Shaquil Barrett beamed with delight as he walked onto the turf in Camping World Stadium.
There he was, standing among some of the best players in the league at the 2020 Pro Bowl. He was reaping the well-deserved fruits of a breakout year and loving every second of it.
It all started in the locker room where Pete Carroll delivered Barrett the ultimate form of flattery by appointing him as the starting outside linebacker for the NFC. It was a major accomplishment for the undrafted player out of Colorado State University, who signed with the Denver Broncos six seasons ago and played as a distant substitute to teammates Von Miller, Malik Jackson, and Demarcus Ware.
For those unfamiliar with the NFL’s sack master, Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks in the regular season. His assertive play forced six fumbles, 19 tackles for loss, and 37 direct hits on opposing quarterbacks hits. He also broke Hall of Famer Warren Sapp’s Bucs’ single-season franchise record for sacks.
Not so bad for a guy whose Oakley sunglasses reflect not only the sun, but his positive outlook on life, right?
“Yeah, I do think about it from there to here. It’s a huge leap from where I started.’’ Barrett told Bucs Nation. For Barrett, an amiable man with an infectious smile from Maryland, playing in a Pro Bowl game is a dream come true. Barrett’s journey to NFL and recent stardom is far from usual.
The Baltimore, Maryland native attended Baltimore City College for his first years of high school before moving to Nebraska, where he would end up enrolling at Boys Town High School. He would finish his high school career with high marks in both academics and spots, earning a state wrestling championship and being named an All-State defensive lineman.
His talents delivered him to the University of Nebraska-Omaha football program, but it was only for one season. The program shutdown when it decided to move up from DII to the D1 Summit League. To make things worse, it was unable to underwrite both the wresting and football programs, which left Barrett out in the cold.
Barrett was on the move again. He transferred to Colorado State University in Fort Collins and his luck improved immediately with the Rams. An injury helped promote him to starting linebacker, and all he did was lead the team with 99 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and a 52-yard pick-six. In his second season, he was moved to defensive end and netted 67 tackles and 3.5 sacks to go along with another pick-six.
But he saved the best for his final year at CSU. As a team-captain and 14-game starter, Barrett made 80 tackles, 20.5 for a loss, and won Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Barrett’s strengths and weaknesses made him a projected 5th-6th round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but no one wanted to take a chance on the kid. He eventually signed with the Broncos and worked his way up from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Despite playing behind Von Miller et al, he registered 41 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2015. Barrett said he learned plenty from watching Von Miller in training sessions, practices, and during games. In 2016, he experienced the thrill of a lifetime, when he and the Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers for the franchise’s first Super Bowl in nearly two decades.
Fast forward to 2019. Barrett inked a one-year, $4.0 million contract with the Buccaneers, and the stars all aligned above Tampa Bay. “I set out the season with several goals. My top two - double digit sacks and being named All-Pro,” he said with a confident smile.
He achieved both and then some, but making the Pro Bowl was not on his list.
”Everything just fell into place this year. The glory goes to everybody, the Buccaneers organization, the Bucs fans, to our playing scheme. Everybody has something to do with me being right here.”
”It means a lot, just hanging out with these guys. It’s an admiration of each other’s play style and the type of people we are. It was just cool to be able to talk, hang out and celebrate with my family.”
So what’s up next for this (hopeful) Buccaneer? Well, a multi-year contract is certainly an option. He wants to stay in Tampa, and he likes the vision that Bruce Arians projects for the team. Recently he said to the Tampa Bay Times “It’ll be tough, but everybody, the front office people have got to know what they got and don’t want to lose their free agents. We have got to know we don’t have to chase the largest amount of money if we want to work with this group we have got together. If you do want to chase the money, then chase the money. It’s just about, I like winning, and I don’t like messing up a good thing for no reason. So if it’s a good thing going let’s keep it going.”
During Sunday’s game, the NFC operated out of a 4-3 defense. Barrett spent most of his time as an off-ball linebacker, and enjoying the light atmosphere on the team bench. Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara was handing out his own branded candy, Drew Brees’ son, Blayden, was practicing field goals and fans, hanging over the wall behind the bench were begging for autographs. Even with all the fun and distractions, Barrett managed to make three tackles during his appearance(s). The performance just puts a another dollop of icing on his cake.
As upbeat as Barrett’s first Pro Bowl experience was, it concluded on a very somber note. During the pre-game, players came to learn about Kobe Bryant’s death. Before kick-off, in the NFC locker room, Seattle Quarterback, Russell Wilson huddled up the team and led a pray. Post-game, the faith-filled Barrett shared these comments with ESPN Reporter, Jenna Lane, about Bryant’s passing:
Bucs outside linebacker @ShaquilBarrett said Pete Carroll came into the locker room, after the NFC team had learned of Kobe Bryant’s passing, and said, “Go play and go play hard, because I’d he was here, that’s what he would do.” pic.twitter.com/1xH8I7vwGz— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) January 27, 2020
In all, it was an emotional, fun-filled day for all involved. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see Barrett in the Pro Bowl as Buc, and hopefully there will be more Bucs playing in the all-star game in the future!
We’d like to give a special shoutout to John A. Babiak (@Photog_JohnB) for providing Bucs Nation with this content. He conducted the interviews and wrote 95% of the story, I just edited it.