Shaquil Barrett left Baltimore as a 15-year-old, seeking structure and motivation, and wanting to avoid getting caught in a trap that had ensnared so many teenagers around him.
He has since been to Omaha, Neb.; Fort Collins, Co.; Denver; and many places in between. His latest stop might be the most improbable one of them all. Barrett, a reserve outside linebacker and special teams standout for the Denver Broncos, will play in Super Bowl 50 Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
"Every time I think about it, I just think that it was a crazy journey that landed me here," Barrett said in a phone interview Monday. "I just kept persevering. I have to take advantage of the opportunity now."
Essentially, that's all Barrett has done since 2008, when he left Baltimore's City College, where he stayed out of trouble and showed athletic and academic promise, though he was never fully committed to thriving on the field.
Two years at Boys Town, a private boarding school in Nebraska that attracts students from across the country, instilled discipline and a desire to play football at the next level. He started his collegiate career at Nebraska-Omaha but it dropped its football program after his freshman year, so he transferred to Colorado State.
Despite starting for three seasons for the Rams and having a Mountain West Conference-record 20 ½ tackles for losses as a senior, Barrett went undrafted in 2014. After signing with Denver as a free agent and spending much of last year on the practice squad, he found a role this season on a defense loaded with stars. His 50 tackles ranked sixth on the team, his 5 ½ sacks were tied for third, and his six combined forced fumbles or recoveries led the Broncos.
"It's very exciting for us as a family," said Barrett's father, Steven, who traveled to California this past week with other family members to attend the Super Bowl. "To me, it's just an unbelievable story coming from where he's come from."
Both father and son questioned whether Shaquil would have made it to the NFL if he had stayed in Baltimore. Steven Barrett is a youth football coach with the Charm City Buccaneers and he's seen first-hand so many promising kids get their dreams derailed.
There is one thing, however, that Shaquil is sure of: He wouldn't be the player that he's become without the experiences and influences that formed his childhood in East Baltimore.
"It made me who I am, shaped my football attitude," said Barrett, 23. "There never were excuses."
Moving away to move on
The decision to send Shaquil, the second youngest of his six children, away to finish high school was a difficult one for Steven. Another one of his sons, Kevin, a talented wrestler, was already thriving at Boys Town.
"I don't have the means to travel back and forth to see them like I need to and want to. I'm missing out on a lot of their high school life, but I'd rather have my kids not go through the trials and tribulations that they'd have to go through here," Steven said. "Baltimore is just not a good place right this minute. You see what's going on around the city. I have five boys and one daughter, and none of my kids are trouble-makers. But in Baltimore, you will find it."
Steven said the final straw was when Shaquil was robbed of his wallet and cellphone. By that point, Shaquil was already eyeing a move to Nebraska. He missed Kevin, nearly two years his elder, and complacency started to take hold of him. He even stopped going to football practices.
"I used to depend on my mom and my dad for rides up there and they'd be busy, so I'd be on my own," Shaquil said. "I wasn't wanting to take a bus ride, so I just wasn't going. If I had stayed in Baltimore, I just don't know that I would have been able to be as committed as I was when I left."
George Petrides, the longtime football coach at City, admitted last week that he had struggled to remember Barrett because the boy's time at the school was so short. However, Barrett has obviously been a topic of discussion at the school in recent weeks.
"I wish he had stayed," Petrides said with a laugh.
Family and football
When Shaquil enrolled at Colorado State in the summer of 2010, he was at his fourth school in five years. But getting acclimated to another new campus and coaching staff was hardly his only challenge.
His girlfriend, Jordanna, was pregnant with the couple's first child. They were married in a Colorado courthouse in 2012 and now have three kids together.
Barrett's days at Colorado State were full, split between school and sport, and being a doting father and husband. Jordanna took care of the kids and also had a job to help make ends meet. It helped that Jordanna had family in the area, and even some of Shaquil's Rams' teammates pitched in with the babysitting.
"Shaq is in another class when it comes to people and football players," said Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore, a Colorado State teammate of Barrett. "Shaq is just a really special player and guy."
On the field, Barrett had 246 tackles, 18 sacks, three interceptions and seven forced fumbles in three seasons. He was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
"I always felt that he was the best football player in the Mountain West, and he's definitely one of the toughest guys I've ever gone against," Gillmore said. "No matter where the football is, he finds his way to it. In my college and pro career, there are maybe two guys I've seen who have better ball skills."
Fulfilling a dream
There was a fleeting moment where Barrett, who grew up as a Ravens' fan, thought that his hometown team might select him. He had worked out for the team leading up to the draft. The Ravens didn't initially have a seventh-round pick in 2014, but when it flashed across the screen that they traded to get back into the round, Steven wondered if his son would be the choice. But the Ravens took another local kid, selecting former River Hill standout Michael Campanaro.
Disappointed to not be drafted, but undeterred, Barrett signed with the Broncos. He needed last season to transform his body and get in better shape, goals that he's clearly accomplished.
"He's desperate to succeed, to survive, to make it," Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan told Sports Illustrated in November. "Guys like that make this league."
His emergence hardly surprised those who know him back home.
"Size-wise, potential-wise, he probably was on the same level as the next outside linebacker," said John Dorsey, a local football coach and family friend of the Barrett's. "But intensity-wise, nobody wanted it more than him."
Sunday's game highlights a huge month for Barrett. On Feb. 27, he and Jordanna will have a formal wedding ceremony in Omaha that is four years in the making.
"I'm just happy that I'm experiencing it all," Barrett said.
He also knows it's only the start. As much work as it has taken to get to this point, Barrett foresees just as many challenges to taking the next step into being a starter and every-down player.
As he gets more established in the league, Barrett said he'd like to return to Baltimore in the offseason to host football camps and help kids who were in similar situations as him.
"I know how tough it is to make it out," Barrett said. "It's a hard thing to leave the city. You have your whole family there and your whole life is there. But sometimes moving and getting away is the best thing for you."