Goober Pyle

‘It took my head off my shoulders!’ The hit that almost ended Kenjon Barner’s career as a returner

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Kenjon Barner was done with special teams.

After taking a hit in college that left him unconscious, Barner swore off returning kickoffs and punts. Back when he was starring in college at Oregon, Barner fielded a kickoff against Washington State and ran what was called an opposite return. Barner sold like he was running to his left before turning right to follow his blocks.

Barner was running behind one of his blocks but never saw the action behind them. Before he knew it, Washington State’s Anthony Carpenter leveled him, with his helmet colliding forcefully into Barner’s.

Immediately, Barner was out cold.

He remained on the Martin Stadium turf for roughly 10 minutes before being assisted into an ambulance. He missed the next three weeks, two games and a bye, of college football and came to an initial conclusion that he was done returning kickoffs and punts. In fact, an Oregon team doctor told Barner that if he was to continue playing football, he should give up return duties.

Barner was fine with that. He didn’t want any part of running into another unforeseen concussion.

Naturally, it didn’t work out that way. And nine years later, Barner is now earning a living doing exactly what he was advised not to do.

“It’s just funny, man,” he said. “We all believe, ‘If you ever want to hear God laugh, tell him what your plan is.’ My plan was not to return the ball. Here I am, making a career out of it in the NFL. I look back at it and laugh.”


Career special-teamer nets first return touchdown

Barner eventually started returning kicks and punts again, and this avenue turned out to be his way of sticking around in the NFL.

While he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2013, it took until the 2016 season before Barner was able to carve out a niche as a kickoff and punt returner. At that point, he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, which traded for him in 2014. After spending time with the New England Patriots in 2018, he was waived and picked up by his first team, Charlotte.

With Carolina down the stretch of last season, Barner returned kickoffs and punts, which evidently caught the eye of the Falcons’ coaching staff. During the offseason, the Falcons signed Barner to be their primary return specialist.

And for the first time in his NFL career, Barner was able to take a punt return for a touchdown last week against Charlotte. The play happened with less than two minutes to go in the first quarter. The Falcons faked like they were sending 10 players to block the punt. After the snap, three players bailed to help set up the return for Barner. The initial look, combined with a seven-man pressure, might have forced Carolina punter Michael Palardy to punt the ball farther than the coverage would have dictated.

“I wanted to bring a little bit of pressure when you look at it, and I think we got the punter to drive the ball down the field a little bit,” special-teams coordinator Ben Kotwica said. “And then our blocking, we worked on something we really worked hard on the last couple of weeks coming out of the bye.”

Barner caught the ball at the Atlanta 22-yard line, with his momentum going backward a couple of extra yards. After making the first defender miss, Barner avoided another defender as his blocks began to set up.

Christian Blake threw the first key block, although he took a big hit in doing so. Barner thanked Blake profusely for getting knocked on his back.

“Blake took a bullet for me,” Barner said. “He took a real bullet. He took a live bullet. … I told him, ‘I think I owe you some money. Medical bills, send them my way.’”

Said Blake, “When I saw KB catch the ball, I couldn’t hesitate. As soon as I turned, I saw the first guy and took one for the team. I’m cool with it. We scored, so it’s all good with me.”

Of course, if Barner is offering some money for his efforts, Blake will gladly accept.

“I need like half of his check or something,” Blake joked.

From there, Barner split two defenders and also received a key block from Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Heading toward the sideline, Barner had Foye Oluokun, Keith Smith and Isaiah Oliver protecting him the rest of the way for his first career return touchdown. The return touchdown netted Barner NFC special-teams player of the week honors.

“Shout out to those guys in front of me,” Barner said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s a blessing, it’s humbling. I’m always grateful when it does happen.”

Even with the accolade, Barner was kicking himself for the remaining two punts in the game that he muffed. Asked what it was like to record his first NFL punt return touchdown, Barner focused on the mistakes.

“If I’m going to be honest, I was excited, but then the rest of the game was ****** for me,” Barner said. “I dropped two punts. I’m the type of guy, I don’t get caught up in the success. I’m more caught up in the negative. That stays with me. It lingers.”

Considering where he was nearly a decade ago, Barner is now amused that he almost convinced himself not to return kicks and punts anymore. In the end, being a returner is why he has turned professional football into a career. The average time a player spends in the league is 3.3 years. Barner is in his seventh NFL season.

Back in college, his special-teams coach, Tom Osborne, used to remind his unit that special teams could be a deciding factor as to whether someone sticks in the NFL. In Barner’s case, Osborne was correct.

“He used to always preach special teams to us all the time,” Barner said. “He’d tell us all the time, ‘A lot of you guys think you’re going to be the guy at the next level. You’re probably not going to be.’ (Special) teams is where you’re going to make a lasting career.”

Finally over the hit

Barner acknowledged it took time before he could shake the Washington State hit out of his system. Considering the severity of it, it was a play Barner wasn’t sure he would be able to get over.

Earlier this week, Barner was told by a reporter that the play looked pretty bad after seeing it for the first time. Barner, who said he has watched the play a few times since, didn’t think the word “bad” did the hit justice.

“Bad? It took my head off my shoulders!” he said.

Despite it being worse than “bad” in his eyes, Barner is OK with poking fun at the play now that nine years have passed.

“You see how my body fell? What individual do you know who can make his face and his feet touch the ground at the same time?” he said. “You can’t name one. I laugh at it now. It’s laughable now because I’m past it, I’ve healed. It’s almost 10 years later, and I’m still playing, so I can laugh at it now. At the time it was serious. It was scary. There was uncertainty. I can look back and laugh about it now, and understand what happened. I appreciate what happened — and shout out to Carpenter.”

When you watch Barner these days, he doesn’t exhibit any fear as a return specialist. While his awareness at the position has improved considerably, he’s still exposed to a big shot on any particular play. In fact, just last year when he was with Carolina, Barner took a huge hit from punter Matt Bosher in the Panthers’ home game against the Falcons.

With the 2010 hit, a perfect storm aligned to create a devastating moment. Barner never saw Carpenter, who took a push in the back from Oregon’s Marvin Johnson. That only added speed and power to the hit, which helped land the brutal blow to Barner’s head.

Barner easily could have given up special teams, and no one would have thought twice about that decision. Instead, he gave it another try and made a career out of it.

“It’s nothing you can think about; there’s nothing you can do about it,” Barner said. “It is what it is; it happened. I learned to let it go and to pray that it never happens again.”




ya_boi_j, Geneaut, mar31985 and 3 others like this

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4 minutes ago, Refried Beans said:

I dont know why he isnt utilized more in the running game. 

it's not his strength. best you can HOPE from him in the run game is a lucky break and home run like Antone Smith used to get. The likely hood of that actually happening as often as it did with Smith is slim. He's exactly where he needs to be. He's a special teams specialist

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I was one of those who wanted Barner gone.   Dude has become somewhat of a Sanu lite and a great character on the sideline. I'm all for keeping him around.  Check out this awesome Mic'd Up (may have been posted but hard for me to be on the board much during the week these days).


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7 hours ago, Francis York Morgan said:

Genuinely expected this to be an article about the Bosher hit lmao

as did I. that story he tells of his son threatening to call Bosher on him is one of the funniest stories I've ever heard from a pro player about a play


*Old Pappy Falcon* likes this

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