BURNABY — Griffin Barrett couldn’t help but smile his best smile earlier this season, when on the Simon Fraser Clan football team’s picture day, he was handed what can only be described as the perfect prop just before taking his place in front of the camera and those flashing studio lights.
Yup, you’re looking at it. A shovel.
Held confidently across his broad shoulders, it’s perfectly symbolic of the purpose that the Clan’s star junior linebacker brings to every task in his athletic and academic life atop the hill on Burnaby Mountain.
On Saturday evening, that actual shovel will take its place in a storage shed on campus, yet as SFU (0-3) opens its Great Northwest Athletic Conference schedule against the visiting Azusa Pacific Cougars (0-3) at Swangard Stadium (6 p.m.), you won’t be too far off the mark if you imagine the 5-foot-11, 215 pound native of Moose Jaw, Sask., as its living, breathing embodiment.
Always working, always trying to break new ground, Barrett will pull on jersey No. 33 and take to the field not only leading his team in tackles, but the entire GNAC as well, at 12.3 tackles per game.
Much like Winnipeg’s Herdman brothers, Jordan and Justin, and before them, former New Westminster Hyack star Casey Chin, Barrett is carrying on a tradition of tackling excellence among Clan linebackers in its NCAA era.
And how does Barrett himself see that shovel as a symbol of his team’s fight for greater relevance?
“A lot of times, you might find yourself in a hole rather than standing on top,” he begins. “But the best part of all is that you can always dig yourself back out and get back to the surface.”
Saturday’s contest, against what is sure to be an antsy Cougars team, one which dropped its conference opener 42-36 at home last Saturday to Western Oregon after giving up 20 first-quarter points, is yet another opportunity for the Clan to put that collective shovel to work.
Last Saturday, in its home-opening 26-7 loss to non-conference South Dakota Mines, the Clan defence played its best game of the season.
Sophomore strong safety Brendan Lowry (Okotoks, Alta.), who enters Saturday’s game second in conference tackling numbers (11.3 per game) to only Barrett, led the way with 11 tackles while junior linebacker Anthony Crescenzo (Vancouver-Notre Dame) and Barrett each made eight stops.
But now the games that count have arrived, and with them, a chance to snap a conference losing streak within the GNAC that started under the reign of former head coach Jacques Chapdelaine back in 2014.
Like all his teammates, past and current, Barrett would love to be a part of the group which ends the streak.
Yet what has been most crucial for him has been abiding by his daily work habits, ones he says have been ingrained in him by his dad Reece and older brother Spencer back during his days playing high school football in Saskatchewan for Moose Jaw’s provincial 3A powerhouse, the A.E. Peacock Tornadoes.
“Being a kid from Saskatchewan, I just figured I never had the natural talent,” the humble Barrett explained before practice on Wednesday. “My brother and my dad taught me to put my nose down, and to work hard no matter what, and that one day it would pay off. Since then, I have never stopped believing that I could be a better football player, a better person and a better friend.”
“…I HAD NEVER EVEN HEARD OF SFU”
A hockey player in Moose Jaw through the eighth grade, Barrett fell in love with football when he made the senior varsity at A.E. Peacock in the fall of 2013, the same year his brother Spencer was a senior on the team.
Peacock’s Tornadoes, under head coach Blake Buettner, not only won the provincial title that season, but during Griffin Barrett’s Grade 10 and 11 seasons as well.
In 2016, the Tornadoes went all the way to the provincial final for a fourth straight year but lost in the title game, capping a league run for Barrett that included three rings and a 36-1 record.
Yet there wasn’t a whole lot of interest being expressed by university programs until SFU and former head coach Kelly Bates, a Humboldt native, reached out for a look-see.
“It wasn’t until about two weeks before Christmas my senior year,” remembers Barrett. “I remember one of the recruiting coordinators got in touch with me on Facebook. I was stoked out of my mind. I had never even heard of SFU until they messaged me and I saw that the Herdmans had been there. I took one visit and I fell in love with the place.”
Last season, Barrett had his breakout as a sophomore under new Clan head coach Thomas Ford, averaging 8.5 tackles per game to lead the team and sit third overall in the GNAC.
“Griffin is just one of those guys who is a consummate leader by example,” says Ford. “There is nothing in the middle for him. He goes as hard as he can in everything he does.”
Within a young Clan linebacking core, Barrett is the acknowledged veteran amongst a senior-less group that also includes fellow junior Crescenzo, sophomores Isaac Muckian, Brendan Woodman and Jakob Mozill, and freshmen Jordan Russell, Ian Crocker and Jacob Wade.
Lined up schematically at the WILL position, Ford loves the qualities the Barrett brings.
“He is a spark plug, man,” says Ford. “On defence, you have to talk. Closed mouths don’t get fed and Griff is one of those guys, calling it out, looking at the tendencies and understanding what is going on.
“He’s a true junior,” Ford continues, “but he’s a mentor to that group on how you approach every week, how you handle your business on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom. He struggled his first year in the classroom but he’s figured out a way to be successful.”
“PRIDE IS A FOOL’S FORTRESS”
Despite all of his personal successes, there is enough innocence and humility to suggest that nothing is capable of leading Griffin Barrett off of his intended path.
Combine his sophomore season with the first three games of his junior campaign, and he has 112 tackles over his last 13 games.
Then consider as well that since coming to Simon Fraser, he has undergone a positional switch from defensive end to his current spot in the linebacking core.
It’s all impressive stuff, but then try to actually ask him to talk about his tackling numbers.
“I never thought of it as a big thing,” he says. “Our staff does such an incredible job with us. They work so damn hard. Yes, it feels good as a personal accomplishment, but in order for it to happen, our linemen have to be in the right gaps and our secondary needs to be in good coverage, too. So I look at it as a team stat.”
Enjoyment for Barrett is talking football with teammates like Lowry, whom he holds in extremely high regard.
“We’re good friends and I love the guy, wouldn’t want to be on the field with anyone else,” Barrett begins of Lowry, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. “For him to come back and do the things he is doing, he is one of the main keys to our entire team. We love to chat about football and how much we want to turn this thing around.”
Translated, that is how much the kid from Moose Jaw is willing to keep shovelling so that his team can get out of a hole and stand on even ground with the rest of the college football world.
And then it’s pointed out to him by his interviewer: “Hey, I can’t read what that tattoo on your left biceps says?”
Inked underneath a wing, Barrett recites “Pride is a fool’s fortress.”
Coined by the late American historical fiction author Leon Uris, it immediately resonated with Barrett after it was suggested to him by a friend.
“The wing is my family, because they have always been my guardian angel,” Barrett begins. “And the saying has always kept me humble. It’s taught me that no matter how high or low things get, to always just appreciate life.”
Spend a few minutes chatting with Griffin Barrett and it’s easy to dig what he says.
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