Isiah Barfield: Silent Courage

Oct. 21, 2011

Kansas’ senior cornerback Isiah Barfield isn’t the most outspoken player on the Jayhawks squad. You won’t hear him being told to quiet down in practice by coaches. You won’t find him preaching hour-long sermons to his teammates on the intricacies of football. However, just because Barfield isn’t the most vocal player on the team, doesn’t mean he’s not one of Turner Gill’s most valued leaders.

“I try to be vocal but everyone knows I’m not really that way,” said the fifth-year senior. “I try to let leadership show through my play on the field. I really try to just lead by example.”

Barfield’s coaches agree with his assessment of his leadership abilities, and believe his quiet demeanor and the qualities he brings to the team are necessities for a successful program.

“I think it’s just his nature,” explained Kansas defensive coordinator Vic Shealy. “He’s guy that’s well liked by his teammates and is respected by our team and staff alike because you won’t ever hear him make an excuse for having made a mistake. He just says, `Yes, sir’ and goes on. As a coach you respect that.”

Barfield attended high school just 30 miles northwest of Wichita in Haven, Kan., which has a population of a little over 1,200. There’s no denying that it is in the heart of Kansas State country; even his high school mascot was the Wildcats. So when it came time for Barfield to begin looking at schools, many thought it would be a no-brainer as to where he would make his college home. When Barfield made his official visit to Manhattan, however, things just didn’t feel right.

“When I had taken some visits there, my parents didn’t get a very good vibe,” Barfield said. “K-State has a good program but KU really felt like home to me. After that, it was an easy decision.”

Well, easy might not be the right word for it. With most of his high school classmates heading to Manhattan, some were…displeased with Barfield’s choice of becoming a Jayhawk. Most of those closest to him swallowed their rivalry allegiances and found it within themselves to be happy for a player that was getting a chance to play at a high level of college football, even if it was for KU.

“It was tough for some people but I think most were just happy that I had the opportunity to continue my career at the next level,” explained Barfield. “Coming from where I’m from, people don’t go Division I very often so a lot of people were happy about that.”

After arriving in Lawrence, Barfield quickly found out that playing football at the next level would challenge him like he had never been challenged before. He had been the best player he’d known since he could remember, but now he was surrounded by teammates that were as good but mostly better than he was at that point.

On a 2007-08 Orange Bowl team boasting an extremely talented defensive backfield, including All-American cornerback Aquib Talib, coaches decided to redshirt Barfield during his first year, to give him time to learn from the veterans and develop physically.

After his redshirt freshman was season was over, Barfield was worried that the he had gotten lost in the shuffle with the coaching staff at the time. He was seeing few snaps in practices and in games and even began to doubt his own abilities. That is until the Sam Houston State game in 2008, when one play gave him the affirmation he had been looking for.

“It would probably be the first interception I had against Sam Houston State my redshirt freshman year,” Barfield recalled of one of his fondest memories as a Jayhawk. “That was really the moment I realized, `Hey, I can play with these guys,’ and it was really something that gave me confidence moving forward.”

While Barfield kept making steady improvements, he still wasn’t seeing the field as much as he would have liked. He had settled into a low spot on the depth chart and would enter games briefly on special teams. Instead of focusing on the negative Barfield, kept working and continued to believe he would get his shot one day.

There was no better display of Barfield’s “glass-half-full” attitude than when the coaching staff departed after the 2009 season. Obviously he was disappointed to see his coaches leave, especially Coach Brandon Blaney, who had recruited Barfield out of high school. However, he saw the change as an opening to prove himself yet again.

“When Coach Gill came in, that’s when I really got the opportunity to play and to showcase what I can do,” said Barfield. “I’m very thankful for the chance that I was given, so I really looked at it as a positive.”

Barfield’s work ethic quickly made an impression on Coach Shealy soon after his arrival. He saw a player that was yearning for a chance and was deserving of some reps in game situations. His never-quit attitude and constant effort on the practice field made it apparent to Shealy that Barfield was one of KU’s top defensive backs.

“I saw a really talented and quick player,” recalled Shealy of his first impression of Barfield. “He just needed to get out there and play the game in order to prove himself because he hadn’t played much.”

With a new coaching staff now in place, Barfield was ready to become a leader of his team. A team that would need his leadership more than ever as the players adjusted to a new atmosphere within the program.

It hasn’t that easy though. Just as spring practices were beginning in 2010, the injury bug bit Barfield. Shoulder issues hampered his performances in practice at the worst possible time, a time when he needed to impress the new staff. He didn’t make excuses though, playing through the pain and proving to his coaches how much he wanted and needed to be out on the field.

During the summer of 2010 his shoulder issues became worse. Doctors diagnosed him with a torn labrum, an injury that ends seasons for most and careers for some. But Barfield was not about to quit now, not when he finally had his chance to be an integral part of the University of Kansas football team.

He would end up playing all 12 games of the 2010 season with the injury. It became a common occurrence in games for his shoulder to slip out of place and trainers would pop it back in, just to have Barfield run back onto the field and continue to play through the pain.

“He has definitely had a tough time with injuries,” said Shealy. “Playing through the pain was a pretty big statement as far as his courage last year. He’s had a few other injuries here and there but he’s rehabbed hard to get out there. He loves to play the game and he’s willing to play hurt.”

Following his junior season Barfield worked as hard as he ever had in the offseason. Rehabbing his shoulder, working on his strength and encouraging his teammates to make themselves better were his main objectives. All of which he feels he accomplished.

“I went back and looked at the things I could do to get better,” said Barfield “I’ve hit the weight room a lot harder to get better at my tackling. I encouraged everybody on the defense to try and be as good as they can be and not get complacent.”

The goals for his senior season are simple and unselfish. He wants to continue to help his young teammates develop, put his team in position to win and maybe pull down a few interceptions along the way.

“I want to be a leader for my team and make plays to put us in the right position,” explained Barfield. “Not only to get wins, but to help this program get to the next level before I leave.”

At the halfway point of his final season as a Jayhawk, Barfield believes he and his teammates are close to making his final goal a reality. He believes in Coach Gill and the coaching staff and is working his hardest to embody their message to his teammates each and every day. To Barfield, there’s no doubt KU football is headed in the right direction and he is proud to have been a part of the rebuilding process.

“We’re almost there,” said Barfield. “We get better every week. Everyone just needs to strive for excellence and once everyone does that then the sky is the limit for this program to be successful in the future.”

The Kansas coaches know that players like Barfield make up the foundations of great programs and they are aware that they will need to continue to bring in players with his mentality; student-athletes who can lead a team through actions and not words and a person that will do anything to get on the field and just play.

“He understands what his role is and what his job is,” said Shealy. “He’s got a great personality and he’s an easy guy to be around. There’s no question you have to have guys like Isiah on your team to be successful”

After he graduates with a degree in American studies later this year, Barfield aspires to continue his football career in the NFL, Canadian or Arena football leagues. Once he’s done playing football he wants to become a high school coach. But before he does all that, he still has plans to leave his mark on Kansas football.

“I want to be remembered as someone who worked hard,” concluded Barfield. “A playmaker, a good leader and a player that was willing to give everything he had.”