“Growing up (in Kingston), I got to experience the best of both worlds,” Barton said. “We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich. Sometimes my parents would take us up to the country where there was no TV, no cell phones and we just depended on nature. We bathed in the river, raised cattle and all that type of stuff. Growing up down there was humbling, you don’t take anything for granted because a lot of people have nothing. That just laid a foundation, so when I came here, no matter what, I still took nothing for granted.
"I moved straight from Jamaica to South Central (Los Angeles). South Central was more dangerous than Kingston – which is notorious (for crime) – because you had to worry about colors. If you wore the wrong colors, gangs would get you. It’s crazy how the negativity and cancerous thinking is continuing to take our inner city. When I first got (to South Central), my brother was living in a neighborhood off Crenshaw (Street), and he basically told me, ‘Don’t wear any red.’ That thought was crazy to me.”
The concerns about gangs and steering clear of trouble only intensified as Barton approached high school. His older brother, Shawn, who played the role of caretaker and is over 12 years Karim’s elder, was not going to let his younger brother go to a place where that type of dangerous influence was present.
“When it was time to go to high school, I was going to go to Crenshaw High School,” Barton said. “My cousins told me to go there because it was only a one-, two-minute walk from my house, but during that walk I’d have to go through a Blood neighborhood and a Crip neighborhood. My brother was the only one who said, ‘No, I’m going to ship him out to (San Fernando Valley).’ So I had to take a school bus 40 minutes (to school) and 40 minutes back every day for four years. I’m telling you, my brother played a crucial role in raising me. He was maybe 26 at the time, so he had a lot of stuff going on with his work and his life. I’m the only one who’s a (United States) citizen in my family, but he definitely looked out for me because my mom, before she passed, she said to him, ‘Make sure you take care of Karim.’ South Central, man, I wouldn’t change it for anything, but it’s really rough.”
Shawn, who moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to find better work opportunities, understood the pervasive neighborhood environment that seized hold of too many youths. He did not want Karim to become infected by that lifestyle and get set on the wrong path, especially at such a pivotal time in Karim's formative years.
“I was trying to find a way that would be easier for him,” Shawn said, “because I already knew what (Los Angeles) was like. So I had to warn him about certain things you can and cannot do. When he was here and going into high school, I made sure he went to a school in The Valley because of the type and quality of education he would get there. I didn’t really know much at the time how to go about picking a school, but it was just from my gut feeling that I picked one (Verdugo Hills High School) that I thought would be good for him. I knew from word of mouth and what I had seen on TV about the gangs in the area where we lived, and I did not want him around that on a daily basis."
Karim, in white shirt, as a young boy with his family, including his mother, Carol, far left
Barton had always been big and strongly built compared to his peers. When he arrived at Verdugo Hills High School, naturally, the players and coaches on the football team tried to persuade him to give the sport a try. Barton had never played and initially resisted their overtures, but he eventually realized the opportunity and, later, the potentially seismic effect it could have on his future.
“Football came to me as a second sport,” Barton said. “I grew up playing soccer and cricket, but I was big in high school, so everyone told me to play football. But I was like, 'No, I don’t want to break my neck, I don’t want to hurt myself.' But when junior year came, I finally thought, ok, because of my size I’m going to play. So I started playing, and then I started getting the (recruitment) letters from universities, at which point I thought, alright, this is a ticket to college here. But at the end of high school, I didn’t get any concrete offers, so I went to a junior college called COC (College of the Canyons).
"I was qualified (academically) out of high school, so I didn’t need to stay there two years. In fall semester 2009, I earned a scholarship from Morgan State, and from spring 2010 to last fall, I played my college ball there. I graduated last fall with a bachelor’s (degree) in business administration, and here I am now.”
The Eagles player personnel department knew of Barton prior to the all-star game circuit from evaluating his game film. His impressive performance at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January only increased the team’s intrigue.
“The Eagles were the first team really to be on me,” Barton said. “They were the first team to work me out privately. I got a phone call here and there from (offensive line coach Jeff) Stoutland. It started at the (NFLPA Collegiate Bowl) because I played pretty well there, that generated some buzz. Then the documentary that ESPN did on me, that jumped up the interest another level. The Eagles got a hold of me after that and it went from there.”
Stoutland took a keen interest in Barton during the pre-draft process and has since made quite the impression on the rookie.
“He’s passionate,” Barton said. “There are no dips. There’s one level, and you’re going to get it every day. He’s an old fellow, but, trust me man, he’s going to give you everything he’s got, and you cannot take it the wrong way when he gets on you because he’s trying to make you better. His passion and reasoning, sometimes they may come off as him being harsh, but he’s just trying to get you better.”
The Morgan State standout has jumped from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision to the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League. That, combined with the fact that Barton is still relatively new to the sport, poses a significant learning curve for the undrafted rookie free agent. Then again, Barton is used to facing steep odds, overcoming every challenge and opening eyes along the way.
“I had to earn everything,” Barton said. “First of all, (Morgan State) doesn’t get the big notoriety or hype like the major D-I schools. My (offensive line) coach there told me, ‘Don’t play down to (the opponent’s) level. You may be the best in the whole conference, but don’t play down to their level because this is a lower level of competition. You have to continue to raise your game.’ I took that advice and I ran with it, and then I started getting the awards – offensive lineman of the week, first-team all-conference, and then by the end of my senior season, I got invited to the all-star games. All along, it’s just been my work speaking for itself. My mantra has been hard work and dedication, so I just took that as my backbone and my focal point and used it to drive me. It’s not about talking, it’s about doing and putting your foot forward. You may get knocked down but, guess what, you have to get back up.”
Karim through the years all the way up to his time at Morgan State
Shawn saw that dedication and determination – and resiliency – in Karim from a young age, particularly when it came to creating a new life in a foreign land without his mother. It is no surprise to Shawn that his younger brother is tapping into those traits as he attempts to succeed at the NFL level.
“As an athlete, he’s very dedicated and determined,” Shawn said. “As a person, his character, he’s very humble, very kind and sincere. He will take time out to listen to what you have to say and take it to heart. He’s that kind of person. He’s very disciplined, he can get along with people and he’s a team player. He’s a quick learner. He’ll take what someone has to say and try to incorporate it. For example, a technique a coach may teach. He won’t stop until he perfects it. I think that’s because of our upbringing and how our mom raised us, and then how things were when he lived with me.”
The adjustment for Barton does not stop at jumping to an exponentially more difficult level of competition and learning the blocking techniques of a professional scheme. He is also switching positions, having played tackle in college but now sliding inside to guard because of his size (6-foot-2, 313 pounds). While the move requires a recalibration of mindset, technique and habits, Stoutland feels one aspect of Barton’s game will translate perfectly.
“Physicality,” Barton said. “(Stoutland) likes my physical play, but now I have to work on my footwork and hand placement because it’s different for a guard. There’s no more dancing in space or waiting to engage my opponent anymore, I have to get my hands on him instantly. You have to go now, right off the snap. At tackle, you could dance and flash a bit. At guard, the action is in your face immediately and you have to react.”
Luckily for Barton, he is on a team full of players who embrace and integrate rookies, instead of resist and isolate them. He has been learning about his new position just by watching the veteran incumbents ahead of him and has struck up a relationship with one, in particular.
“The one guy I’ve conversed with the most is the one that I’m playing behind right now,
Though perhaps a little untraditional since they play on different sides of the ball, Barton has also found a mentor in a fellow undrafted rookie free agent who tirelessly worked his way to become a starter – and vital piece – for the Eagles.
“(Cedric) Thornton, number 72,” Barton said. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, man, I know you’re an undrafted free agent from a small school – guess what, I was too, and I had to earn my way. Now look what’s happened to me, I’m a starter and one of the leaders on defense.’ That type of stuff shows you it’s possible to make it from my position. Him doing that, it shows me I have to keep my head down and keep grinding.
Football has provided so much to Barton in just six years. It enabled him to attend college on an athletic scholarship, earn his degree and embark upon the opportunity of a lifetime to prove he belongs in the NFL. But even when football is no longer a viable career path, Barton knows he has the support of his brother and perhaps even his professional partnership, as well.
“I talked to my brother before the whole draft process started,” Barton said. “He works two jobs now, at DHL and Delta. At DHL he has tenure, and he also has connections at Pepsi. So I ran it across him that if football doesn’t work out, would he have some connections for me because of my business degree. He said, ‘Look, don’t worry about that, just worry about football.’ That was like a 100-pound weight off my shoulders because that side, I know he’s got for me. So my focal point right now is just football, and if it doesn’t work, I know I’ve got a couple avenues for work.”
“No one knows how long you’re going to be in football,” Shawn said. “But I’ll always be here for him. For now, he just needs to focus on what’s in front of him.”
What’s in front of Karim Barton is the task of taking the next step from undrafted rookie free agent to full-time member of the Philadelphia Eagles, whether that is via the 53-man active roster or practice squad. Given his journey to this point and what he has accomplished, don’t bet against him.