Senior College Football Columnist

For Barner family, name Kenjon evokes both triumph and tragedy


EUGENE, Ore. -- For eight years as a gang counselor, Gary Barner had experienced the worst blows South Central could deliver.

"Over that period, I saw over 2,000 dead kids," said the father of Oregon's flashy tailback, Kenjon Barner.

It was 24 years ago that Gary Barner was finally determined to get his young family out of the Watts/Compton/Lynwood area of Los Angeles after working with Community Youth Gang Services. It was rewarding, but also depressing, maybe even dangerous.

Then it was tragic. Gary Barner was close to extricating himself from the job and the area, the night of Feb. 20, 1988. His nephew was walking home with a friend from a basketball game in the Lynwood area when they encountered Carmen Ward.

Court records show that Ward, a hardened gang member, shot both youths after he thought they had crossed into rival territory. That nephew, Kenjon David Adkins, was shot twice and died that night. He was 15.

"He was a very witty young kid," Barner said, "beyond his years. He took the family by storm. He took us all by storm."

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At the time, 21-year-old Carmen Lee Ward became the youngest (by two months) death-row inmate in California. The man who prosecuted him became the youngest L.A. County deputy district attorney to win a death-penalty conviction.

Maybe "win" isn't the right word in this magic season for Oregon's fifth-year senior tailback. Or maybe it is. While Ward remains rotting in jail a quarter century later, Kenjon Barner is one of five persons in his extended family to carry his cousin's first name. The person has passed but Cousin Kenjon's wit, personality and story will not die. Never mind that Kenjon Barner was born 14 months after his cousin was shot.

"Oh, for sure," Gary Barner said, "Kenjon looks up to him now. To this very day, he's an idol.

"What's scary about this, I can show you two pictures of Kenjon and my baby Kenjon and they're twins."

What's eerie about this, Kenjon Adkins' mother -- Beverly Blanchard, Gary Barner's sister -- sees her son all the time in the other Kenjon with the nationally known name.

"My oldest sister is like [Kenjon's] godmother," Gary Barner said. "When Kenjon was born I had a store in Long Beach. She would keep him during the day. [After the murder] she wouldn't say her son's name because she was still grieving."

To this day, he said, Blanchard will catch her nephew glancing at her and say, 'Stop looking at me.'"

It's not malicious. It's deep-rooted sadness. It's too many memories.

The legacy

This background is somehow embedded in Kenjon Barner, the nation's No. 4 rusher. Ten days ago he ran for a career-high 321 yards on 38 carries against Southern California. In one swooping Duck raid, the Trojans suffered lifetime indignities -- most rushing yards, most total yards and most points ever given up.

Saturday against Stanford, his talents may be needed more than ever to bolster an Oregon defense that is ravaged by injuries. The Ducks' high-flying offense really is going to have to win the game. The defensive line was so beat up Saturday against Cal, backup tight end Koa Ka'ai and two other freshmen played there. Leading receiver/all-purpose star De'Anthony Thomas may see time on defense.

Upset alert? No. 1 Oregon finishes the regular season against two top-10 defenses against the run. (No. 1 Stanford, No. 10 Oregon State.) And despite what happened Saturday -- Marcus Mariota's six touchdown passes -- the Ducks are going to need a healthy Barner to win.

During the mosh pit of the national championship chase, Barner sat in an Oregon football facility conference room preferring to speak about the kind of person he will be instead of the player he is.

"I want to catch bad guys," said Barner, who already has his criminology degree. "It's something I've wanted my entire life."

Was the spirit of a relative he never knew somehow planted in this Kenjon's soul? It's hard to tell. Let's just say that Barner knows humility. Growing up, he was never the man -- not on his youth teams, not in AAU basketball, not even totally at Riverside (Calif.) Notre Dame High School when he ran for 3,000 yards as a senior, second nationally.

"At the end of his senior year, it got better but it was iffy," his father said. "I told him, 'That's a blessing in disguise. It's such a blessing that the light has never shined on you.' You see everything with Matt Barkley. Then he had that one loss to Stanford, then the light went really, really dim."

Barner knows humility because he has watched so many future NFL tailbacks at Oregon, he deserves a pension. LeGarrette Blount and Jermiah Johnson led the team during his 2008 redshirt season. Over the next three years, good friend LaMichael James became a Heisman finalist while leading the country in rushing (2010).

But here inside the program, they always knew Barner was that next supernova ready to explode. In 2009, he set the team record for kickoff return yardage (1,020). James was suspended for the 2010 opener. Barner stepped in and scored five touchdowns against New Mexico.

"I absolutely wanted to play," Barner said. "It wasn't anything new."

But it was never a sure thing he would ever be the man at Oregon. Former coach Mike Bellotti recruited Barner thinking he would play him at safety.

"Kenjon wasn't as fast at that time as he needed to be at the Pac-10 level," Bellotti said. "All the sudden there were some injuries. ..."

Kenjon Barner is giving Oregon a lift this year, his first as the No. 1 back. (Getty Images)  
Kenjon Barner is giving Oregon a lift this year, his first as the No. 1 back. (Getty Images)  
Still, until this season he was a backup who returned kicks. Another talent would have transferred knowing there was only so much time on his college clock.

"We stood by Kenjon in the recruiting process," Bellotti said. "It took him until his second semester of his senior year to accomplish his qualifying test score. He did his part. We felt like there was a genuine commitment both ways."

If his father taught him anything, it was patience. One day in the sixth grade, Kenjon woke up and said he didn't want to play basketball anymore.

"I told him, 'I don't have the money to pay for your scholarship,'" his father said. "'This [basketball] could possibly pay for your education.' I said, 'What are you going to do?' He said, 'I'm going to the NFL.'"

So do thousands of kids each year. But when this Kenjon opens his mouth, it's usually worth listening. Gary Barner says his son is extremely quiet during game week. On Thursday, Kenjon stops speaking to him altogether. During games he will barely recognize family, and there were more than 20 of them to celebrate his SoCal return at USC on Nov. 3.

But that week son told father, "I'm going to run for 150 on them dudes."

Kenjon Barner more than doubled that total.

In this record-setting season, we didn't get to experience the Full Kenjon until that USC game. It was the first time in 2012 that Oregon was forced to play four quarters. The country saw what Chip Kelly already knew, that a guy who had played behind others most of his career was always capable of 38 punishing carries.

"I don't see him any different," Kelly said. "That's one of the benefits of not having to play our games all the way through, we should be a little bit fresher."

Despite only 503 career carries -- an average of slightly less than 11 per game -- Barner has been reminded of the risky nature of the sport. Two years ago, he suffered a head-to-head hit returning a kick at Washington State. It remains cringe-worthy on YouTube.

James can be seen weeping on the sidelines.

"I don't remember the entire day, it kind of never happened," Barner said. "I don't remember talking to my mom."

The day will never be forgotten by Wilhelmenia Barner. She talks to her son 10 times a day via phone. Sometimes Kenjon takes the call and they listen to each other breathing, without talking. This fact has been publicized and doesn't bother Barner. He is the youngest of seven Barner children. They dote on him. They moved out of South Central in 1991, before he was 2.

"All Kenjon knows is the desert," Gary Barner said of Riverside. "He's a desert kid."

The family has been part of the Trinity Baptist Church in the area for 20 years. Gary, 57, sings in the choir. They never miss a game. But Wilhelmenia won't fly. That means she and her husband drive 930 miles one way for their son's home games. Even last week when they merely had to shoot up to Berkley for the Cal game, mom wouldn't travel over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco for a scenic lunch. Too long a time over the water. Too long away from her baby.

"There's a difference between being spoiled and being loved," Kenjon said. "I'm not spoiled, I'm loved."

These days Kenjon's days are filled with the only two classes he has to take -- yoga and ballet. It is by design. Barner has researched both disciplines and found them both attached to the training of former NFL stars.

The one concession graduate teaching fellow Taylor Theis makes in her ballet class -- the tailback doesn't have to wear tights.

"I liked it better before I knew he was so special," Theis said. "I have a difficult time treating him like a normal student.

"Some of the things I take credit for when I watch him on TV is his fluidity, balance and core strength," she added. "I see that translated on the field. I wanted to go talk to our football department. I see a huge benefit for guys taking ballet class, as a way to transition through space that will give them bodily flow."

The bodily flow of ballet? Perfect for the blur offense. Chip Kelly, Line 1.

Moving on

They call him "Doogie," as in Doogie Howser, M.D., the old TV show. Back home and away from Eugene, that's all they call Kenjon Barner.

That's what he and that de facto godmother would watch on days when Aunt Beverly cared for him. It separates him from the first Kenjon. It allows Blanchard not to use the name of her son.

"And the guy that killed him," Gary Barner said this week. "I caught him."

Barner says he used his street smarts, tracking down Cameron Ward to a hotel in Long Beach. He fought the natural urge for revenge. Instead, Barner says, he engaged Ward as a way to get close, to make sure, pretending to be looking for some drugs.

"The day I found out where he was, it was God protecting me," Barner said. "He had killed another man also."

Barner quickly called the police. They were there in five minutes to make the arrest. In 1991, Cameron Lee Ward was sentenced to death. That was the same year Gary Barner moved his family away from South Central, away from it all.

"I hate what happened to my nephew," he said. "I also understand the enemy in all of us. It destroyed that young man. That's what we didn't want for our kids. That's what we were running from. That's why we moved to Riverside."

Where another Kenjon thrived.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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