by Sam Chandler
A family tradition
Wearing a white compression shirt and a powder blue helmet, Braxton Barker dropped back three steps and surveyed the fi eld in front of him. He looked to his right then back to the left, his cleats stuttering on the grass underfoot.
Three seconds ticked away before the gunslinger identifi ed his target: senior wideout Jalen McMillan. Sensing an imminent opening across the middle, Barker pulled his right arm behind his ear and fi red a 20-yard dart.
He hit McMillan in stride.
“He’s going to be really good this year,” said Barker, complimenting his trusted receiver.
Spain Park’s coaching staff is equally optimistic about Barker, a 6-foot senior who enters the fall as the Jaguars’ starting quarterback. Sure, the rope he tossed to McMillan occurred during a trivial 7-on-7 game against Clay-Chalkville in late June. But fl ashes of similar acuity throughout the offseason have both encouraged and excited head coach Shawn Raney.
It’s been a few years since he has felt this confi dent about a signal-caller.
“He’s everything you want in a leader,” said Raney, who is set to begin his fi fth season at Spain Park. “If you could build a quarterback mentally, it’s him. He’s got unbelievable knowledge of the game.”
Barker’s high football IQ stems, at least in part, from his genetics. He grew up learning the quarterback position from a professor emeritus of pigskin in his father, Jay Barker, quarterback for the University of Alabama’s 1992 national championship team.
The younger Barker’s education began with the basics upon starting his career in Pee Wee league at age 6. Jay Barker fi rst worked with his son on the mechanics of dropbacks and throwing motion, and he impressed the importance of leadership.
Over time, the lessons progressed to the position’s more advanced nuances, like reading coverages and managing the game.
Amid the exchange of knowledge, the elder Barker said he’s consistently strived to be more of a resource than an analyst for his son. He prefers the role of insightful cheerleader to critical coach.
“I’ll go back and watch game fi lm or practice fi lm with him if he wants, but I’ve always just tried to be dad,” he said, “and try to be there now as more of a mentor and friend to him.”
“If you could build a quarterback mentally, it’s him. He’s got unbelievable knowledge of the game.”
Jay Barker has watched as the Spain Park coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Marty Rozell, have molded his son into the player he is today — one who can throw, scramble and direct a varsity offense.
Coincidentally, Rozell and Jay Barker played together at Hewitt-Trussville in the late 1980s. Rozell was two years younger than his former teammate and took over at quarterback following Jay Barker’s departure to Tuscaloosa.
Now, the man who once followed in Jay Barker’s footsteps is guiding his son’s as he prepares for his fi rst season as the Jags’ full-time starter.
“Mentally, I’ve been learning the game more,” Braxton Barker said. “Hopefully, it will just slow down a little bit from where it was last year.”
Braxton Barker split time in 2016 with Hunter Howell, who won a months-long position battle that spanned the length of last summer. Consequently, he didn’t see much playing time until the second half of the season, when he relieved and eventually replaced Howell.
Braxton Barker’s resilience to claw back from a disheartening depth chart decision told Raney all he needed to know about the young quarterback’s character.
“Some kids would go in the tank, and you’d lose them,” Raney said. “Well, he billed it as, ‘Hey, I need to work in this area,’ and he accepted that. He just continued to work. That’s the type of kid he is.”
He’ll now be aiming to replicate the kind of senior year that enabled his dad, who only played quarterback for one high school season, to earn a spot on a college roster.
“He’s so much further ahead at this age than I ever was,” said Jay Barker. “He’s created his own identity in the type of quarterback he is.”
But there are still common threads between father and son. They are, perhaps, most noticeable in the threads themselves. Like his dad, Braxton Barker wears No. 7, and next year his younger brother will, too. Harrison Barker is a sophomore quarterback rising through Spain Park’s ranks.
“We’re just keeping the family tradition alive and wearing the number and representing what it’s all about,” Braxton Barker said.
Jay Barker will watch each Spain Park game this season from the sidelines, separated from the coaches but near enough to see his son up close. There won’t be any communication between the two from kickoff to closing whistle. There only will be a nervous father savoring a son’s opportunity, observing him as he drops back, surveys the field and throws 20-yard darts to his receivers.
He’ll try to hit them in stride.
“I’m just proud as can be for him,” Jay Barker said. “He’s worked so hard to get to this point, for it to be his senior year and to be the starting quarterback at Spain Park.”