Shaquil and Kevin Barrett were so close growing up that when one went to the bathroom, the other would wait outside for him to finish. Neighbors in East Baltimore, where the boys grew up, used to mistake them for twins.
Kevin, almost two years older than Shaquil, was the troublemaker. Shaquil was quiet; Kevin was not. Shaquil always did well in school; Kevin did not. They both wrestled and played football, but Kevin was a better wrestler, and Shaquil the better football player.
The boys were inseparable growing up, especially as they moved around the east side of the city. When Kevin went to high school more than 1,100 miles away from Baltimore, Shaquil soon followed. College was supposed to be the same way. And for one year, it was.
Factors beyond their control split the brothers up, but even now, more than 350 miles apart, the Barretts remain as close as ever. And it all began in Baltimore.
Growing up, moving on
After winning the Pop Warner national championship with the Charm City Buccaneers in eighth grade, Shaquil moved on to City for high school in 2006. Kevin had already been there a year, but was struggling with discipline issues and didn't seem to have a future at the school. The older Barrett brother was failing classes and couldn't play sports because of his grades.
So after Kevin's freshman year at City, his wrestling coach approached him about transferring to a boarding school in Omaha, Neb., called Boys Town, a school known for promoting a safe environment while developing the person as much as academics and athletics. Not having a lot of other options, Kevin agreed to move to Omaha, and whatever discipline issues that existed previously in Baltimore were squashed quickly within the structure and discipline of Boys Town.
Kevin thrived. He was able to wrestle again, and ended up becoming a three-time state champion in Nebraska. In his time at Boys Town, he went 150-3, including 76-0 over his junior and senior seasons.
"It was just the right way," Kevin said. "I was bad and disrespectful, and Boys Town helped me out a lot and got me on the right track."
Back in Baltimore, Shaquil's own athletic situation was in limbo. He was doing well in school, but was having trouble motivating himself for football. After his sophomore year, his attendance in practice dipped, and he said the coaches at City were threatening to kick him off the team if he didn't start showing up.
"I was just that lazy," Shaquil said. "I was staying in the house. I would have had to get up and catch the bus early in the morning, and I wasn't trying to go the extra mile."
And as close as the brothers were, Shaquil missed not being around Kevin, and had been thinking about following him to Nebraska. Wanting to play football and be with Kevin, Shaquil transferred to Boys Town in 2008 after two years at City.
"I was dead lazy and I wasn't going to be playing football, so that's why I left," Shaquil said. "I was always wrestling with the idea of going to Boys Town after Kevin left. He was doing so good out there that I thought I could have some of the same success, too."
It wasn't easy for their family to see them go.
"It was very hard to see them move out," said Steven Barrett, the boys' father. "Me and his mom have been watching Shaquil play football since he was a baby, since he was 4 years old. We had been there supporting them their whole life, so it was hard for us to not see them every day."
Like he had hoped, Shaquil found much of the same success that Kevin did at Boys Town, where he became an All-State defensive lineman and the school's Athlete of the Year as a senior.
"I think Shaquil got a good base while we was here — but he brought a lot to the table, too," said Kevin Kush, the football coach at Boys Town. "He was a kid that was maybe a little bit more advanced in his ability to handle academics and all those things. He was a good student. Shaquil would have succeeded wherever he went."
Because Kevin needed an extra year to catch up on his credits, the brothers were both set to graduate in 2010. Kevin would be wrestling and Shaquil would be playing football in college. They just didn't know where.
Kevin decided on the University of Nebraska-Omaha, the defending Division II wrestling national champions. Shaquil's decision came down to UNO and North Dakota, a Football Championship Subdivision program. He was set on North Dakota before changing his mind at the last minute. UNO had already offered his scholarship to another player, but Shaquil chose to stay in Omaha and pay his own way for the first semester.