Markus Barnett dreams of playing college football as a kid. While the dream is still alive, the senior at Neshaminy High School has battled his way through plenty of adversity, some of which has left scars.
Barnett suffered back-to-back serious injuries that led to physical and mental health issues. He experienced depression throughout high school due to his setbacks. As a young athlete, Barnett nearly stepped away from football as he struggled with his body image, among other issues.
Barnett’s battle with injuries began in the eighth grade.
While playing basketball for Carl Sandburg Middle School, Barnett stole the ball and drove to the rim for a layup, but fell to the ground after being crowded. When he landed, he felt a “kicking” sensation in his left leg, and noticed his kneecap had shifted.
Barnett looked for his parents in the stands, fearing he had suffered a serious injury.
“’My leg is broken,’” Barnett recalls saying. “I already knew by the way it looked. They ran down and my dad kind of teared up a little bit. My mom told me to calm down. They called an ambulance. I was just hoping it wasn’t too bad where I couldn’t play football again.”
Barnett’s prognosis was correct. He had broken his tibia.
Barnett underwent surgery to fix the fracture and his recovery process took eight months. He wasn’t cleared to play football until late in his freshman year at Neshaminy.
During the offseason, Barnett was confident the injury was a distant memory when he tried out for a 7-on-7 team. Yet while covering a wide receiver in a one-on-one drill, he felt something pop in his left knee. He limped off the field.
“Later on that day, I had to walk up 20 steps,” Barnett said. “I walked up four of them and then my leg just gave out on me. So, I got up on one leg and hopped up the rest of the steps.”
Barnett later found out he had torn the meniscus in his left knee. Surgery would knock him out for the 2021 season.
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How Barnett struggled with mental health during his recovery
During his 12-month recovery process, Barnett gained 40 pounds and felt discouraged.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and saw how much weight I was gaining,” Barnett said. “And I said, ‘I am done with football. I don’t want to play anymore, it’s too much.’”
Barnett continued with physical therapy because he felt his parents sacrificed a lot for him, but he struggled to find hope.
He informed his parents he wanted to transfer from Neshaminy to Conwell-Egan Catholic last spring to get away from football. It was a tough moment in Barnett’s life as both injuries caused his mental health to worsen.
“At one point, I got so depressed,” Barnett said. “I didn’t want to be around anybody or be on this Earth anymore, to be honest.”
His mother, Amanda Barnett, observed some changes in his son’s mood when he got hurt the second time. For six months, Markus would not smile or laugh as much. For a while, he never left his room.
Amanda remembers crying with him because it was so painful to go through. Her viewpoint on mental health changed as she watched her struggle with depression. She believes young athletes put so much pressure on themselves.
“We expect these athletes to be so tough and so strong,” Amanda Barnett said. “They are scared to show it (emotions). A lot of them players that go through depression after they stop playing don’t know anything else but the game. They can’t express how they feel.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 31.9% of teenagers struggle with anxiety disorders. Tea NFHS mentioned how depression is different from anxiety, but depression is often linked to anxiety symptoms.
Many professional athletes have spoken up about their struggles with mental health over the last few years. Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson missed three games because of anxiety last season. female tennis player Naomi Osaka withdraw from the French Open in 2021 because of mental health. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver calvin ridley and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles have also struggled with mental health matters, among other professionals who have shared their stories.
Barnett’s mother lifted his spirits with small actions. She started speaking with Markus and going on walks together. Amanda made her son write down some of his goals to make his recovery seem more possible.
Barnett’s support system worked together to encourage him and each person played a significant role.
“It was mainly my family,” Barnett said about who supported him. “My mom, she had to work and take me to physical therapy every single day, no matter what the conditions were. It could be snowing, raining, hot, she would take me.
“My dad (Mark Barnett), he would try to get me out and exercise,” Barnett said. “Even though I could not physically stand up (after the first injury) and shoot a basketball, I would be in a wheelchair and he would hand me the basketball. I would shoot it from the wheelchair.”
His younger brother, Sam Barnett, always found ways to help when Markus needed it the most.
“When you are depressed, try to keep yourself around people with a positive attitude,” Barnett said. “Don’t be around people who have a negative attitude or you are going to feed into that.”
Barnett’s recovery, return to football and future plans
Barnett’s adjustment to Conwell-Egan during the pandemic was a struggle because he felt alone. He missed football and returned to his former school after a meeting with coach Steve Wilmot.
Barnett’s first practice came with some challenges. His coaches ran a drill called “pursuit” and he had to run sideline-to-sideline and get back into the huddle right after.
“Even though I woke up in the morning and worked out, I was still out of shape because of the weight,” Barnett said. “It was super hot. I have shoulder pads on, football pants on and a helmet on. It was 90 degrees outside. We did the pursuit about 10 times.”
Barnett remembers feeling upset after practice because his teammates looked comfortable running the pursuit drill, while he struggled catching up to speed. Barnett was pushed to his limits, but he did not give up.
Although Barnett’s original adjustment was tough, he earned a starting spot after Neshaminy lost some key players at linebacker. Barnett started all ten games at linebacker and stepped up as a leader last season.
“He was a good student of the game,” Wilmot said about Barnett’s strengths at linebacker. “He would watch his film that he had to watch and know what he would have to do for that game. Last year, he really learned the importance of studying his opponent.
“The coaches teach him how to study film and they watch a lot of film as a defense together,” Wilmot said. “I think Markus being the bright person that he is, I think (he) really relished in that. Studying film, knowing what to look for and being able to read his keys.”
Barnett’s junior season came with some ups and downs.
Barnett returned to play his first game against Archbishop Wood last August. He described the moment as an emotional experience. Barnett made some tackles, but he also gave up a touchdown in his debut.
Barnett struggled at times, but he improved throughout the season. His teammates watched as he became more comfortable each week.
“From the start of the year to the end of the year, I think he got the biggest progress throughout the entire defense,” senior defensive end Nick Buchys said. “He improved the most out of anybody on our defense.”
Barnett’s performance against North Penn last October brought his confidence back. He made some impressive plays. Barnett tackled form North Penn running back Khalani Eaton for a loss. Eaton, who signed with Lackawanna, is considered a powerful running back who is tough to bring down in the backfield.
Barnett received his first start at running back against North Penn, too. Barnett continued playing at running back for the remainder of the season because of injuries at the position. He scored two touchdowns against Abington. Barnett scored another touchdown against Pennsbury High School in his final game of the season.
Wilmot expects Barnett to receive 25 carries per game at running back as a senior.
“He runs low to the ground, which is what you want from a running back,” Wilmot said about Barnett’s running style. “Another quality you want in a running back is to make the first guy miss. We talk about that all the time. Making that first guy miss, that’s where his wiggle comes in. And then from there, once you make that first guy miss, it is just all about getting every yard you can possibly get.”
Barnett is moving away from linebacker and is not likely to receive time on defense as well.
Barnett’s individual goals for the 2022 season is to rush for 1,000 yards. He wants to earn first-team 6A All-State and first-team All-League Suburban One League National Conference at running back.
Barnett plans to pursue college football opportunities. He attended camps at Muhlenberg and Kutztown. Fordham has also contacted Barnett about signing up for a future camp.
Barnett is not too worried about his recruitment. He expects to perform at a high level, creating more opportunities for himself
“I want a team that really wants me for who I am, does not matter the height, speed, weight,” Barnett said. “Just want me for who I am.”
The rehab process for both of his injuries led to physical and mental adversaries, but he came up with a new dream along the way.
Barnett plans to join a pre-med program because his surgeons inspired him to help other kids. He believes his long-term career goal is to be an orthopedic surgeon.
“I want to help guys that might not have hope or might be down,” Barnett said. “Might say, ‘Oh, I am not going to play ever again.’ I want to be the hope for them and say ‘You are going to be back out there.’ I plan on finishing college and getting my degree, becoming a surgeon.
“I plan on showing them my leg and say ‘I had the same injury you had and I felt the same way you did. Don’t ever give up on your dreams,’” Barnett said.