HERMISTON — For fans of Hermiston Bulldogs football, the phrase “quarterback David Barnett” might sound strange. At this point it seems like a foreign concept to even Barnett himself. But long before the Bulldogs’ senior defensive end was crushing quarterbacks and earning the Columbia River Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year honor this season, he wanted to be the man throwing the ball.
A young Barnett watched his older brother John roll through his Hermiston years as a potent passer on the football team and go on to win four NAIA national championships with Carroll College in Helena, Mont. David wanted to be like John, wear John’s No. 13, hurl those tight spirals the way his brother could.
But something was stopping him.
So Barnett traded sides, switched to defense and worked his way into become one of the most feared rushers in the conference as a senior while leading the Bulldogs to a second-straight Class 5A playoff berth — accomplishments which have earned him the 2012 All-EO Football Player of the Year designation.
As Barnett was transitioning away from quarterback during his move up to Hermiston High four years ago, the freshman was a shadow of the athlete who played his final game as a Bulldog last month. Barnett has always had some height to him, topping off a 6-foot-2 now, but he didn’t always have the bulk of his 200-plus pounds.
His freshman football pads looked cumbersome on top of that adolescent frame, Hermiston head football coach Mark Hodges remembered. A potential player of the year was buried underneath. Way, way underneath.
“He was a late developer, a real late developer,” Hodges said. “Kind of gangly, kind of quirky. He didn’t necessarily have all the those traits right off the bat.
“At the same time, you saw some things. You saw determination, you saw good work ethic, toughness and a lot of heart. He was going to build himself up into something because of his strength of character, which he did.”
Barnett, 18, led the Dawgs in sacks with seven in 2012 and was as comfortable dropping off the line into pass coverage as bull-rushing the backfield. The senior picked off a pass, blocked a punt and recovered a pair of fumbles while ranking second on the team in tackles.
On a Bulldogs’ team thin in senior leaders, Barnett’s ability to adapt helped him earn the go-to player role on the defense.
“That’s what he is, he’s a leader,” Hodges said. “Everybody looked at David Barnett. Everybody knew that. He didn’t try to put himself out there. He was just a leader because of who he was.”
Being the man that garnered that much attention — both from teammates and opponents — was a bit of a new experience for Barnett. He comes from a near-royal family in terms of Hermiston athletics. The youngest of nine children, five Barnett siblings have gone through the Bulldogs’ programs ahead of him and moved on to play collegiate athletics on scholarship.
Growing up in the now nearly empty Barnett household, he was always the one looking up and rarely the one looked up to. From that environment he learned the competitive drive that has had his high school coaches raving.
“It’s weird because I’m basically a single child now,” he said. “You start to learn young that everything is a competition in our family.”
And while he was competitive, Barnett was never cutthroat — until recently. As his senior football season wound to a close, Barnet’s best came out.
He sacked Pendleton quarterback Connor Johnson 3.5 times in the teams’ regular season-ending rivalry game, an experience that tops Barnett’s high school sports career memory list. The on-field monster burst out the week before in the Bulldogs’ game at Hood River Valley, a loss that would cost them the CRC title.
“I don’t think I developed that game mentality until about Hood River this year,” Barnett said. “(In the second half), I said, ‘OK we’re down and we’ve got to make something out of it.’ I understood what we needed and how I needed to prepare mentally.”
Three quarters of his season sack total came after that point in the final three games of a 6-4 Hermiston football campaign.
The phenomenom is an easy one to explain, Hodges said. When the games as a senior start to dwindle, players like Barnett hit a different level.
“This is where they’re going to shine, in these moments,” he said. “They invested so much in it. Every snap, every play becomes so much more important because the clocks ticking. It’s his last day of life in a football context.”
Well not yet, Barnett hopes. The soon-to-be graduate is still looking at college football as a possibility, perhaps following brothers John and Paul to Carroll College to become a Fightin’ Saint. And if not football, there’s always track and field to fall back on.
Barnett finished second in Class 5A in the javelin throw at the state meet as a junior and third in the discuss toss. Track is a recent addition to the athlete’s repertoire, but chasing a state title on the field this spring could lead to other unknown opportunities.
He’s already begun the track season training even though the football pads are just a few weeks cold. And more weight room work is on the schedule to bulk up even more if football ever comes calling again.
Wherever Barnett goes next, he’ll leave a massive hole for Coach Hodges to fill next year on the Hermiston defensive line. But the coach won’t miss that as much as having the player’s presence as a leader among his peers, Hodges said.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to kids like David Barnett,” he said. “It seems like he’s always been there. He’s an institution.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.