Thomas Barber had a secret last fall that he was just itching to share.
Then a freshman linebacker for the Gophers, Barber thought he would spend the season as a redshirt, learning his craft during practice and watching games. Instead, he was informed during the week of the Colorado State game that he indeed would suit up and make his college debut against the Rams.
Eager to deliver the news, and have some fun with it, Barber called his mom, Karen.
“He said, ‘Don’t tell Dad, but I’m going to dress for the game on Saturday,’ “ Karen recalled. “I said, ‘Thomas, today is Wednesday. It’s hard for me to keep that exciting news from Dad.’ ”
“Dad” is Marion Barber, a star running back for the Gophers from 1977-80, and he still was under the impression that Thomas was redshirting.
“So, we get to the game on Saturday, and of course, Bubba is wearing Dad’s No. 41,” Karen said, using her nickname for Thomas. “Then Marion said, ‘I don’t believe this. Someone is wearing Thomas’ jersey. How can they do that?’ I said, ‘Dad, that’s Thomas.’ And he says, ‘Aw, I feel teary-eyed right now.’ ”
Thirteen months later, another secret is out: Thomas Barber is developing into quite the linebacker.
Entering Saturday’s game at Michigan, Barber is tied for second in the Big Ten with 75 overall tackles and leads the conference with 50 solo tackles. He’s a key part of a defense that has kept the Gophers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) close in every Big Ten game. They’ll need him again Saturday in the Big House against the Wolverines (6-2, 3-2).
“He’s getting better and better,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “He’s the toughness of our football team.”
The 6-1, 233-pounder has recorded double-digit tackles in each Big Ten game, including a career-high 16 with two stops for losses and a fumble recovery against Michigan State. The soft-spoken sophomore deflects praise, instead focusing on the need to improve.
“These coaches are very high on their Mike linebackers,” Barber said. “They expect a good game every game, and that’s just my duty to do that.”
Barber earned the starting middle linebacker job in training camp, impressing Fleck and defensive coordinator Robb Smith. He had three tackles in the opener against Buffalo and five the following week at Oregon State. In Corvallis, Barber said, his confidence grew.
“Things were starting to click, to slow down a lot,” said Barber, who had a team-high nine tackles and an interception the following week against Middle Tennessee. “I was just me getting comfortable and understanding this game of football really does slow down for you.”
Thomas Barber is the latest in what could be called the First Family of Gophers football. Marion, 57, ranks sixth in Gophers history with 3,094 rushing yards and played seven seasons for the New York Jets. Marion Barber III, 34, starred for Minnesota from 2001-04, finishing fourth in team history with 3,276 rushing yards and playing seven NFL seasons, six for the Dallas Cowboys and one for the Chicago Bears. And Dom, 31, was a safety for the Gophers from 2004-07 and played four years for the Houston Texans.
Both brothers and his father offer advice to Thomas.
“Dom says, ‘Listen to your brother, listen to your oldest brother,’ ” Thomas said. “They kept in my ear about stretching and using ice tubs. Just healing your body. It’s a long season, and if you want to play this game for a long time, you just can’t abuse your body and not take care of it.”
From his father, Thomas receives encouragement. “He gives me pointers — keep my head up. It’s not, ‘You need to do this better or this better.’ It’s always pick-me-ups.”
His mother, however, brings some extra spirit with her advice.
“It’s funny; you’d think my dad and brothers would be the ones [influencing him],” Thomas said. “But my mom is the one saying, ‘Yeah, you’ve got this game.’ She’s the one who’s more like a coach. She likes to put her two cents into everything. I always appreciate her.”
In such an athletic family, Thomas was bitten by the football bug quickly. “They never really pushed me. I always wanted to start playing football early,” he said. “My mom always said, ‘You’ve got to wait until fourth grade like the rest of your brothers.’ I wanted to play football in second grade — tackle football.”
Thomas’ considerable skills were apparent at an early age in football and hockey, but his mother also saw a softer side.
“He would tackle someone and then make sure he was all right and help him get up,” Karen said. “He’s always liked football, always been very aggressive but humble about it and very willing to help.”
It’s that softer side that prompted Karen to give Thomas that “Bubba” nickname. “I call him Bubba because when he was a baby, we thought he was as sweet as Bubba Yum bubble gum.”
The alpha linebacker
Barber honed his football skills at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, helping turn the Falcons into a winning team his senior year. His high school coach, Jack Negen, saw intangibles emerge quickly.
“People talked back then about speed: is he fast enough?” Negen said. “We had some pretty good athletes when he was there. If we lined them up and raced in the 40, we’d have guys that would beat Thomas. Then if you put a ball in their hand, he’d catch every one of them. He was one of those guys, sideline to sideline, he just knew how to play.”
Negen saw that approach off the field, too. Armstrong has a program in which players befriend youngsters with various disabilities, and Barber was involved. “Thomas treated everybody so well. That leadership came from that. … It’s not too hard to see where the character comes from.”
Being a leader in high school is one thing, but the challenge increases at the major college level. Barber sees himself improving. “It’s been very tough, especially when you come in and you’re thinking you’re just a sophomore and do what sophomores do. I’ll say this, Coach Fleck will say I’ve got a long ways to go to becoming a really good leader.”
Said Fleck, “He’s starting to own the defense a little bit more. … We just need one alpha leader to step in, and I think he’s starting to develop that.”
Barber’s mother would concur. She’s seen two running backs and a safety excel for the Gophers, and now a linebacker.
“I’ve been with my husband since high school,” Karen said, “and I watched my other sons go through. And I think Thomas — Thomas is the one.”
He might not be the last one, though. Dom has a 2-year-old son and another son about to turn 1, and Thomas expects them to wear maroon and gold.
“I said, ‘Coach Fleck, if you’re still around in about 18 years, don’t worry, you’re going to have a couple more.’ ’’