He Learns to Elude Trouble : Division VI: Running back Willie Barnes, who encountered many problems early on, gets fresh start at Valencia.
Willie Barnes has flashed those moves all along, that repertoire of jukes and twists he pulls from his hip pocket whenever he needs them on the football field.
And he has shown that speed--that 4.47-second 40-yard dash time he uses every time he runs the football for Valencia High School. Give him a yard, and the next thing you know he’s standing in the end zone.
But for all his ability, for all his physical gifts, Barnes knows that sick feeling of being chased and caught from behind. At least in a figurative sense.
He knows what it’s like to run from trouble, and no matter how elusive you are, it can reach out, grab you by the collar and pull you down.
Every day he reminds himself of that reality. He understands running can take him far, very far, away from his past and all the problems.
For the past four years, Barnes has tried to put all the distance he can between himself and his problems.
He tells of his parents’ divorce when he was 13. Of bouncing back and forth between homes so often that he would barely keep track of his new addresses.
He remembers coming home to a cold stove and an empty plate, and cooking his own meals. He tells how he cleaned and did his own laundry before leaving for middle-school classes.
He tells about when fistfights were as big a part of his school day as science class and football practice.
He tells--reluctantly--of the gangs, the pressure to join them and the fear of what can happen to you if you don’t.
“I’m happy now,” he says. “I’m a good kid. I know I am. I’m an adult now. And I know right from wrong.”
Willie Barnes is 17 years old.
It’s Monday night, four days before the biggest football game of Barnes’ life. Barnes, a senior, will start at running back for Valencia Friday night when the top-seeded Tigers play Tustin in the Southern Section Division VI championship game.
He has rushed for 1,214 yards in 12 games this season, including 142 in 19 carries in a 48-14 semifinal victory over Woodbridge last week.
Barnes is asked if he’s surprised to be where he is.
“Surprised?” he said. “I’m really surprised. I never thought I would be able to get this far in football.”
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Barnes’ options were being cut off quicker than a poorly executed sweep.
Barnes grew up in Santa Ana and began playing Pop Warner football when he was 11. He was an instant standout; he and older brother, Kenny, were projected as the running backs of the future at Santa Ana Valley High School.
“Those Pop Warner coaches were just crazy about Willie,” said his father, Willie Sr.
Two years later, the Barnes’ lives were turned upside down. Willie Sr. and Izola were divorced. Willie Sr. kept the boys--Junior was 13 and Kenny was 15. Izola moved to Long Beach.
The next two years were somewhat of a blur for Willie.
He remembers living with his mom, then moving with his father from home to home, never leaving Santa Ana. Willie lived briefly with his mother again as a freshman at Santa Ana Valley, but later moved back with his dad.
“We never had a steady place to live,” Willie said.
The boys grew up quickly. Willie Sr.'s job as a city bus driver kept him busy. His sons were often left to fend for themselves at meal time.
“Our aunt would come over and cook for us sometimes,” Barnes said. “My dad was that way. He would say, ‘I’m not your (mom). I’m not going to cook and clean up for you.’ So Kenny and I learned how to take care of ourselves.”
Both boys had jobs--Willie at a fast-food restaurant and Kenny at a toy store. Willie said it gave he and his brother spending money, and took that burden off their father.
“But we always made time for football,” Willie said, “even if it meant skipping work.”
Growing up too fast has its disadvantages, Barnes says with the kind of detachment that shows he has studied the subject.
He was a regular in the principal’s office at McFadden Intermediate School in Santa Ana. He can’t begin to count the number of times he was suspended for fighting.
Although small, Barnes, 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds, could take care of himself. He could fight when he had to. Not that he always wanted to.
“You have to protect yourself,” he said.
Most of the gang problems were born from hate, Barnes said. The Mexican students hated the blacks. The blacks hated the Mexicans. Barnes, who is black, was caught in the middle at middle school.
“There were a lot of bad kids at that school,” Barnes said. “There was a gang there, one that didn’t like blacks. I was always fighting against them. They were always picking on my cousins or on me.”
As most teen-agers do, Barnes found safety in numbers. As tensions between Mexican and black gangs mounted, Barnes became closer to many black gang members.
By the time he reached his freshman year at Santa Ana Valley, Barnes was consorting openly with gang members.
Santa Ana Valley was dominated by the Crips. Nearby Santa Ana High School belonged to the Bloods.
“The Bloods were always coming down to Valley,” Barnes said. “There was always something happening after school.”
Barnes never joined a gang, although he was tempted.
“At lunch, they would all hang out and talk about what they did to somebody or what they were going to do that night,” Barnes said. “Yeah, it tempts you (to join). But I was never really in one. I just hung with them.
“You know, you have friends in a gang, and they were always saying to come down and ‘get up’ (hang out) with them. And you do.”
Football was Barnes’ only escape. It was the one place where the color of your clothing wouldn’t get you into trouble. If somebody hit you, he usually helped you up.
“Playing football got me out of it (the gangs),” Barnes said. “If I wasn’t playing, I would probably be in the same shoes some of my friends are in right now.”
Barnes was frustrated at Santa Ana Valley. As a sophomore, he practiced at fullback, but the only playing time he got in a game was on kickoff coverage.
Then came The Move. Willie Sr. had seen his son was unhappy. He knew his son had potential. He knew of the gangs and he knew Willie consorted with them.
He and Willie Jr. discussed their options. They moved into the Placentia Unified School District. Willie enrolled at Valencia.
“Everyone was telling me that if I want to make it big in football, I had to go to a big-time school,” Barnes said. “My dad thought it would be a better opportunity for me if I came here.”
The Move solved all of Willie’s problems. Gangs “weren’t around” at Valencia the way they were at Santa Ana Valley. His grades improved.
“It was a big change,” Barnes said. “I was student of the month in science my first month at Valencia. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be there.”
Willie Sr. said he has done the best job he can raising his sons. Kenny just finished his second season at Rio Hondo College and is being wooed by such Division I powers as Colorado and Nebraska.
“They’re fantastic boys,” Willie Sr. said. “They really don’t give me much trouble. I brought them up to follow the Bible. I love them both dearly, and I try to do everything to push them to be better.”
He has had to nudge Willie Jr. at times about his grades. Barnes said he has a 2.5 grade-point average, and plans to attend El Camino College to make up some lost credit hours from his transfer.
Willie Sr. wasn’t pleased with his son’s last report card. He delivered the ultimate punishment--he took the keys to his son’s car.
“He was getting by, but he can do better,” Willie Sr. said. “I want him to get a college scholarship some day.”
Barnes, who is hitching rides with friends to get around, has vowed: “I will graduate from Valencia.”
Barnes’ interview is nearly finished. He begins to pick at the iron-on patch that covers the hole on the right kneecap of his jeans.
He’s excited and somewhat nervous about playing his last high school game. His mom will be there, as she has every game, and so will Jim Collins, Willie’s boss at the window tinting company where he has worked the past year.
“I really want to thank them for coming to all my games,” Barnes said.
Willie Sr. will try to make it, too. He has seen his son play only twice this season. He’s usually working on Friday nights and can’t come to the games.
This game is another step for Willie, one he hopes will boost him into college. He plans to play junior college football next year, hopefully at Fullerton. His grades, he said, will be in order.
Barnes is asked what the Willie of today would say to the young, tough Willie of four years ago, the one who got into fights over such pressing issues as What you lookin’ at?
“All I could tell him is that it has been rough,” Barnes said, “but we made it.”