Seats are filling up. Advertisements are playing. Horns are blaring. Drums are snaring.
It’s another Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and kickoff is in less than an hour.
Behind all the pregame noise outside, inside the Bears’ locker room and in front of locker No. 8 sits linebacker Michael Barton. With his pads on and his helmet next to him, Barton calmly has his head down in prayer. After a few moments to himself, Barton gets up, puts his helmet on and gets ready to run onto the gridiron.
“I had a young man that I had to raise, so I didn’t beat around the bush with him. I taught him life lessons and things he needed to know and things he needed to grow up to be a productive, smart, humble young man.” — Chakay McDonald
As he makes his way to the field, it’s easy to spot the cross tattoo on his upper left arm. And connecting to the cross is another tattoo of a chain. The story of the chain goes back to Barton’s high school years at De La Salle.
“We had these chain links, and a motto we had is that everybody had to be a part of the chain because if one part of the chain is broken, then the whole chain collapses,” Barton says. “So that’s the type of thing with unity and being a team and being together.”
Although the imagery of the chain comes from his time at De La Salle, the same idea extends beyond just his high school football team.
For Barton, the theme of unity and supporting those around him is recurrent. From his family to his home city of Richmond, California, to his Cal teammates, Barton has always played a key role in strengthening the communities he is a part of.
“No matter what it is — family, teammates, friendship, anything — relationships, you got to have that,” Barton says. “People have to be equally committed to what the cause is in order for the chain to stay together.”
Before going to Berkeley De La Salle, Barton grew up in Richmond. At the time, Barton’s mother, Chakay McDonald, was a single mother and a cop. Like in most Bay Area neighborhoods, gentrification there has swooped in, and there have been significant developments around the area that have made Richmond a buyer’s market. But in the ’90s, the Iron Triangle area in Richmond didn’t have the best reputation and was one of the more dangerous marginalized communities in California.
“I had a young man that I had to raise, so I didn’t beat around the bush with him,” McDonald says. “I taught him life lessons and things he needed to know and things he needed to grow up to be a productive, smart, humble young man.”
Despite the obstacles that come from being raised in a single-parent household in an inner-city environment, Barton credits his mother with providing for both him and his sisters, and with making sure he knew how to keep himself safe.
“My mom would always tell me, ‘Just be aware of your surroundings.’ Growing up in an area like that, you definitely become more aware of who you’re surrounded with and what you want to do. It definitely made me mature a lot faster,” Barton says. “Everything she did for me, she always made sure we were supplied with clothes, food. I never felt like we didn’t have what we need or wanted, because she worked so hard, and that was always amazing. I really admire her for that. Family is definitely my motivation.”
Barton still remembers the time when he was in sixth grade and went to see a De La Salle football game. After witnessing the team play, he learned about De La Salle’s elite reputation for both its athletics and academics.
That’s when Barton decided it was the place he wanted to be. But De La Salle was in Concord, California — about an hourlong drive from Richmond. In addition, Barton wasn’t the only person who wanted to go to a school with such prestige. It was competitive and selective. Although De La Salle yielded high rewards, getting in was no easy task.
Barton took the entry test for De La Salle and got in.
“I was almost kind of shocked. I didn’t apply to any other schools,” Barton says. “I didn’t know what my backup plan was. I just knew that’s where I needed to be.”
Barton found himself in a new world. Going from inner-city Richmond to a private Catholic school in Concord was an adjustment. The people around Barton came from privilege: From the cars they drove to the houses they lived in, it took some getting used to. But because of the life lessons he received at home, Barton was prepared and not shaken by the transition.
“He’s always out here. He’s competing. He’ll compete with anybody. I think he wants to make every play while he’s out there on the field, and he wants to be the best person off the field.” — Hardy Nickerson
“It was my job to make sure he was mentally, physically and emotionally ready for that as he was going out into the world,” McDonald says. “The transition could’ve been something very difficult, but I think because we had a strong foundation built at home, it wasn’t an issue with him.”
De La Salle assisted Barton with financial aid. But the amount of money and resources people had was something Barton wasn’t accustomed to. Coming from a background where things didn’t always come as easily for him, Barton went through a dramatic culture shift. But at the same time, it was also a growing experience.
“It definitely helped me mature as a person as well and be more open and accepting to a lot of different people,” Barton says. “Growing up, white people were the minority, and then going to the minority at that time was definitely an adjustment. But I’m glad I was able to adapt and change and be more open culturally.”
On the field, Barton proved to be a defensive player with the instincts to consistently find the best routes to attack the ball carrier. Playing three years on varsity, Barton finished his career with 233 total tackles and was the leading tackler in both his junior and senior seasons.
“I think he has unbelievable hunger,” says Cal linebacker and teammate Hardy Nickerson. “He’s always out here. He’s competing. He’ll compete with anybody. I think he wants to make every play while he’s out there on the field, and he wants to be the best person off the field.”
Now in his junior season with Cal, Barton is at a stage in his life where it seems as if he can conquer anything and everything. He’s the Bears’ current active leader in tackles for loss and second in tackles. On top of his individual accomplishments, Cal is undefeated at 4-0 and ranked No. 24 in the country.
But Barton wants everybody to prosper. And he wants to use his accomplishments and success to give back to his home in Richmond.
“It’s a part of my roots,” Barton says. “I’m proud to be from Richmond. I’m proud to represent the Bay Area, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to stay home. I wanted to be that person in Richmond who made it.”
Today, Barton still stays close to home, living in a Richmond apartment with his teammates James Looney and Darius White. He frequents youth football programs around the Bay Area to share his story and stress the importance of academics and time management.
Barton also helps Landrin Kelly, the father of former De La Salle star Terrance Kelly, with the Terrance Kelly Youth Foundation. On Aug. 12, 2004, just two days before Terrance Kelly was to attend the University of Oregon on scholarship, he was shot and murdered. The foundation started as a way of honoring Kelly by helping give inner-city youth an opportunity to succeed academically and athletically while also raising awareness for violence prevention.
“I want them to be able to play football while having a managed schedule in school,” Barton says. “I want them to be able to balance both without having to worry about so many outside factors or having to worry about the dangers of being in the streets.”
Before every home game at Memorial Stadium, Barton’s introduction slide appears in the jumbotron, and “Richmond, California” is printed clearly right under his name and number.
Whenever Barton takes the field, he’s playing for more than just himself.
“He loves Richmond,” says Cal linebackers coach Garret Chachere. “He loves the people in Richmond, and he wants to make sure that when he does well, people know he’s from Richmond and people in Richmond know that he’s doing this to represent them.”
Barton’s goal is to be a light for an area where many have to overcome more obstacles to succeed than those from privileged areas.
“It’s a part of my roots. I’m proud to be from Richmond. I’m proud to represent the Bay Area, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to stay home. I wanted to be that person in Richmond who made it.” — Michael Barton
Family and friends from Richmond consistently come out Saturdays to see Barton play. Often, he’s the talk around the neighborhood. Daniel Smith, Barton’s step-father and owner of D-Boys Barber Shop in Richmond, says many of the younger kids in the city see Barton as a “neighborhood superstar.”
“They love him in the barbershop,” Smith says. “The Cal posters are always up at the shop for the year, and everybody’s always tuned in. They all know that that shop is attached to Michael.”
Keeping the chain together has always been the story for Barton.
It was a team effort when his mother raised him and he had to take on the responsibility of being the oldest sibling in the family. It was a team effort when he suited up as a Spartan at De La Salle. It’s a team effort now with the Bears. And it’s a team effort with his home neighborhood in Richmond. Through the work he’s doing right now, Barton is trying to do everything he can to help lift everybody up.
“Richmond is a tight-knit community, and people really care about each other,” Barton says. “The thing about inner-city neighborhoods that people don’t understand is that people are close and community is close, and people will rally together, especially when they see someone making it out of the community.
“They want to help. They want to see people of color, especially young black men, be successful, and I think that’s very important. I want to be that representation. I want to be that young black man who made it out of Richmond.”
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected]