September 11, 2019
Shortly after All-American tight end Mike Barber was drafted by the Houston Oilers, coach Bum Phillips told him he'd have to study and know the team's playbook because talent alone wasn't enough to stay in the NFL.
Decades later, Barber told dozens of area athletes at a packed Father's Forge church in Tucumcari on Sept. 3 the value of "living a life in bounds" and held up a Bible, proclaiming it God's playbook.
"If you don't know his playbook, you can't get to heaven," he said.
After a 10-year NFL career with the Oilers, Los Angeles Rams and briefly the Denver Broncos, Barber retired and founded a prison ministry. In a full-circle moment, Barber baptized his former coach, Phillips, when he was 78 years old. Phillips had attended one of Barber's prison-ministry visits and was inspired to become a Christian the last 12 years of his life.
"To think God can take people like me and be with people like you is a miracle," Barber said.
Father's Forge pastor Eddy Mardis said before introducing Barber he hoped the night would lead other churches to inspire Tucumcari's youth and the community at large.
Referring to the city's recent failed attempt to land a license from the New Mexico Racing Commission, Mardis said: "It's not the racetrack that will turn Tucumcari around; it's the spiritual awakening of God's people." Loud applause erupted from the more than 350 people who attended the service.
Barber also talked to the Tucumcari High School football team in its dressing room that afternoon. He said after his sermon he enjoyed that experience.
"Every one of them was locked in with their eyes; they listened very hard," he said. "When it was over with, every one of them wanted to shake my hand. That meant that they listened, and it was a very special time. I love talking to kids, especially football players."
Barber implored the teen athletes in the audience that "you are our future," and they are role models.
"Don't let anyone look down on you; you are meant to stand out," he said.
Mardis said he'd been trying to get Barber to speak in Tucumcari for about a year. Barber said because of his busy prison-ministry schedule, he schedules only one or two gigs a year that are not behind bars.
"I told him, 'Give me a little time; I'll make it happen,'" Barber said after his sermon and putting on a Tucumcari Rattlers T-shirt given to him. "These prisons book us 12 to 18 months in advance. It took a while, but I'm so happy and honored to be here."
When asked how he persuaded Barber to come, Mardis smiled and said: "I bribed him with hunting at the T4 Ranch. He said he'd take a raincheck on that because we're not in hunting season right now."
Other Tucumcari churches - First Assembly of God Church, First Baptist Church, Divine Connection Ministries and Center Street United Methodist Church - joined forces with Father's Forge to help bring Barber to Tucumcari.
Youth participation in football in the United States has fallen in recent years. In Quay County this fall, all three high school teams saw a dropoff in the number of players on the gridiron. Several New Mexico schools, including Roy-Mosquero in neighboring Harding County, canceled their seasons because of too few players.
Barber, who also coached high-school football in his native Texas for a few years after his NFL retirement, was asked what was causing the decrease.
"Your young people are distracted by so many different objects more than ever before," he said. "Unless you have a really strong program from the sixth grade up, you lose kids. Mom has to work at least two jobs; Dad's nowhere to be found. So they find the streets."
Barber dismissed the notion the NFL's concussion cases, where numerous former players are suffering from dementia or other mental illnesses, was the cause for youth football's decline.
Barber acknowledged he'd suffered seven concussions - "three major and four minor" - during his career and "I have my issues" from their effects.
However, he said he refused to take a concussions settlement offer from the league.
"The reason I didn't take it was because nobody made me play," Barber said. "I wanted to play. Why would I sue somebody for something I wanted to do?"