Like most NFL players, Alex Barrett’s journey to professional football started on a Pop Warner field. However, Barrett’s hometown of Mesa, Arizona, represented the very beginning of what would be a difficult and painful — yet rewarding — fight to the top.
At eight years old, Barrett’s dad Audry introduced the game — and later his life’s passion. He was hooked instantly, but it would take time for him to find his place in the game.
“He was always a pudgy kid,” said Alex’s mom Elena Barrett. “Alex was with a bigger team. These kids were older because they used to go by weight.”
But to make the team, Barrett, still just eight years old, had to lose weight to fit into the team’s requirements.
“He had to do a lot of running, and we had to put him on a diet,” Elena recalled.
Like a wrestler hustling to make weight, Alex ate a lot of lean protein, veggies, salads and would work up a sweat anytime he could to prepare for pee-wee league football.
“He had to drop 26 pounds,” said Elena. “He was short a few pounds by the time he had to make weight to the point he was running around in short-shorts or underwear around the field right before [weigh-ins]. Then, he went up to the scale in just underwear.”
All of his hard work — even as a young-in — had paid off: “He had made the team.” said Elena. Back then, his Pop Warner coach knew what we know now: Alex was destined for something special.
“He spoke a little bit about saying that Alex would play on Saturdays, and he would also be one to watch on Sundays,” Elena added. But little did Alex know outworking his peers would become a theme for his collegiate and professional football careers.
Barrett would have a successful career at San Diego State University, earning First-Team All-Mountain West honors twice (2015 & 2016), becoming the first SDSU defensive lineman to garner multiple First-Team recognition. In addition, his 19 career sacks are tied for fourth-most in school history.
In 2017, Barrett was ready for professional football. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t hear his name called in the 2017 NFL Draft but did get picked up by the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent. From the beginning, things were never easy, as his mother described. Between 2017-2018, Barrett was waived and signed to the practice squad multiple times until being released for good in November 2018.
“He was just devastated,” said Barrett’s mother. “You’re learning the ropes and how to navigate through all of this. But, all the while, he’s coming home, and he’s getting top-notch trainers, training day in and day out. He takes care of his body. He works hard. If only people could see him through my eyes.”
Through it all, Barrett had been carrying something much heavier since the beginning of his professional career.
“When he started in the NFL, his father was deteriorating,” said Elena. “In 2013, [Audry] had his thyroid removed due to cancer. It was difficult to find medicine because there were so many different factors at play because his dad — he’d just drink.” A battle Elena kept between herself and her husband to not impact Alex and his siblings.
“I didn’t want them to think anything about their dad or anything like that. He was a great dad, a great husband.” Elena described. “But as time progressed, he just went downhill after that.”
Alex made it home to spend some final, precious moments with his dad.
“He left spring training [in Detroit], and he had to fly back immediately because his dad was in the hospital,” said Elena. “Alex had gotten there with enough time to have like, one day to visit with him,”
Audry passed away in May 2018 after battling liver cirrhosis, a complication of alcohol abuse.
But Alex carries a piece of Audry with him everywhere he goes, especially on game days.
“Our family made shirts for his memorial,” said Elena. “He wraps it up, and then he puts it on the side of his backpack. He carries it with him to practice in the locker room. Then he wears it at every game underneath his jersey.” A simple reminder of the man who guided him through every step of his football journey and introduced the game to him as a little one.
While Alex wouldn’t find his footing on the Lions that season, he would land with the AAF’s San Diego Fleet for a short time and then back to the league in a special way.
“It was April 5th. He sent me a picture where he’s signing the contract [with the Raiders]. And he goes, ‘Mom, Happy Anniversary.’” said Elena. “I called him, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ No. I didn’t even think about it. I knew it was my anniversary, but I didn’t think of that.”
Perhaps a sign from God, or a blessing from his pops, a lifelong Raiders fan, but Alex was back in the NFL just three days after the AAF suspended operations. In September, he was released by the Raiders ahead of the 2019 season and later found himself with the 49ers. A complicated journey, but one he’s never wavered from.
“I tell him all the time, ‘You have it, you have it. You know your strength. Even though there may be other factors and decisions that are made, we have no control of them. But don’t ever lose your perseverance and just the passion of the game,’” said Elena.
He hasn’t yet. Barrett has been back and forth from the 9ers practice squad and active roster since 2019, but most recently has looked strong in the preseason with six total tackles and a sack. So while the 27-year-old defensive lineman sits on the practice squad now, Elena said he’s ready to rise to the occasion when his number is called.
“I tell him, ‘Don’t compare yourself. Don’t compare yourself because when you do that, you’re acknowledging that you have some sort of deficiency, and you know you don’t,’” said Elena.
Barrett’s journey to now hasn’t been an easy one, but as his mother described, his desire to fight started with a simple lesson from his dad: “We’ve just we have raised them that way. His dad was like, ‘You have to realize you’re doing it for you. It’s up to you.’”
It’s safe to say that desire to keep going and fighting for his opportunity is as deeply ingrained in him as his DNA.