Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel shoot down NFL rumors on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, at Crisler Center.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
PAW PAW — With all of the concussion talk these days, parents are concerned about safety when their kids decide to play high school football.
Not Jenny Barnhart. Not by a longshot.
In fact, she was relieved when her son, Karsen, decided to play football for Paw Paw, a quiet rural community some 20 miles west of Kalamazoo.
That may not make sense, but you have to know Barnhart and how he grew up. And make no mistake about it, he has grown up: He’s 6 feet 4½ and 270 pounds.
He has also grown into one of the top offensive linemen in the state, and will sign a binding national letter of intent with Michigan football on Wednesday.
But four or five years ago, you never would have imagined Barnhart playing college football. Four or five years ago, he never thought he would even attend college.
A more likely scenario? Barnhart would be a regular on the dirt bike racing circuit.
“I grew up in a family that rides dirt bikes,” he said. “I started riding at 3.”
But that isn’t the half of it. He once had a little incident with a snowmobile.
“I’d already been riding a quad,” Barnhart said, referring to a four-wheeler. “And so my dad started up one of the snowmobiles and he turned around to start the other one up and I hopped on and just held onto it. I went all the way across the yard and hit the fence and flew 15 feet in the air and landed on the road.”
When Barnhart landed he was crying, but it was because his hat and gloves went flying and he was cold.
“I went to the hospital,” he said, “and I was fine.”
He was only 2 years old at the time.
You might suspect Barnhart has an active imagination when retelling that tale, but he wasn’t exaggerating.
“Oh, yes,” Jenny said. “That really happened.”
One could say Barnhart was a daredevil from the get-go.
“One time, I had a little electric Harley Davidson that I’d ride around the house,” he said, meaning he would ride it inside of the house. “I took it down the stairs one time.”
He drove it down the stairs into the basement. And he didn’t fall.
“Yes, that happened, too,” his mother said with a sigh.
Before you question Jenny’s child-rearing ability, you have to know there was little she could do to prevent her son from getting on a bike.
“His dad was kind of like that so I was kind of used to it,” she said. “I figured I was either going to drive myself crazy or I better get used to it.”
Barnhart wanted to be like dad.
“I saw him doing it and thought: ‘That’s cool,’ ” Barnhart said. “ It just kind of took off from there. I liked jumping. It was fun.”
Barnhart never did flips, but he did attempt jumps that would scare most people.
But nothing phased him.
“I wasn’t scared of breaking anything,” Barnhart said, “because I never thought I was going to crash.”
He did crash a few times and over the years has broken a pinkie and a wrist and suffered a few sprained ankles.
With the encouragement of his grandfather and uncles Rick and Gary Mitchell, Barnhart played football, basketball and baseball.
But it was difficult for him to be all-in when it came to athletics because his heart wasn’t in it.
“Let’s put it this way: He always could have been an athlete,” said Rick Mitchell, Paw Paw’s athletic director and boys basketball coach. “His father never played sports — he’s a great guy — and his dad got him into motorcycle running. He’s a big kid on a motorcycle and he loved them.”
Riding bikes was Barnhart’s passion and he played organized sports as something to do when he wasn’t on a bike.
“Riding is what I wanted to do,” he said. “I actually quit baseball one year to go ride. I was going to race, but I only raced three times.”
Because his mother watched his father ride since they were in high school, she can tell the difference between someone who rides recreationally and someone who is talented.
Her son is talented and did well when he raced competitively.
“He was pretty good,” she said. “But on the track behind our house, to me, he was way above average.”
There is a mile long track on his uncle’s property where Barnhart has ridden for years.
“He did do jumps, absolutely,” his mother said. “I had to accept it, otherwise I was going to put myself in a mental hospital.”
But everything began to change for Barnhart when he learned he had a chance to start for the varsity football team as a freshman.
Suddenly, racing bikes took a back seat to football … kind of.
“That’s when I cut it all out,” he said of racing. “Football is what I’m here to do and this is what I’m going to do now.”
As a freshman, Barnhart was 6-3, 240 and started at right guard.
“I wouldn’t say I was getting my butt kicked,” he said, “but I wasn’t dominating at all.”
The summer before his sophomore year, former Central Michigan coach John Bonamego held a camp at Paw Paw, his alma mater, and offered Barnhart a scholarship.
That is when the light went on that his life was about to change. Before then, Barnhart thought he might follow his dad into the world of construction, where his father is a crane operator.
“That’s when it hit that I could go play college,” Barnhart said. “I never really thought about college ball until then. I probably wouldn’t be going to college if it wasn’t for football.”
Highlights from Karsen Barnhart’s senior season
He is going to college alright, and it has helped him tremendously that he is also a standout basketball player.
He is more than just a big football player attempting to basketball. Last week, he scored 18 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in a win over Edwardsburg.
Mitchell believes if Barnhart wasn’t going to be playing college football, he could definitely play college basketball.
“He’s good enough,” Mitchell said. “I would say he could play Division II for sure, just because of his strength and size, and he jumps well and he dunks easy. He’s got great hands for a big guy; very soft hands.”
This was Matt Stephenson’s third season coaching football at Paw Paw and he was amazed when he saw Barnhart as a sophomore.
Since then, Barnhart has improved, to become a dominating player on both sides of the ball.
“He has this tremendous coachability and he works hard to be the best he can be,” Stephenson said. “And the frosting on the cake is he can just get down and he is just physical. There is a mental drive within him that he is just not going to lose to people.
“The tenacity that you see at the college level, I feel pretty strongly he is going to be just fine at it.”
Maybe it is the way Barnhart brings the fearlessness he showed riding bikes to his approach to football that has people in town thinking that one day they may see Barnhart playing on Sundays.
Barnhart never figured his life would turn out like this, heading to U-M to play football.
He still likes to ride bikes, but it’s just for fun and he doesn’t attempt any big jumps anymore. Well, not that we know of, anyway.
But if you think that aspect of his life is gone forever, then you are sorely mistaken.
“Sometimes it’s like I wish I was still riding,” he said. “But now I have the mindset I have something that I can go make millions of dollars and get a good education with in football. And I have the whole rest of my life to have fun and ride if I want to.”
Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.