An athlete’s stats are his prologue.
Single lines that are a brief introduction to where he’s been and where he’s at in his career, but offer little more than that.
Looking at slotback Jason Barnes’ line from 2011, it’s understandable why his release from the Edmonton Eskimos — after 50 catches for 869 yards and seven touchdowns in regular season play — was a surprise.
“I felt like I had the rug pulled out from underneath of me,” said Barnes, at the Toronto Argonauts Wednesday practice. “I didn’t see that one coming, but you never do.”
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It could all end there. Beyond the basic business of football, the creative control to write the next pages is all on the player. The 29-year-old has barely set his pen down.
Barnes is admittedly an introvert. He lets the bad things boil before he’s ready to talk. Most of what he’s been through is written on his skin underneath the double blue of his Argos shirt. He points out the heart on the left side of his neck, scripted with the words “Never Give Up.”
“I got it for my mom when she was fighting cancer,” he said. “She found out on Nov. 1 (2007) and passed 26 days later, so it was a short fight. It’s motivated me for most of my career.”
The sudden loss brought the Barnes family closer than ever. Jason is always texting Matt, his older brother by four years (and four inches) and a 10-year NBA veteran to help him appreciate his opportunities and stay gracious.
“Nothing ever works out how you planned it. I’ve watched [Matt] through his career; he’s been cut, he’s been sent to the [NBA] D-League, he’s had to persevere,” Barnes said. “Seeing him struggle like that, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy path. I’ve taken the long route, but at the end of the day, it feels a lot better knowing what you had to work through to get to where you’re at.”
Two seasons removed from his career-year in Edmonton, Barnes can remember going back home to California and getting right back to work. His career wasn’t over. There was still more to prove, he thought. Within the month, the Argos were calling, looking for him to pair with his former Edmonton quarterback, Ricky Ray.
“There were high expectations on Jason when he came into camp last year. I mean, we were expecting him to be our No. 1 receiver,” said Jason Maas, the Argos receivers coach who also knew Barnes as a teammate for three seasons with the Eskimos.
In theory, it was a natural fit, but in practice, nothing clicked. When Barnes was released that September, it had been a month since he’d played, and nearly 10 weeks since his only touchdown catch.
“I set the bar high [for the season]. I expected to be better than I was in Edmonton,” he said. “I remember I went home and I was a little depressed, but I went straight to the field…you have to be self-motivated in this industry.
“I guess I got a little complacent in the season, I’ll be the first to admit it. Once I got my edge back, I felt like that was a reason to get where I needed to be.”
Barnes found himself re-signed to the Toronto practice roster shortly after being released, with a chip on his shoulder and fighting for another chance to prove what he was capable of.
“The best thing about JB is that he never stopped working and never stopped believing in himself. When the opportunity came his way again, he capitalized on it. I appreciate that as a coach,” Maas said, who offers an unmatched perspective on the receiver.
His storied career was winding down when Barnes arrived in Edmonton as a rookie in 2009.
“Jason still worked extremely hard when he wasn’t the guy. It’s really easy to work hard when you’re getting a whole bunch of throws your way, but when guys stop throwing the ball to you, or you’re not on the roster and you still strive to get better, it tells you a lot about someone’s character,” Maas said.
“I would never ever question JB’s character.”
Barnes made it off the practice roster in Week 17 to record three touchdowns in a loss to Winnipeg at home. Though he’d carried anger and frustration through the roller coaster season, the reality check helped him hoist the Grey Cup at the end of it. Maas says the key to Barnes’ turnaround was that while he waited for another opportunity, he kept getting better.
“He’s come out this year knowing what can happen…that in professional football, if you’re not pulling your weight, they will replace you. That’s just the bottom line,” Maas said. “I think he has a different perspective on the game in that respect, and I think ultimately it’s made him a better football player.”
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly didn’t work in 2012 or why, but the 2013 version of Barnes is making all of the right impressions. As the Argos approach the season’s halfway mark, the receiver has already notched five touchdowns, more than all of last year’s four. The red zone is undeniably his element.
“From the Argonauts perspective, the reason we went out and got JB [last year] is because we thought physically he could do a lot of the things we’re asking him to do right now. I feel like he’s the same guy he was in Edmonton,” Maas said. “He makes plays when the ball is thrown his way, he’s a gifted route runner, he makes plays on deep balls, makes the hard catch.
“The thing that I’ve noticed from him this year compared to last and previous years, is that he’s taken a lot of ownership on all of the little details in our offence. JB is one of the smartest football players I’ve been around. He understands the intracacies of playing receiver, but all of the small details he gets and grasps and works his butt off to make all those correct.”
For all of the confidence he has in his game and his resolute drive to prove something, Barnes thinks this season’s upswing is also a little bit of luck. He feels lucky to have Ray finding him for the right passes and lucky to be on the same page as the team.
When he looks back at the rookie Jason Barnes who ventured north of the border to take advantage of a good opportunity five years ago, he says it’s like night and day.
“I still have the same drive that I felt when I got into the league, but I’ve just developed as a player,” he said. “My skill set, my maturity level, helping my teammates and the younger guys get better…I’m grateful that I’m helping my team win. That’s all that really matters to me.”
Despite plenty of chances to write an ending, it doesn’t seem like Barnes will ever be ready to put down the pen.