During the 1981 NFL Draft – not unlike George Costanza – the Jets double-dipped.
In the first round, New York selected UCLA running back Freeman McNeil with the third overall pick. In the second round, they chose University of Minnesota running back Marion Barber.
“I didn’t really see it as one and two, although you do know the higher you go, the more of a priority you are,” Barber said. “And yet at the same time, you still look at it as here's another opportunity to continue to compete.”
After suffering a concussion during the preseason and being placed on injured reserve, Barber would have to wait until 1982 to compete. And then once that season rolled around, after two games, he, and the rest of the league for that matter, would have to wait again.
The players went on strike September 20. It lasted 57 days and erased seven games from the schedule.
“If you had paid attention, you saw some things coming. If you didn’t, it might have taken you by surprise. Because I think when you look at the NFL, even then, how does something like this even occur? And yet it was a real deal,” Barber said.
“Going through that, parts of it I understood. But when it really hit and you don't go to work, it kind of sets in. The players union and our leadership within the Jets tried to help us as a unit, especially the younger players, prepare for that. But as you know, you can never prepare for something that impacts you that way.
“You can prepare in the sense of having the means, but at the same time, to actually go through no money coming in, that's what you are doing to provide for your family. And so, it forces you in many ways to understand the power of money and allowing your money to work for you and not just work for the money.”
With the Jets for eight seasons, 1981-88, among Barber’s fondest memories is receiving advice from a veteran teammate.
“Jerome Barkum is one player and friend that stands out,” Barber said. “He would always say to me, ‘When the phone rings, answer it.’ It was just his way of saying whenever you have the opportunity, you have to be ready. Regardless of where you are in the process, when you get the chance, whatever it is, be ready and answer that call.”
Barber’s sons have received similar gridiron calls. Marion III was a Pro Bowl running back who played seven seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears. Dom was a safety who played four seasons with the Houston Texans. And Thomas will be a senior linebacker at the University of Minnesota in the fall.
The University of Minnesota, actually, is one place where you would find the former Jet these days. That’s because in 2015, after a “36-year spring break,” he returned to his alma mater to complete the work for a degree in Youth Studies.
“My wife, Karen, had always been on me and I knew it was something that I hadn’t finished. I was doing other things and it became less important. And then when you really look at it and reflect, it became more of a challenge because it was something I still wanted to do, but just didn’t know how to go about getting it done,” Barber said.
“And then Dom says, ‘You know, dad, they have a program at the U. If you’ve been a student (with an athletic scholarship), they will pay for you to finish the degree. So, Dom said, ‘Dad, you have no excuse.’
“I decided to go back and I still needed 21 months. I was like ‘Geez, I don’t know if I want to commit like that.’ But once I started, I won’t say it was easy, but it felt good going through the process.”
Barber, a special education assistant at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minnesota, is also now in the process of earning a master’s degree in education and leadership.
“I will complete my requirements for that in February 2020,” Barber said. “Part of the big reason (I chose to pursue the master’s degree) is I want to do school counseling, group and individual counseling, specifically. And in Minnesota, if you want to get a school counseling license, you have to have a master’s in that field. Learning is a continuum and that’s really the beauty of it. I guess as I’ve gotten older, I just have a greater appreciation for that aspect of my life.
“I still am able to encourage and empower and inspire young people. To me, it’s like Christmas morning. I don’t expect anybody to have the energy that I have and likewise, I wouldn’t expect for me to have the same energy you have. But whatever it is, my passion is where I’m at and I know this is where I’m supposed to be.
“I have to go in expecting nothing but the best, and then the students I work with, they become my responsibility and I would treat them as my own children. I’m hopeful that what I say and how I do, the way I lead, they see that. And if that can empower and inspire, then I want to keep doing this. It’s not perfect all the time, but if I’m able to just be openminded about it, I know I’m going to find a way somehow. That’s what keeps me motivated. That’s what keeps me going.”