a city where 80 murder victims from 2007-2010 were 17 years old or younger.
By comparison, 1,252 adults were murdered in Philadelphia in that same span.
When he was 12, Barnes saw an older teenager get shot not far from his home. The rule always was, if you heard gunshots, you simply ran home.
“I’ve seen people die young,” Barnes said. “When I’m 12, I’m seeing people like 17 dying. So I’m thinking that’s the normal age of dying, 16, 17.”
Shortly after he committed to Penn State, Barnes’ 21-year-old cousin was killed in a shooting not far from the Barnes’ home. He stepped down off his grandmother’s porch and was shot dead by an unknown assailant. Barnes’ uncle suffered a similar fate at the same age.
Experiencing these levels of violence first-hand in a city besieged by violent crime, Barnes always heeded his parents’ warnings. He never ventured too far off the front porch into waiting danger.
When he did, it was usually to play with his brothers right across the street. They’d either take up positions on the playground across from the Barnes home or play pickup basketball on the pale, cracked concrete courts right next door.
“Five years ago, one of my friends, he was 15 and he died on his birthday,” Barnes said. “Seeing stuff like that, it definitely kept me away from it. There are some people that are built for things like that, I’m a football player. I’m not a street kid.”
Not a choice, really
Cynthia Barnes went to Simon Gratz High School, just over a mile from where she made a home for her family.
She wanted a better option for Deion.
“As smart as he was, he could’ve went to any school he wanted to in Philadelphia, any public school,” Cynthia Barnes said. “There was no need to waste that on a neighborhood school. … It’s the fact that there were neighborhood kids there and I don’t think they really concentrate on learning. It’s more like an extension of being in the neighborhood.”
Barnes chose Northeast High School. It wasn’t easy to get there every day. He’d wake up every morning, always before 5:30 a.m., in order to catch a ride on the city’s public transport system SEPTA. Afterward, he’d hitch a bus ride to finish the nearly eight-mile trek.
Usually, it’d take about an hour to an hour and a half to get to Northeast from 11th and Erie.
Barnes’ older brothers had all played football at their father’s urging. But it was Barnes who saw the sport as a way to keep himself out of trouble from the first time he pulled a helmet on.
“My dad was football crazed,” Barnes said of his father, who played football at Olney High School. “He put football in my head since I was four or five. I loved it so much and caught on to it. Seeing my mother and father working hard every day made me want to do the same.”
As he grew older and got bigger, Barnes became a standout in his final two years for Northeast and coach Chris Riley.
With Barnes leading a fierce defense — he recorded 85 tackles, 38 for a loss, and 13 sacks — the Vikings won their first Philadelphia Public League Class AAAA Championship since 1983. Barnes was named the league’s player of the year for his efforts.
Soon, he picked up scholarship offers from more than 10 Division-I schools.
“He never, ever missed any practice or anything that we needed him at the school for,” Riley said. “Of any of the players, he was always there. Not saying we had kids that missed, but for him to travel an hour and a half for practice and an hour and a half back, he had no problem, he was there on time ready to go.”
The escapeBy the end of his senior year of high school, Barnes had set in motion a plan for his future.
He had worked hard enough on the football field and the classroom to secure a scholarship offer from Penn State. When Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson first met Barnes, he got the sense he was talking to a kid wise beyond his years.
“Recruiting Deion was an absolute pleasure because every day he refreshed you because he was so focused on what he wanted to do,” Johnson said. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish and not a lot of young guys can do that and say that so early.”
Never one to forget where he came from, Barnes made a respectful ritual of his commitment.
With Philadelphia residents hanging on his every word, wondering where he would choose, Barnes stood up in front of a big crowd wearing an Aztec shirt — representing his youth football team — and a Northeast Vikings hat that he replaced with a Nittany Lion cap to cheers.
“He wanted to reach, even back to the Aztec kids and say, ‘Look, if I can do it, you can do it,’” Riley said.
It’s a message Barnes wants to be able to convey, not only with words, but with his actions.
Riley remembered a conversation he had with Barnes who was in his senior season. At an athletic banquet, the two conversed about a local player for a rival team with Division-I talent but a future muddied by a drug addiction.
Riley was confounded, how a kid with so much talent could let it go to waste. Barnes was in a position to understand having seen it happen to kids in his neighborhood.
“I said, ‘The kid’s a Division-I player, why does he keep messing up in school?’,” Riley said. “(Deion) said, ‘Well, you don’t understand. He comes from the projects. He never had a father.’ Deion was almost like a bleeding heart to him, feeling so bad for him.”
The new guyBarnes never thought he’d have six starts to his name eight games into his first season playing at Penn State.
He still wants 10 sacks, though.
Although he leads Penn State’s defense with four sacks and five tackles for loss, with only four games left, he’ll have to pick up his pace if he wants to reach his goal. That starts today with a game against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers (3-5, 0-4 Big Ten) have given up 18 sacks thus far on the season.
“It’s definitely attainable,” Barnes said. “When I get there, I’ve got to be able to take these quarterbacks down. I can’t whiff and miss these sacks anymore. I’m getting there but I’m missing the sacks. It’s not going to mean nothing if he’s getting the ball away.”
Naturally an Eagles fan, Barnes’ favorite defensive line for now belongs to his favorite team’s arch rivals, the New York Giants.
Barnes has spent the last few weeks analyzing not only film of himself, but of Giants defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. Both players are notably bigger as both Tuck and Pierre-Paul check in at 6-foot-5 and both weigh over 270 pounds. Barnes came in at 230 pounds and is now up around 240. He said he was able to add more muscle with recently appointed Craig Fitzgerald running the team’s new strength and conditioning program.
Barnes has selected most of the NFL clips he watches from Johnson’s personal collection of NFL playmakers. Johnson has countless tapes of NFL defenders he uses as teaching baselines for his players.
“He reminds of (former Penn State and NFL end) Michael Haynes a little bit and when Mike was coming through here, Tamba Hali’s skill set, using his hands very well,” Johnson said. “He’s just a young kid. He has some growth to do, he has certainly done a great job to walk on the field and do the things he has done so far. I think his future is really bright here.”
Barnes, who relies more on a cerebral game rather than brute force when rushing the passer has plans to pack on at least 10 pounds of muscle for next season. For now, he’ll make do with his current frame.
His strategy for working an offensive tackle over during a game has freed him up for runs to the quarterback frequently. He’ll come off the edge on one down with the sole purpose of seeing how his opponent will react. On the next passing down, Barnes will come with something different to fool the tackle into bad positioning.
Most of the time, he relies on a downhill pass rushing style.
“I love bullrushing because I’m so small, I’m only about 240 and people don’t think I’m a big guy, don’t have that much power, so when I go through them it’s a surprise,” Barnes said.
Barnes hasn’t surprised his teammates much. They knew what he was capable of when spring practice began. Now, it’s just a matter of him putting it together on the field.
“I just remember going back from spring all the way to now, the biggest thing is how much more confidence he has,” offensive guard John Urschel said. “When you’re a young guy and you’re pushed into these situations, it can be a little terrifying. And he’s built a confidence to know that he’s a good defensive end and he can really play.”
It helps having a background shaped by overcoming odds against success.
As Barnes said, football helped him escape his childhood community. One day, it’ll help him bring hope back to others.
“I think he offers a lot for people that come from our neighborhood,” Cynthia Barnes said. “That somebody can actually make good from there and if you’re good in academics or athletics you can go where you want to.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.