Coast Guard football captain John Barbera: 'The greatest honor I have received'
Of all the Coast Guard Academy football captains in all of the seasons, it's possible there is no one else with a story similar to John Barbera's.
Barbera, thus far the backup quarterback at Coast Guard, had never started a game before when he was voted as one of the Bears' co-captains at last year's season-ending banquet. Despite his lack of game experience, his teammates valued his contributions so much they chose him to lead them.
Now, Barbera's upcoming senior season, one in which he would finally have the opportunity to be the starting quarterback, is in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 crisis.
"Generally it's somebody ... I can see (Barbera's fellow co-captain Eugene Bizer) doing it," Coast Guard coach C.C. Grant said of the somewhat surprise pick of Barbera as captain. "We've had some of the most humble kids in the world (as captain); there's something about them, the way they are in Chase Hall (Coast Guard's dormitory). I see that in John.
"The thing that probably surprised me the most is here's a kid who's never been a full-time player. To still be picked as captain, that says volumes about John."
Barbera, who is from Glen Mills, Pa., was already service-oriented when he arrived at the Coast Guard Academy.
His high school football team at St. Joseph's Prep, a private Catholic school in Philadelphia which several generations of Barbera's family attended before him, would always carry out a week-long mission trip prior to the season to build relationships among the players as well as to give back to the community.
Barbera speaks of repairing a church in Detroit, working for the Athens (Ga.) Community Council on Aging and volunteering at a YMCA youth camp in State College, Pa., painting children's faces, refereeing basketball games and such.
"You're probably looking at some of the most profound experiences I had," Barbera said in a telephone conversation this week. "Really, really special experiences for me."
In addition, his parents, Stew and Linda, serve as role models.
"They have an amazing impact on my brother (Matt) and I," Barbera said. "My father is by trade a psychologist, a man that wears many hats. He's a guidance counselor at 'The Prep,' he's been there for over 20 years. In the evenings he has his own psychology practice. ... I tell everyone it's kind of like Superman. He always found a way to be around.
"My mom, she's been working for our county's office of probation and parole for the better part of 30 years ... 100% both of my parents are totally committed to service."
At Coast Guard, Barbera has backed up recently graduated starting quarterback Ryan Jones for the last three seasons. Officially, he has played in five games. During that time, Barbera, the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder, is 2-for-10 passing for 10 yards.
But his contributions off the field are the larger part of his history.
"I'll tell you a story," said Grant, who was formerly the team's co-defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach in March following the retirement of longtime coach Bill George.
"The Gold Star families (who have lost loved ones while on active duty) come up once a year to the games. I think it was last year, I was talking to the linebackers before the game and a woman comes up to me and Admiral (Bill) Kelly," Grant said.
"She said, 'I want to thank you for doing this. Last year my son asked No. 11 (Barbera), 'Hey you want to have a catch?' And he had a catch with the kid the year before. He wanted to go back to the game (the next year) ... that's the only thing the kid talked about. I looked over that day and sure enough, he's having a catch.
"The kid asked him and he said, 'Yeah, come on buddy.' The kid probably had such a good time, the way John made the kid feel. The kid was probably 11 or 12 years old, maybe 13. (Barbera) is so giving of himself."
Barbera is currently at the Joint Maritime Training Center at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He originally reported to Camp Lejeune in May for pre-deployment training before shipping out to a unit in Bahrain, but that mission was canceled due to COVID-19.
He stayed put, integrating himself into the courses and the training methods at Camp Lejeune. Barbera is a government major, interested in security studies.
He calls the feeling of being named captain "surreal."
"It was something ... I certainly did not have the expectation of getting that title," Barbera said. "I consider that the greatest honor I have received, to be named captain of the people who mean the most to me at the academy. That was really a special moment.
"When I think about it, it's crazy to think these people that I think so highly of, that I admire so greatly, my teammates, have that in their heads for me."
Barbera said he and Jones, the starter at quarterback, had a good relationship. He said that Jones, who threw, as well as taking off running when necessary — attempting to bowl over a few linebackers along the way — was one of the toughest.
"I have the greatest respect in the world," Barbera said. "That kid always gets up. I don't think there was a time he didn't get up."
Barbera, in his role, mentored the younger quarterbacks on the team, even though there was a possibility they could have overtaken him. He has a long list of older players that helped him when he was a freshman, including former quarterback Ethan Goldcamp, who got hurt four games into his junior season but stayed on as a player/coach to mentor his teammates.
Early on, Barbera ran the scout team. He also learned from watching offensive coordinator Ray LaForte and the other coaches call a game — "I kind of get a little more of the bigger picture, get a coach's view," he said.
"There's probably been three or four (quarterbacks) that have been under me," Barbera said. "The biggest thing I try to do for them is support them as young guys on our team, support them and their trials and tribulations. Playing football and doing it at a place like the Coast Guard Academy demands a lot of a person. I try to support them as human beings and aspiring leaders in our service.
"That's what's such an integral part of our team. Be the best version of yourself first and then become the best football player. ... We would be nothing without those guys that helped us come up. We're trying to keep that cycle going."
Barbera, once he figured out he was interested in attending a service academy, first looked into Army and Navy. He spent a great deal of time filling out an application to Navy's week-long Summer Seminar, working on it, he said, from the moment the application process opened. He wasn't accepted.
"I was a little bit frustrated," he said. "I thought I put my best foot forward."
He went back to the computer, punching in his areas of interest.
"Coast Guard Academy popped up," he said. "I was excited, 'tell me more.' I visited the place. I got to meet with coach (Dana) Fleischmann and Capt. (Robert) McKenna, who was the director of admissions at the time. I liked the mission of the Coast Guard, going after the bad guys, but helping out the good guys, too. It quickly became my No. 1 option."
Football means a great deal to Barbera. He has played the sport since the third grade, including his stint at St. Joe's Prep, recently named Pennsylvania's Team of the Decade by MaxPreps after winning five state championships from 2010-19.
Should he get a senior season at Coast Guard, Barbera knows he still has a job to win. As a four-year team member who Grant describes as a vocal leader — "he'll pat you on the back and say, 'come on, we can get this done,'" the coach said — Grant said there's a strong chance that could happen.
There is a question of whether that can take place in the age of the coronavirus, with more and more colleges and conferences choosing to cancel the season as fall draws closer. The Bears are scheduled to open Thursday night, Sept. 3, with a home game against the University of New England.
Barbera is committed to being team captain no matter what.
"We're preparing as if we have a full football season starting on time," Barbera said. "I want to make the most of whatever we're given.
"I'm optimistic to try to stay in touch with our guys and keep that optimism going forward. I'm hoping there is one in whatever capacity. As much as we can, we try to stay in touch, talk about what everybody's up to, see if anyone needs anything. My classmates and I are the older guys, we tell them to reach out if they need anything at all, to talk football, to talk school, if you're unsure about being at the Coast Guard Academy.
"Again everybody always wants to be on the field and contribute in a very direct way. You have to embrace the role you're in, do what you can to make the team better."
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