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.
"We thought all along that he was going to be special," said Pat Behrns, the former football coach at UNO. "There was no doubt in our minds. When you are set here as a Division II school and are surrounded by all these DI and DI-AA schools, it's pretty hard to get a kid like that. We were lucky to get him the way we did."
The brothers both give different reasons for why Shaquil ended up at the same school as Kevin — he was comfortable with the area, Kush is a former UNO football player, academics, etc. — but Steven is still convinced it's because he wanted to be with Kevin. Regardless of the reason, UNO worked out for the Barrett brothers — for a year.
Stability for a time
The Mavericks had just won their third consecutive wrestling national championship, and their sixth in the past eight years, so it wasn't a surprise to hear athletic director Trev Alberts — the former Nebraska star linebacker and ESPN personality — on the phone. Mike Denney, who had been UNO's wresting coach for 32 years, received a voicemail from Alberts as he was giving his team a speech back in the hotel.
The call wasn't congratulatory, and what should have been a night of celebration turned into a night of questions. Alberts was calling to inform the team that UNO was going to move up to Division I and join the Summit League, a conference that doesn't have wrestling or football.
Without a warning, the wrestling program got less than a night to celebrate.
Behrns was told Saturday night about the discontinuation of the football program and was working the phones Sunday morning, trying to help players he was planning on coaching in the fall transfer to other programs. One of those players was his now-sophomore linebacker who led the team in tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, and tackles for loss. Recruited as a defensive lineman, Behrns and his staff decided to switch Shaquil to linebacker after about a week in training camp because they wanted to get him on the field, but didn't have any open spots on the line.
Despite not having played a down at the position since middle school, Shaquil picked up linebacker quickly. Behrns knew they had a star in the making, and now he had to pitch him to other programs.
"He's got some freakish quickness for his size, and he's very savvy," Kush said. "Some people just get the game, whether we are talking basketball or wrestling or football. Whatever it is, some people just get it. And he gets football."
Shaquil and Kevin had plenty of interest, but the problem was trying to find a school that worked out for both of them. Kevin was going to stay in Division II wrestling, while Shaquil was getting looked at by Division I football programs. They tried to find somewhere for both of them, but the brothers were forced to split up. Shaquil headed to Colorado State, while Kevin settled in at Nebraska-Kearney.
"The only thing that bothered me when the programs got cut was that me and my brother were probably going to have to split up," Kevin said. "That's really the only thing that bothered me."
Separated but excelling
For the Barrett brothers, going their separate ways again wasn't ideal. But both have made the best of their respective situations.
Nebraska-Kearney won the Division II wrestling national championship last season, with Kevin finishing fourth in the country in the 285-pound division. Because he redshirted his first year at UNO, he still has three years to cement his status as one of the best DII heavyweight wrestlers in the country.
And things look good in Colorado, too. Shaquil led the Rams with 99 tackles last season, and he is expected to be one of the best defensive players on the team again this year. Considering the 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker has only been playing the position for two years, the potential for growth is there.
Shaquil will likely get a shot with an NFL team in a couple years. This could have happened at UNO, sure, but the bigger stage at Colorado State doesn't hurt, either. While he misses his brother, Shaquil is looking forward to the remainder of his college career and beyond.
"It was a blessing in disguise that UNO cancelled football because I got to move up divisions and I was still starting, so if anything, I gained ground, and I got to play more noticeable teams and all that," Shaquil said. "But it still stings a little bit that I'm not at UNO anymore playing with them because I liked all our players and the coaching staff and being with my brother. I just had to move on."