The words of his high school coach, David Barnes, will stick with Murray State freshman quarterback Joby Jaggers forever.
“He was special,” said the Caldwell County native and starter in Princeton from 2017-18. “Last year at practice, one thing I remember him saying was that 'coming to practice and watching us go to work' was one of the only things that kept him going, and I think I'll remember that for the rest of my life.
Barnes, who had led the Tigers since 2006 and compiled 110 wins with the program, died Saturday morning after collapsing at a Caldwell County scrimmage Friday night.
He was 59, and had been diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's disease in 2017.
“Football is more than a game,” Jaggers added. “And coach Barnes really showed me that.”
Jaggers had to follow up guys like Elijah Sindelar (Purdue) and Shane Burns (Murray State, baseball) at the quarterback position, sure, but the nurturing and care from someone like Barnes set him up for success and gave him the chance to compete for a position within the Racer quarterback room.
“Coach Barnes really cared about his players,” Jaggers said. “I know everybody says that about their coach, but Coach Barnes loved us and treated us like we were one of his. And I think that was a really important thing that just made him a great coach. The way he treated his players, like they were his sons.”
Another one of Barnes' “sons,” former linebacker and current Pennyrile Electric lineman Hunter VanHooser, said things surrounding his football coach are surreal.
“Running out of the tunnel every Friday night at home, I'd give anything to run out of that tunnel one more time with that man,” he said.
But, in reflecting back to the 2017 season – his last with Caldwell County – VanHooser remembers a coach that didn't dwell on his Parkinson’s diagnosis from earlier that year.
“Even when he got diagnosed, he didn't want anything to stop us,” VanHooser said. “He wanted us to get back to work and keep working. Don't let that set us back. There was nothing that needed to set us back, and he wanted us to keep working forward.”
It also seems Barnes had tentative plans to coach through 2020, in order to see Drake (the oldest brother) and Hunter's youngest sibling, Tate, through his senior year at the linebacker position.
“All he kept saying was that he was going to make it through Tate's senior year,” VanHooser said. “He said, 'I'm going to make it.'
“And that broke Tate's heart.”
Longtime Crittenden coach Starnes: ‘He just couldn’t give it up.’
For more than 30 years, Al Starnes spent his Friday evenings on the sidelines for Crittenden County. Once a year, his teams met Barnes’ as opponents.
But, as time went on, the pair became close friends.
“I knew of him when he was at Daviess County and I knew he was from Caldwell, but I didn’t know him until he got to Caldwell (in 2006),” Starnes said. “As I got to know him, we became closer. Of course, with Crittenden and Caldwell, the rivalry was tremendous, but our friendship and relationship just continued to grow from there.”
Both coaches traded bouts with illness. Before Barnes fought Parkinson’s, both Starnes and his wife had been battling with cancer.
So, Barnes and the Caldwell County community rallied around their rival’s coach, raising money to help out.
“They actually did that for us, in 2013, when my wife and I were both fighting cancer,” Starnes said. “That’s one of those things that stands out and that I remember about David.”
That relationship was absolutely not one-sided.
Barnes sent this text message to The Sun in December, 2017, ahead of Starnes’ retirement.
“Al Starnes is retiring this year,” Barnes said. “When we played them this year, Coach Starnes, his team (and) his boosters put together a fundraiser for Parkinson’s Disease. The Crittenden/Caldwell community raised around $9,000 by selling T-shirts that were blue and gold and said ‘Stay Barnes Strong.’ At halftime of our game the presentation (of the check) was made. Both teams (were) together at midfield in a (rivalry) game.
“This was followed by the two teams coming together after the game for a prayer. Both teams fans were wearing the T-shirts. Crittenden coaching staff were wearing the shirts (too). I think Coach Starnes and Crittenden (County) should be recognized for this. This is a true example of what high school football is about. What happened that night will never be forgotten.
“At the banquet is there any way to recognize this example of sportsmanship, compassion, (and) caring for others? I will pay for the award. Please consider this recognition for a man of character whose concern for a fellow coach showed us what the true meaning of football really is.”
There was a way; Starnes was voted and named the All-Purchase “Coach of the Year.”
Looking back on that relationship, Starnes said Barnes’ impact wasn’t limited to the players he coached.
“He was a role model,” Starnes said. “He was a role model for kids, but he was also a role model to adults, but he probably didn’t know that. The way he approached life and the way he approached his family, and stuff like that, that’s what people didn’t see, I don’t think, on the football field. He was tough. He was stern. He was aggressive and he was a competitor. But, outside of that, he was truly a good person.”
And, while his health issues continued to mount, there was no doubt Barnes would go anywhere but with his team.
“He just couldn’t give it up,” Starnes said. “He just said he couldn’t retire. He couldn’t not be there for the kids, even though he was battling his own health issues. He wanted to be there for the kids.”
Duncan, Barnes bond over health issues
With his most recent stops at Murray, Logan County and Paducah Tilghman, former high school football coach Steve Duncan certainly crossed paths with Barnes on the gridiron.
This past offseason, Duncan – now in charge of his own non-profit organization geared toward delivering devotional materials to football youth – had worked with Barnes' Tigers through Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the two recently had a very personal conversation at Roy Stewart Stadium, following an FCA 7-on-7 outreach program.
“When we would see each other, we had a little bit of a common bond,” said Duncan, who has survived, separately, a heart attack and a stroke in the last five years. “Because he had some health issues, and I did, too. So when we'd see each other, we always had to make sure that we would spend some time talking to each other.
“He had told me that he was coaching again, and that he was okay for this year. But he was also...and we were just talking...but that it was so good to have a son that was a big part of it. But he was feeling good. That's what he told me. That's what he told me.
“I just can't imagine not seeing him over there on Caldwell's sideline. That was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Sindelar, former Caldwell signal-caller, remembers Barnes
Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar was Barnes’ signal-caller from 2011-14, and was named Kentucky's “Mr. Football” following the 2014 season.
A four-star quarterback upon graduation, Sindelar threw for more than 12,000 yards and 140 touchdowns in his colorful career in Princeton.
And a lot of that came behind the orchestration of Barnes and his staff.
“Coach Barnes was a legendary coach,” Sindelar said. “He always cared about every player and always went the extra mile to try and put his players in the best position to be successful. It was an absolute honor to be able to play under a coach that I knew had my back on every play no matter what happened. He believed in me even during the the times I didn’t believe in myself, but ever more so, he trusted me, and that’s what made him such a good coach. He was always there for me not only as a player, but also as a man.
“I hope I can play a season that would make him proud, even though I know he will still be watching. Rachel and Will, I am praying for you guys, praying for comfort and peace, I love you guys! My thoughts and prayers are with Princeton as well, especially the football team, during this tough time. Rest In Peace, Coach.”
Murray's Hodge on Barnes, the mentor
Heading into his sixth year on the job, Murray High coach Keith Hodge had his own battles with Barnes and Caldwell County early in his career.
And he vividly remembers what it was like the first time he turned on the tape, just to see what Barnes was building over in Princeton.
“When you come into an area and you start coaching and you start figuring out who does what, how they do it and what makes (them) successful, (Barnes) is not only a mentor, but a prime example of what you want to study and look at and why he's doing so well,” Hodge said. “What's he doing different? How's he preparing his players? And one of the things that stood out to me, when I was watching his film even before I came to (Murray), was just how well his kids prepare and how hard they play. They're obviously doing things right for him. He just has them ready to play.
“It's hard to coach against somebody that's so consistent in what they do and how well they do it. It's so hard to prepare for. And you just hope for that battle, and we've had those battles with him. And that's what makes high school football so great. People like him that stick with it, want to be around the kids and coach the kids. That's motivation for any young coach that wants to be like that and study from and learn from. Even in conversation, and not just talking about X's and O's, but to me it's just about the culture and the way you think about things instead of just drawing something up. Anybody can draw something up on the board, but those meaningful conversations that you have with an individual like him – to me – make it what it is. That's just my take on it.”
Two of those said battles occurred in 2014. It was Caldwell's final year in the district before moving up to Class 3A. Hodge got his first dose of Barnes-ball on Oct. 17 at Ty Holland Stadium, in which senior quarterback Elijah Sindelar and his Tigers escaped with a scintillating 31-24 win.
One month later, Sindelar was again slinging all over Murray's secondary at the regional championship in Princeton when he finished with a touchdown run and a torn ACL on the scoring lunge. The visiting Tigers would eventually win 47-28, sending Hodge and his homewreckers to the Class 2A semifinals against DeSales the next week.
The two squads haven't faced each other since the district realignment, but are once again Class 2A, District I foes in '19 and beyond after another restructuring from the KHSAA.
Hodge was looking forward to seeing a friend across the field when the two Tigers teams meet once again on Oct. 18.
“That's going to be difficult, looking across there when we play them late in the year and not see him,” Hodge said. “Not talk to him in pregame. He's always asking how things are going. 'How are you doing?' You could tell he was such a good person. It's just crazy to think about, and I know it's going to be hard on the team and his son (Will). But I know they'll play for him all throughout the year, and you've got to think about his family and what they're going through. It's tough. Real tough.”
Gates, Caldwell's leader in wins, reflects
Barnes might have passed former Caldwell County coaches in Pat Gates and Fred Clayton in career wins for the Tigers this season. With 110 to his name, he needed eight to overcome the leaders – each holding 117 victories.
In fact, Barnes succeeded Gates when he took over the Tigers in 2006.
“I loved that man like a brother,” Gates said in a written statement. “I knew when we hired him in 2006 that he was the perfect hire to carry on the Caldwell County football tradition. He did such a terrific job with the program, but was a much better person to his players, colleagues, and kids in general. He will be greatly missed by all.
“I knew his health was starting to decline, but never thought it would be this soon. Life is so precious and we need to cherish every minute we have left on this Earth. I know that David is in a much better place now and does not have to suffer any longer. If he had his druthers, this would have been the way he would have wanted to be reunited with his Lord and Savior. Doing what he loved doing the most. Coaching young men and teaching them the lessons of life. May my prayers be with his immediate family, Tiger Nation, wife Rachel, son Will, and dad Bill during these very difficult times. R.I.P. Coach.”
Burns, former Caldwell QB: 'That's just who he is.'
Now a sophomore pitcher for Murray State baseball, Shane Burns had the tough task of following up a guy like Sindelar, who just so happened to post one of the most prolific high school football careers in state history.
Barnes, however, never made Burns feel like anyone but himself.
“When Elijah did graduate and someone did have to step up and take that roll, he had nothing but support and confidence in me – even if I didn't have confidence in myself,” Burns said. “The expectations were so high. Everyone is wondering 'what's going on, what's going on?' and everyone is dwelling.
“And he just told me: 'fill your own shoes.' 'Make what happens for you.' 'Don't worry about Elijah.' He just made me feel more comfortable. The knowledge of the game he had for football was just tremendous, and I enjoyed taking every Friday night with him. From the film studies in the locker room to just the every day grind you would expect goes along with it, it was just enjoyable. Because he was always so passionate and energetic about Caldwell County football.”
In 2017, Burns made an extremely tough decision and passed up his senior season in football, leading to Jaggers taking the field as the team's starter.
It's a choice he doesn't regret, but it doesn't mean he hasn't missed those times with Barnes and the program. And the two remained in contact, despite the change of heart.
“We were going to have to take him off the football field when it was his time to go,” Burns added. “That's just who he is. Coach Barnes is just one of those guys who just meant so much to this community, the football program, the school system. He was someone that everyone looked up to. To me, he was more than just a coach. He was a father figure. On Friday nights, there was nothing more special than taking the field with him.”
Racers coach Stewart: ‘He was one of the good ones.’
Fifth-year Murray State football coach Mitch Stewart knew Barnes deeper than just some contact for up-and-coming talent.
But that is how it all started for the friendship.
As an assistant for the Racers under former skipper Chris Hatcher, Stewart had to organize system camps when they were still permitted in the college football realm.
And that's when Stewart got his first glimpse of how Barnes did things within his program and impacted other people.
“Really and truly, I first came into contact with him working system camps when it was still legal to work system camps,” Stewart remembered. “The Tony Franklin systems and all that. He'd always been a long-time client of Tony Franklin. We started our relationship there, and I was always really, really impressed with the way he ran his program and ran his kids. How respectful his kids were. How tough his kids were. How well they practiced.
“And obviously with Sindelar, they started doing some system camps here on our campus, and that was right around the time that I became head coach (in 2015). And I was always just very, very impressed in the way he handled a guy like Sindelar. A big time player and all that kind of stuff. It was always fair, man. It was always fair. From No. 1 to No. 100, it didn't matter who you were or what contributions you may make and all of that. You were a player on his team, and that's how he treated everybody. With the same respect and the same way, and it didn't matter who you were. You were always held to the same standard. And he had a major impact on me in my career, and how you handle young people and how you handle a team and things like that.
“As I started head coaching, he's always been a guy that I'd call and ask questions. And if I saw him, I'd ask him a question about this, that or the other. Talked to him a lot about other things. Not just how to run mesh. He sent me text messages after games, staying positive and all that kind of stuff.”
Stewart and many members of his Racer football team were helping incoming students with move-in day at Murray State when he learned of Barnes' passing.
“I sent a message to the staff just a few minutes ago,” he added. “He was one of the good ones. He was one of the good ones. You won't find a finer coach or a finer man. This is a guy who looked after his kids, developed his kids. He's what high school football – every level of football – is all about. Probably the easiest way to sum it up. He had this profession, this coaching thing, figured out. He's a very close friend of mine. Sent me texts after every game, win or lose. Always met you with a handshake.
“The sport took a big hit with this one. The sport of football took a big hit with this one.”