TAMPA ― Lori Barber was talking about her son the Buccaneer.
“Peyton never crawled as a baby,” she said. “Not once. He just started walking. He went right to it.”
Sunday, after practice at Bucs training camp, Peyton Barber stood near his mom, signing autographs and posing for photos. Barber heads into the season as the team’s first option at running back, the Bucs having avoided him entering restricted free agency with a one-year contract for roughly $2 million.
That doesn’t mean the Bucs have a running game. They were among the league’s worst rushing teams last season, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry despite the 5-11, 225-pound Barber’s team-leading 871 yards.
Barber, undrafted and overlooked in 2016, was handed the ball in the first place because Doug Martin was brought down by poor performance and a drug suspension. And there are people who think Barber gets the ball now only because second-round draft pick Ronald Jones has been a ghost. It’s easy to pick apart everything about Peyton Barber and his game.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” Barber said. “It may be new to you guys, but it’s an everyday thing to me. I was undrafted. I wasn’t even supposed to be a starter last year. That should tell you something right there. … It’s always the heart. There are guys bigger, stronger, faster. But what I have inside is my heart. I go with my heart. I’m not going to stop.”
Lori Barber half closes her eyes every time Peyton runs into the middle of the line and prays a little more. Then she sees him get up and go back to the huddle.
“Is he going to hit home runs 70 yards?” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “Probably not, but he’s going to pound people, and that’s what we like.”
Maybe Barber isn’t big enough to play that kind of game. But he thinks he has something else.
It’s always the heart.
Lori, a former paraprofessional, saw it in her son early on, after a “series of events,” including a divorce, left her and her children homeless. The Barbers moved around the Atlanta area, sleeping with family, sleeping on floors, sleeping in cars.
“His middle school years, I knew all about where to take your child to eat free on what days,” Lori said with a smile. “But we were never separated. The family stays together. Do not discount the heart. And do not discount God.”
“We bounced around all over, from place to place,” Peyton said. “Not having a place to live, sleeping on somebody’s floor, sleeping at my grandmother’s for months at a time, staying in hotels, it was a long period, but I wouldn’t change that for anything. That’s what makes me. I like myself. I like the person I’ve grown to be. It taught me to never quit.”
Peyton ran for Auburn in college, 1,017 rushing yards as a sophomore, but left with two years of eligibility remaining to enter the NFL Draft. He just wanted to help the family.
“I wan not happy,” Lori said. “But it touched my heart. It made me want to cry.”
He wasn’t drafted. He was passed over. He joined the Bucs that May but was released as part of the final roster cuts after training camp. He was signed to the practice squad and was added to the active roster before the 2016 opener. He fought his way up from fifth on the depth chart. He never quit. He won the starting job last season.
Barber’s happiest day his rookie season was when he bought his mother a four-bedroom townhome with his first football money.
“It was just a wonderful feeling to know that you have a roof over your head, you have clothes, you have what you need,” Lori said. “I can’t thank anybody but the Lord. Peyton made the decision to stay faithful.”
Lori’s happiest day was last May, when her Peyton walked at Auburn graduation ceremonies. He had taken his classes to get his degree in interdisciplinary studies.
“It was his faith,” Lori said. “Not in me. Not in himself, but the creator who made him.”
Is Peyton Barber really the answer at running back?
“Being doubted is enough,” Barber said. “I know I have what it takes not only to be a good back but a great back. It adds fuel to the fire. My destiny is already written. Walk by faith, not by sight.”
Contact Martin Fennelly t email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly