In June 2018, the NFL’s most talented defenders met at Grand Cedar Lodge, a luxury resort in Missouri’s Ozarks. Von Miller led the group. Bradley Chubb and Bud Dupree were present, as well as legendary bag masters like Bruce Smith and Warren Sapp. The men ate big steaks and drank. They were playing cards. In the middle of the night they went shooting arrows and arrows in the black waters of Table Rock Lake.
They also dissected the pasty techniques as if they were scientific textbooks. Stuttering steps and cuts, locks on hands and strength – they’ve all talked about it. If he takes two steps in that direction, will you take three steps in that direction? But what if we go back inside? Or should I just stick his head in his chest and smooth it out like fresh asphalt? They were laughing.
One afternoon, Chuck Smith gave a lecture. Smith is a former defensive player and a guru who has trained many of the biggest stars of the league. Standing in a field near the hotel, he explained an emergency technique called cross-cap. Smith asked a volunteer to help him demonstrate. Shaquille Barrett has come forward.
At the time, Barrett wasn’t a star of the Buccaneers, wasn’t the current NFL leader in looting and wasn’t one of Tampa Bay’s high hopes this season. In his first four years in the league with Denver, Barrett registered 14 bags – a little more than his teammate Miller averaged a season. Barrett was there mainly because Miller had organized the summit, and Barrett was there as backup for the Broncos. In a local newspaper article about Barrett’s summit, Barrett is only mentioned as one of the participants.
But when Smith focused on the smaller parts of the crossover method – which only works if you’re close enough to smell his breath, he explained at one point, bringing his face closer to Barrett – Barrett was raped. While several other players started joking among themselves, Barrett kept looking at Smith’s hands and watching him move them like that.
It was an alarm clock. Barrett made it to the NFL in 2014 in just two games, either pressing the quarterback directly or trying to take his hands off him and pass him. He soon realized that this was not enough to survive in the NFL and it became increasingly difficult for him to imagine the success he wanted.
So this summit was a discovery for him, a chance to take control of his own future. Barrett himself tried to cross the crossing and hit the outside of his opponent’s hand as he stretched out. He did it again and again and again. He imagined how he would play the game by taking it out of his toolbox and surprising his opponent who thought he was just another hacker.
He smiled and looked at Smith. Brother, he said: Calm down, I’ll turn it up.
Fault! The file name is not specified. After meeting Miller (center) as a teammate in the Broncos, Shakeel Barrett (right) visited Miller’s Rapid Pass camp, which changed the course of his career. AP Photo/David Zalubovsky
When Barrett and I met a few weeks ago for a video conversation, he showed me the cozy living room of his spacious Tampa house. I said I must have felt far away from the cramped and shifting sleeping quarters of my childhood in Baltimore when his family moved a lot and he nodded his head. He said everything was going so fast and so slow for me.
That makes sense. Barrett’s rise to become the dominant pastor who picked up the 19½ sacks last season seemed to come out of nowhere, and he was like a star to so many in the NFL: a sudden and abrupt standstill in development that was the result of what really was a long and intensified progression.
That’s why Bucs used the franchise option in 2019 to retain Barrett for the first time since 2012: No Bucs player has ever led the NFL into the bag, and Barrett broke the Sapps franchise record of 16.5. Although this year is harder – Barrett has six bags of 12 Bucs games, at a much more modest pace than in 2019 – there are still some brighter moments : The three-bag knitting in four weeks emphasizes Patrick Mahomez’s bag, which was timely updated in twelve weeks.
According to Barrett, the height of the collar is at the basis of all this. If he had tried to get into the league with just a few rushed passes, he probably would have left the league when he became a franchise player in the team with the expectations of the Super Bowl.
One hundred percent, he says, maybe. Maybe, uh… Would I hold it as a special team player, but with two moves like a passing machine? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You can’t get far in two shots.
And although Barrett thought the summit had sent him to Denver to solve one problem, he also knew he had another: He needed a team that believed in him.
In the fall of 2018 Barrett thought he had a legitimate chance to hack the first Denver team. But the front office of the Broncos made it clear from the outset that they preferred Chubb, their project number 5, 2018. Even without giving him a chance, Barrett felt that the Broncos had made it clear that they didn’t expect him to be more than a replacement. This year he only played a quarter of the defensive dreams and only had three sacks.
It’s probably the worst possible way to run their business, Barrett now says, adding that he never got a satisfactory answer from Vance Joseph, then head coach of Denver, about what he had to do to get up. I was so looking forward to getting out of there. I knew there was no way out. … The Broncos couldn’t do anything to get me back.
At the end of the 2018 season, Barrett and Miller traveled to Las Vegas for a few days to celebrate the end of another year and, as Miller described in a video last month, to say goodbye.
We knew he’d leave, Miller said. That was our last hurrah.
Barrett thought he wanted to go to Bengal as a free agent, but Cincinnati withdrew his offer after questioning the health of Barrett’s shoulder. Tampa Bay made an offer, which Barrett promptly signed. He immediately felt the weight gain.
We all knew what was going to happen, Miller says. We all knew that every time he got a chance to play, he just killed people.
In his first month playing with Bucky Barrett, he realized more than 80 percent of his defensive dreams and had nine sacks in four games. At the end of the fourth quarter against Rams, he forced teammate Ndamukong Su to pick up the ball and return to the sideline to end the game.
When he lay on the grass and saw Su walking the other way while the crowd screamed, Barrett took a moment to appreciate what he had done.
I’ve been thinking: I mean, I do Vaughn’s plays, he says, smiling at the memories. I felt like I was here.
Fault! The file name is not specified. We all knew that if he had the chance to play, he’d just kill people, said von Miller’s former teammate about Barrett. AP Photo/Justin Edmonds
When BARRETT gave his first signature – he thinks it might have been at university – he signed his full name, SHAQUIL BARRETT, with an S and a T completely crossing each other. He liked to write everything down.
The signature isn’t that complicated anymore – from Shakeel Barrett to Shake Barrett, from S to B to S – a few lines that look like a few letters, but he’ll be happy to go through them or take pictures with the fans when they ask him, because it will remind him how lucky he is to be known.
Still, fame is not an attraction for Barrett. In fact, he is much more pragmatic about what football has to offer. This is not a selfish promotion or even a correction for the competitive side.
It is only safety and a long-awaited delay after years of reflection on whether he will ever be offered such a life.
When I think about all this and then think about what happens now, Barrett says, it sometimes seems strange to me because I don’t know what to do except pretend everything is normal.
Here is what the low season looks like now and what the future scenarios are.
– reading image (ESPN+)
– reader: See scenarios
– Scoreboard | Football Performance Index
When I asked Barrett about the house he grew up in, he laughed and started tapping everywhere he lived before his fingers ran out. He said the bills were still coming to his family, so they moved. Sometimes they slept with their aunt. Sometimes a cousin. One day he and his parents and siblings went to his grandmother’s apartment for a while, where he slept on benches or on the floor. To have fun, he says, the children ran around the recreation room where the oldies were playing cards.
Everything in his life seemed lethargic and loose to him, like free threads hidden under the sleeve of a shirt, only to see them fly away again. Football was one of the few reliable constants, and Barrett loved the game, but struggled to lose enough weight to get below the age limit of the Charming City Pirates every year.
He did what he had to do. He wore plastic sauna suits and sweated as much as possible when he was 8 years old. He starved himself or ate nothing for days but tuna and mustard. He used a laxative. He tasted something called black magic, he remembered it was a powder mixed with water. You drink it for days and you have to lose 10 pounds, he says. It was really disgusting. But I had to play, so I did.
There has always been something that motivates Barrett, something that challenges the balance he strives for. It was his child’s weight. At his first college, Nebraska-Omaha Division II – where he went because his brother was there and didn’t want to go to school alone – the football program was disbanded a year later, when the school moved to Division I. At his second lecture in Colorado he juggles with the reality of a student, a football player, a husband and a new father. (Barrett married his wife Jordanna when he was 19 years old and they had their first child in the same year).
Then the NFL got a call when no one else had taken it. Then a year as a rookie when he just came out of the Denver training team. And then the realization that without some kind of repair equipment and a team that believed in him, his dream might come to a standstill before it really comes true.
Only in this case.
Barrett and Jordanna now have three children (two boys and one girl), and another little girl is on her way. They’re comfortable in Tampa. Like everyone else, they went through the pandemic last year and made decisions to raise their 8, 7 and 5 year olds as well as possible. And with every deal Barrett signs, he makes enough noise every year to stay in the NFL to hold on to that reality for as long as possible.
You’ll never know how I felt as a child, Barrett. That’s what I want to give them more than anything else in the world.
Fault! The file name is not specified. For me it all went so fast, Puccaneer Shakeel Barrett said about his NFL trip and also, so slowly. Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports
HALF-CAN or something, that Barrett added to his arsenal after he started a quick spike, it’s got names like ghost, strict and fake bull, and Barrett’s face lights up when he talks about it. He holds an iPad, which has other strengths, and constantly studies it to see if there is any technology he can incorporate into his game. When I ask him to interrupt, he begins to imitate the movements of his hands, slides over the body of the phone and leans from left to right as if to turn on the screen.
There are so many ways to become a quarterback, he explains. Just pick the right one.
Now, in a season where the inclusion of Tom Brady has only raised the expectations of the Bucs, Barrett will learn that even eight different shots are not enough if you are a star. This year, Barrett has met a lot more doubles players than when he was a rotating player, and he has also discovered that even if there is only one striker in front of him, the approach of his opponents is different.
Instead of taking one or two small steps backwards and eventually hitting him, Barrett says the players continue to retreat and refuse to pull their hands and contact Barrett, delaying even one of their moves.
To combat this, Barrett works on a more assertive ninth leg, not relying on a lining that opens a confrontation. This technique, called the long arm technique, consists of reaching and clapping your hands along the edge of your chest to bring it forward on the field and then cut it off to the quarterback.
It takes a lot of effort and also a very precise timing, but – apart from the loss of 10 pounds at the age of 9 – Barrett sees it as the right instrument to take the next step: the multi-year contract that he is striving for. Barrett, who plays under the Bucs-franchise this season, gets a good salary, but it’s only a one-year contract.
It’s my fault, and I like it, Barrett. A deal that will change people’s lives is within reach. He shrugs his shoulders. I’m in control, and I have to be.
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