Kenjon Barner, Heisman candidate, had his life changed by a tiny high school

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Kenjon Barner's football career was saved the minute his father forced him to go to a school without a football team.

If not for that, he probably wouldn't have ended up at Oregon, definitely wouldn't have run roughshod over USC and undoubtedly wouldn't be where he is now, a late arrival to the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Because as an eighth-grader, Kenjon Barner was running toward somewhere else – jail, or worse.

"I did some things I could have gotten in trouble for, had it been found out," Barner said Thursday. "Some people I knew ended up dead or in jail."

On the day of his eighth-grade graduation, Kenjon's dad, Gary, overheard him talking to some friends about some plans they were making. "It was nothing good," Barner admits. Gary put his foot down. Kenjon would not be going to public school. Not on his watch.

"I was mad,"Kenjon says. "It was my group of friends. I didn't want to be separated from them."

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Track Facts

Oregon State vs.Stanford

When the Oregon State Beavers (7-1) and Stanford Cardinal (7-2) meet Saturday, college football fans will witness a rarity involving these two programs – a battle between two seven-win teams that are nationally ranked.

Oregon State football has historically been awful. There have been a few really good teams in Corvallis over the past few decades, but for the most part the Beavers have been a perennial conference doormat.

Stanford football has been historically awful, too. The Cardinal have been successful for the past few seasons, but for for much of their history the Cardinal have played mediocre football, at best.

As the Beavers and Cardinal have journeyed from football oblivion to the BCS top 15, this game will mark just the third time in 42 years that both schools have had winning seasons at the same time.

In 2009, Oregon State finished with an 8-5 record – including a 38-28 victory over Stanford in Corvallis – on the legs of running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck put Stanford on the college football map that year with an identical 8-5 record.

Back in 1999, Oregon State put up its first winning season since 1970 with a 7-5 mark and went to its first bowl game since 1965. Meanwhile, an 8-4 Stanford squad was busy winning the Pac-10 and heading to the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal beat the Beavers 21-17 at home that year.

In 2012, both teams have relied on stingy defenses that don't allow much in the way of opponents scoring. Each team has put itself in the unlikely position of challenging Oregon for the Pac-12 North Division title and setting itself up for a shot at the conference crown and a BCS berth.

It's been a long journey for both Oregon State and Stanford, but at long last their game will finally mean something on a national level.

– Eric Ivie

See John Elway talk about his Journey to Comfort

Gary sent Kenjon to Calvary Chapel Christian School in Moreno Valley, Calif., 70 miles east of the Los Angeles suburb where he was born. It was hardly a sports powerhouse. Calvary had 400 students, K through 12. There was no football team. Barner had only played one season of football, as a sixth-grader, but gave it up to play basketball (and hang with the wrong crowd).

At Calvary, he was thrust into a tiny private school where the kids were – what's the word for it? – nice.

"Just good kids – extremely good kids. Guys and girls that changed my life," Barner explains. "It's just amazing. Initially when I went to Calvary, I was in my public-school mold. They broke that mold by just being themselves – just by constantly being loving and caring all the time. I was like, 'What is this?' "

It sounds like something out of "Glee," but Barner insists Calvary altered his life, a course change that's easy to track. He was a basketball kid growing up, but when Calvary started a football team after his arrival, Barner signed up. And because the school didn't have enough players to field a 22-man squad, it meant they played 8-on-8 – the kind of football that quickly exposes players' strengths and weaknesses.

"No one to hide behind," says Sholan Forbes, Cavalry's athletic director at the time.

And yet Barner ran and ran and ran.

"It was very fast-paced," says Jo Charter, the mother of one of Kenjon's high school friends, Amanda. "He took the ball and he was gone."

Says Barner: "Eight-man doesn't get a lot of credit. That's my foundation. It comes from Calvary. A lot of credit has to go to them."

There's still instinct in his running at Oregon that comes from running wild on his first high school team. Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon is a Blitzkrieg attack that thrives on speed – not just in the legs, but in a player's ability to go from one play to the next without a huddle.

"I think it totally helped him," says Forbes. "When you go to a small school you have to do a lot of different things. He learned how to be a leader. He learned how to be humble. A lot of other kids weren't very talented, but he didn't try to separate himself or put himself above."

When speaking with Barner, it's impossible to tell he was anything but a good kid before he got to high school. He deflects praise and laughs easily. He profusely thanks his dad for forcing him out of a bad situation. His umpteenth interview this week sounds like his very first. That takes maturity and it shows.

"[Cavalry] completely changed my life," he says. "If it wasn't for getting on the right path, I don't know where I'd be."

Saturday night he was at the L.A. Coliseum, running for a school-record 321 yards and five touchdowns, which tied a Pac-12 record. It was a performance that thrust him into the Heisman discussion and one that helped extend Oregon's quest for its first national championship.

All this has made him a household name, in college football circles anyway – a graduate who takes ballet class and sprays cologne on his socks. But before rushing for nearly 150 yards per game, before he was recruited as a cornerback at Oregon, there was Kenjon at Cavalry, having tacos every Friday night at Jo Charter's house.

James, an Oregon star who's gone on to the NFL, may be one of his better friends, but, he says, "four or five of my best friends [are from Calvary]."

"It was completely different," he says. "You don't have a choice but to change, where everybody is so kind and loving. You either adapt or get left behind.

"I miss them."

On the cusp of becoming an Oregon legend, Barner still remains a product of a miniscule school 90 minutes from L.A. – a big talent who found himself at a most unexpected place.

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