Reusse: Matter of the heart derails a sibling's Big Ten dream

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2012 - 11:20 PM

While Ross Barker can only watch from the sidelines at Wisconsin, older brother A.J. is emerging as a go-to Gopher.

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Minnesota receiver A.J. Barker

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Ross Barker had followed his brother A.J. to DeLaSalle High School and found similar athletic success as a receiver in football and on the basketball court. He was hoping to follow his brother and make it as a walk-on in Big Ten football.

Tim Brewster's coaching staff at Minnesota invited A.J. to walk on in late March 2009. He enrolled at the U on June 1, took a couple of classes and started working out with the Gophers.

Ross was accepted as a 2012 freshman in the engineering school at Wisconsin.

He was among the walk-ons who would join the team on the first day of classes [Sept. 4] and try to make enough of an impression to stick around.

"We had health checkups beforehand that included an echocardiogram and there was something the doctors saw that they didn't like," Ross said. "They put me through a full electro-cardiogram and found the aneurysm."

It was an aneurysm of the aorta. There was a balloon effect to the aorta. And doctors said that balloon could burst if Ross were to suffer a blow to the area.

Bottom line: No more contact sports.

"That was definitely the worst news of my life," Ross said. "I've always taken pride that I would work the hardest and never quit. And now I was told that I had to quit -- not only football, but basketball is out, too.''

A.J. Barker still was trying to get a handle on the news earlier this week.

"Ross is going to find out over the next six months what he can and can't do," A.J. said. "He has such a strong will. He'll figure out something to do as an athlete.''

Maybe Ross already has.

"I'm trying out with the Hodags," he said. "I think I impressed them in my first workout. I made three or four great catches."

These would be the Wisconsin Hodags -- one of the best intercollegiate Ultimate Frisbee teams in the country.

"The doctors don't recommend it, but they didn't say I couldn't play Frisbee," Ross said.

The Barkers live in St. Paul. John runs St. Anthony Home, a health care facility. Jan is a prosecutor for Ramsey County. There are three sons: Leland, A.J. and Ross.

"Thanks to our parents, we did everything ... even took piano lessons,'' A.J. said. "I was in three or four sports at the same time in the summer: a couple of baseball teams, basketball, soccer. And golf -- we played golf whenever we had the chance.

"That's the one sport where Ross doesn't have a chance to beat me ... golf."

A.J. was in the Gophers program from 2009 through 2011 and appeared in six games. He had one catch, for 17 yards, in 2010.

"I would be moving up on the depth chart, and then get a hamstring pull," A.J. said. "Fortunately, we have a great strength program with Eric Klein. And as I've gotten stronger, the hamstring problem has been under control."

Klein came in with Jerry Kill in December 2010. The new Gophers coaches were impressed with Barker's hands, smarts and athletic ability. Yet, the message from Kill to Alexander James Barker before the start of practice this August was blunt:

If he wanted his last two years of eligibility at Minnesota to amount to something, he was going to have to show reliability and durability. If not, the Gophers would move on to younger receivers.

Two games in, Barker has five catches for a team-leading 130 yards (including a 40-yard touchdown). He also has become the main punt returner.

A.J. is getting a chance to call himself a Big Ten football player -- something he regrets that his brother will not experience, even if it might have been for the Badgers.

"No matter what he does as an athlete from here, Ross does have a moment that I've never experienced," A.J. said. "He hit the shot. I was there. It was awesome.''

The shot came in the last fractions of a second in the Class 3A state title game last March in Target Center. Washburn had gone ahead of DeLaSalle 56-55 with under 10 seconds left. The Islanders pushed the ball forward, guard Tyler Moore found Ross, and he drilled a 17-footer for a 57-56 victory.

"That's the last official game I've played in any sport," Ross said. "If that's it for me, it was a pretty cool way to finish.''

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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