A moment years in the making finally arrived. Thomas Barber had dreamed about this since he was a child, an opportunity to play football for the Gophers, just like his dad and two older brothers. All he had to do was say yes.
“I just sat there,” he said.
Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill offered Barber a scholarship in his office in 2015. Barber’s parents were in the room with him. Everyone expected him to shout for joy. Instead, he said almost nothing.
“I didn’t realize I could commit on the spot,” he said this week, laughing at the memory. “I had one visit, one offer, one everything. … I thought there was a waiting process.”
No waiting necessary for the First Family of Gophers football. Except now, heading into his final Big Ten opener Saturday at Purdue, Barber wishes he could make time slow down.
Forty-two years after their connection to the program began, the Barber shop is almost at closing time as Thomas, a senior linebacker, makes one final trip through the conference.
Twilight brings appreciation for the uniqueness of a family’s bond to one program. A dad and his three sons, 16 combined years in a Gophers uniform, all standouts in their own way, with three advancing to play in the NFL and Thomas hoping to follow in those footsteps, too.
Marion, the star running back of the late 1970s, and wife Karen have been college football parents for 12 years. Marion III was a star running back in the early 2000s. Dom overlapped with his brother one season before excelling at safety in the mid-2000s. Then came a “layover,” as Marion describes it, before Thomas arrived on campus in 2016.
“It’s been a treat,” Marion said.
The wide age gap between the two older sons and Thomas gave baby brother a unique perspective on Gophers football. It’s all he’s ever known.
As a child, Thomas had a TV with a VHS player in his room. He’d sit and watch highlight videos of his dad’s Gopher career. Specifically, the 1977 Michigan game when the Gophers upset the No. 1-ranked Wolverines 16-0.
“I remember he scored,” Thomas said.
His earliest memories of Gophers football started with the 2003 season when he was in kindergarten. He remembers his brother running with the ball. The Michigan game. Rhys Lloyd’s game-winning field goal against Oregon in the Sun Bowl. And playing knee hockey with Laurence Maroney at their home.
He was too young to fully comprehend his brothers’ status as standout college football players. He loved visiting their dorm rooms and wrestling with their teammates during annual Thanksgiving dinners at the Barber house.
“Looking back on it, I had a different but very special childhood,” he said. “I never realized how cool it was until I got older.”
Dom worked on Kill’s staff in the recruiting department when Thomas was a recruit, which initially created a compliance dilemma.
“There was a weird point with NCAA rules that we had to figure out if I could talk to Dom,” he said. Answer: Yes, this was permissible.
Thomas never felt intimidated by his family’s legacy. He knows his own hard work earned him a scholarship, not his last name, though he chuckles about the whole carving-his-own-path notion.
“You have three family members and only one offer from their school,” he said. “And then you pick you dad’s number. As much as I try to say I did my own path, well ...”
He’s done all right for himself. With 225 career tackles, Barber is on track to become the 11th Gopher to record 300 and first since Tyrone Carter in 1999. The Purdue game will mark his 40th at Minnesota, 29 as a starter.
More to come?
Barber initially expected to redshirt as a freshman but injuries created an opportunity. He called his mom before the third game in 2016, shared the news and asked her to keep it a secret from dad. He wanted to surprise him.
As the team ran onto the field to face Colorado State, Marion spotted No. 41 on the sideline. Look, they gave my number and Thomas’ number to some other kid, he told Karen.
That’s Thomas, Karen replied.
Tears filled the big guy’s eyes.
It was typical “Bubba,” the family’s nickname for Thomas because he was as sweet as Bubble Yum gum as a child.
He’s left his own mark on the program. A productive player on the field but so much more than that. He already has his degree and volunteers considerable time with various community service initiatives.
“I’m happy that I got to — they won’t let me say live up to because they always say I’ve exceeded — but as a younger brother and a son, it’s something I’m glad I could be what they were on this campus and set examples off the field as well,” Barber said.
The end of his career means his parents will no longer be football parents. They attended as many road games as possible in those 12 seasons, logging thousands of miles on their car.
When Dom was in high school, they’d leave after his Friday night game so they could watch Marion III the next day wherever the Gophers played. They’ve attended every bowl game. They plan to be in West Lafayette on Saturday.
What will they do next year as football empty-nesters?
“Enjoy our grandbabies,” Karen said.
Dom and his wife have three kids — twins (boy and girl) who turn 4 next month and a two-year-old son. They look up to their Uncle Bubba the same way he idolized his older brothers as a young child.
So maybe the Barber tree will continue with Gophers football in about 15 years?
“That’s a strong possibility,” said Marion, the man who started it all.