Sunday, August 03, 2008

Private eyes: Dallas Cowboys' Barber runs from glare

by Jean-Jacques TAYLOR
Getting to know Cowboys' mysterious tailback takes some digging

OXNARD, Calif. – You know all about Tony Romo's love life and Roy Williams' commitment to his faith. You know about Terrell Owens' humble upbringing in Alexander City, Ala. You also know about the impact Jason Witten's grandfather has had on the tight end's life.

But we know virtually nothing about Marion Barber, aside from his father being a former running back with the New York Jets and Houston drafted his brother in the sixth round a few months ago.

That's the way this 25-year-old, dreadlocked man of mystery likes it.

Barber is shy. He's not quite Leon Lett shy – remember Lett nearly broke into hives during media day at Super Bowl XXVIII – but you get the idea.

It's fascinating because when Barber carries the football, his style beckons the spotlight. He can't hide. His talent won't allow it.

You see his power and feel his desire as his thick hair – the dreadlocks first appeared during his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota – freely flops about as though yearning to be freed from his helmet's constraints.

When you think about it that way, it's easy to see how Barber has been transformed from anonymous fourth-round draft pick to future superstar runner with a contract worth $45 million.

We know little about Barber off the field because he's never given one of those in-depth, Roy Firestone-type interviews that brings its audience to tears. He's as personable and polite as they come but has no interest in discussing himself.

He didn't do it as a rookie. Or last year when he split time with Julius Jones. Or now, a Pro Bowl player who's the featured runner for "America's Team."

The Cowboys Network would love to have him on its Internet broadcasts, but he has declined. HBO's Hard Knocks has yet to put a microphone on him.

Some Internet research reveals he has an official Web site and a My Space page, neither of which provides much insight into the man. Some interviews yield a few tidbits, such as he enjoys reading religious books like Joyce Meyer's The Power of Simple Prayer and Battlefield of the Mind.

He idolized Barry Sanders growing up, and he played one year at Wayzata (Minn.) High School and one year in college with his brother, Dominique.

A Minneapolis-based R&B band, Next, that peaked in the late '90s remains his favorite group, and its song, "Butta Love," a dim-the-lights house party song, is on his iPod.

He likes vacationing in Puerto Rico, dining on shrimp and lobster and wants to own a Lamborghini. He'd probably get it in red, his favorite color, but that might draw attention to a man who prefers a low profile.

Instead of spending a few days persuading Barber to answer questions about himself, I asked those who know him best to reveal tidbits about the Cowboys' mystery man.

Work ethic
"When he first got here, I told him that he was going to shock the world. Ask him. He'll tell you. It was his work ethic and preparation."

Roosevelt Riley, Jerry Jones' security specialist

• • •

"He'd get to the facility early and stay late," Riley said. "He wasn't doing it so someone could see him. He was doing it on his own. He didn't have no Emmitt [Smith] to show him what to do. He just figured it out.

"I've been around a lot of great athletes. I knew he was special. He's a young kid with an old-school mentality."

Barber doesn't know how to take an off-day. All he knows how to do is work.

On the field. In the classroom. In the weight room. The settings change. His mentality doesn't.

"He's a guy with an old-school mentality. He doesn't want to stretch or warm up, he just wants to attack the workout," strength and conditioning coach Joe Juraszek said. "The other day, I asked him to do two drills, and he did four."

Barber is equally diligent in running back coach Skip Peete's position meetings, asking detailed questions.

"If he's supposed to run a route into the flat, he wants to know if you want him to chip the defensive end first," Peete said. "Or make sure the tackle doesn't need any help first. Or should he just take a free release. Some guys don't ask any questions, but he wants to be precise all of the time."

"He loves wearing Jordans. It's like he has a fresh pair on every day."

Tight end Jason Witten

• • •

While other players style in Gucci loafers or Bruno Magli's, Barber prefers Air Jordans.

He buys two or three pair at a time, and it's not unusual for him to buy two of the same shoe. Besides, the Jordans make up for the fact he's still formulating his style.

"Everyone had an obsession when we were kids," receiver Sam Hurd. "He tries to stay fresh with the Jordans. When you have them on, it really doesn't matter what outfit you have on if you're rocking Jordans."

Running style
Deion Sanders, as a punt returner, is the only Cowboys player I've ever seen excite the crowd because of the anticipation that he was going to do something they'd never seen before.

Now, you can add Barber to that list.

"His will is so great. He will not be denied," Jerry Jones said.

"He's one of the most entertaining players we've ever had because he imposes himself so physically on the defense. You don't see many offensive players who do that."

No one outside of the Cowboys organization would ever peg Barber as a practical joker, but that's what he is.

Whether he's getting out the equipment-room microphone and making outlandish announcements or pointing out a teammate's faults, Barber likes having fun.

"He's a comedian," linebacker Bradie James said. "He's very observant and he uses that against you, but he takes his time and waits until there's a big group around. He's very sarcastic. He loves embarrassing people."

Other than that, he doesn't say much. When he does, it's still, "yes sir" and "no sir."

"He is a beast on the field, but he's so humble off of it," receivers coach Ray Sherman said.

Bucky Buchanan, the Cowboys' assistant equipment manager, said he's never had a conversation of more than three minutes with Barber.

"That's because we were trying to get his helmet right," Buchanan said. "He wears dreads, so the helmet fits snug against his hair, but not his head, so it kept popping off. I still don't know what size helmet he actually wears.

"Every time it flies off, it scares me to death. He's not a guy you want playing without a helmet because he leads with his head, and he puts so much into every run."

"He likes loud music. When he gets it cranked all the way up, you can't even sit in there."

Wide receiver Patrick Crayton

• • •

When Barber isn't playing football or blasting the stereo in his black Denali, you can often find him hanging around receivers Hurd and Miles Austin.

Hurd taught Barber to play dominoes, while Austin has passed along poker tips – at least that's how the story goes.

"He's a pretty good poker player because he has courage," Austin said of Barber, who likes wearing shades at the table. "You can't bluff him off a pot. He'll stay in there until the end."

Hurd and Barber are partners in dominoes.

"He wasn't the quickest learner, but once he got it down he was good," Hurd said. "Every time we score, we say, 'Show me the money.' "