Bowl returns Barnhill to ‘Friday Night Lights’ roots


DALLAS

He says there is some truth to the cinematic version that defines the religion, that while Hollywood might have taken its customary liberties with some storylines, the love affair high school football fans in Texas have with the lights of Friday night is a profound one.

Taylor Barnhill will stop at this, however: No one ever put a “For Sale” sign on his lawn.

He played prep ball not 40 minutes from the historic stadium in Fair Park, home to the wonderment that was Doak Walker and his Southern Methodist teammates in the late 1940s. On Wednesday, Barnhill will compete in the venue for the first time, will walk onto the field at the Cotton Bowl and experience some of his own history.

UNLV has advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2000, a date with North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl awaiting on New Year’s Day.

Think about it. In the overpublicized and cutthroat world of high school sports, there are a few positions that inherently assume a level of pressure unlike any other.

Point guard in Indiana.

Shortstop in California.

Quarterback in Texas.

Barnhill was the latter for Northwest High in Justin, a city in Denton County whose population in the 2010 census was a little over 3,200. His high school was comprised of youth from three towns and swelled to an enrollment of nearly 4,000 his senior year.

When the football team went 0-10.

“It was brutal,” Barnhill said. “All the big kids in school were in the band when we needed them to be playing offensive guard. It was just brutal.”

But Barnhill’s father had brought him to the usual stout number of summer camps, and UNLV had recruited Texas just enough for the Rebels to take a liking to an athletic, 6-foot-4-inch kid they weren’t totally sold on being a college quarterback.

The experiment under center lasted a season at UNLV and earned Barnhill two starts, when he completed 11 of 22 passes for 102 yards in losses to New Mexico and Texas Christian in 2011.

He was a tight end/H-Back when the following season arrived.

“It takes the right kind of guy to make that switch,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “He has to be tough. A football player, not just some guy who sits back there and throws it. When you first get a quarterback into the mix in fall camp and spring ball, you get a feel for him. Taylor did some things really well, but we didn’t think we could base our offense around his skill set. We thought he was a pretty solid quarterback in high school, but knew if he didn’t make it as one with us, he was a good athlete, a physical kid and hard worker who could find himself on the field at another spot.”

He has, and the junior is producing, catching 20 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games this season. He also has spent some time at linebacker during his UNLV tenure.

The part about being athletic enough is fairly evident.

“It’s a difficult thing to do, being told what you’ve learned your whole life is not what you’re going to do anymore,” said senior Caleb Herring, who also went through a position switch earlier in his UNLV career before being moved back to quarterback. “Taylor has found his niche for us. It’s a good place for him. That’s what we as players think about — how can we help this team most? Right now, that’s at tight end for Taylor.”

The book, the movie, the television series. It’s mostly the same, a central theme in that “Friday Night Lights” is about high school football in a small rural Texas town and how it encapsulates a close-knit community, how adults live and die with each victory and defeat produced by children.

In the case of Northwest High in the fall of 2009, there wasn’t a whole lot of living.

“The worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” Barnhill said. “We just couldn’t get it done, couldn’t win a game that season. We were close. We weren’t getting blown out every week. I can still see some throws I would like to have back. Just couldn’t seal the deal.

“Football is everything in Texas. You start in peewee and then middle school and then high school becomes the real deal. To go 0-10 as a starting quarterback your senior season ... I remember every one of those Friday nights.”

He hopes to exorcise some of those demons Wednesday, when several friends and family members will also walk into the Cotton Bowl in hopes that UNLV finds success.

The stadium was built in 1930 for $328,000 and has played host to some of the more memorable games in football and soccer history. Barnhill has attended sporting events there a handful of times.

This is different, however.

The quarterback-turned-tight-end has come home with a purpose.

“I was never anything but a quarterback,” Barnhill said. “But I realized if I wanted a chance to play (at UNLV) and maybe the next level, I had to make the switch, put on some weight and learn another position. Everyone (in Texas) was happy for me. They just wanted me to be on the field.

“Now, we need to go get a win.”

It would be his first in some time within state lines.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

 

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