Barnett could have wound up enjoying his workouts at any number of big-time schools, but he had been wooed by Jackson State offensive coordinator Cardell Jones as far back as the 11th grade in Gunnison, Miss. Barnett first caught Jones's eye while running dashes at a high school track meet. "He was just a junior," recalls Jones, "but I thought, There's one kid I need to keep an eye on. The two became friends. Other schools came calling to Gunnison, including Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but Barnett rewarded his most persistent suitor.
At first, Barnett struggled at Jackson. Some of the older players thought he was cocky, and he was a poor student. Redshirted as a freshman, he broke his collarbone three games into his sophomore season, then proved disappointing as a junior, dropping balls and making up pass routes as he went along.
"He was still learning the position," says Jones.
"I was still distracted by my injury," says Barnett.
Gorden has yet another explanation. "He was having, how should I say this, female-woman problems," says the coach.
Gorden, who has been coaching the Tigers for 13 years, loves music. So he was pleasantly surprised last season, on a team bus ride, to hear B.B. King emanating from someone's boom box. Asked the delighted coach, "Who is playing those blues?"
The bluesman was Barnett. "I should have known it would be Tim," says Gorden. "He comes from the cradle of Mississippi rhythm and blues." Barnett was raised by his aunt and uncle Eunice and Eddie McCloud. They managed a quail ranch in Gunnison, off Highway 61. Blues devotees regard 61, which connects Memphis and New Orleans, as a kind of sacred vine; the towns it skirts and bisects have produced, among other legends, King (Itta Bena), Muddy Waters (Rolling Fork) and John Lee Hooker (Clarksdale). Player and coach have been exchanging tapes ever since that bus ride.
Barnett now has his act together, on and off the field. He and his wife, Tiffney, have a seven-week-old daughter, his grade-point average is, he says, "right around 3.0," and not only does he know his assignment on every play, but he can also tell you the tight end's. The scouts are believers. Recalls Gorden, "They said, 'Possession receivers are a dime a dozen. We're looking for somebody who can run by people' "—that is, somebody who can fix a defensive back with a bad case of the blues.
EASTERN ILLINOIS DEFENSIVE BACK
Awide, flat plane of Cartilage runs down Tim Lance's nose, like a playground slide. Lance, a nickel-back at Eastern Illinois, has broken his nose six times, four on the gridiron. "I'll make a tackle, and the face mask gets pushed back or the top part comes down," he explains. "My chin straps just won't stay snapped. I don't know what it is."