By Kyle LoJacono
Recent Gaither High graduate Paul Barrett illustrates how important determination and perseverance is, even through tumultuous times and uncertain futures.
The 6-foot-1.5, 180-pound Barrett signed a full-ride scholarship on June 19 to run track at the University of South Florida (USF). It was one of several offers he had to compete in college.
Rewind about two months and the freshly inked Bull had zero offers. That was at the Class 3A state track meet, where Barrett ran away with the 300-meter hurdles championship by posting a time of 37.29 seconds, breaking his own school record.
It didn’t take long for USF to take notice.
“It was maybe a week or two after when they called my coach at Gaither (Jeff Ditman),” Barrett said. He added, “He told me USF was really interested. That’s actually one of the first colleges I saw when I came here and I really wanted to go there from the start.”
Division I men’s track programs like USF can only give 12.69 full scholarships, so coaches tend to split them up to attract more athletes. In comparison, football teams have 85.
“We kept telling him it’ll happen because he’s too good of a runner to not get signed,” Ditman said. “He kept working every day at practice and kept his grades up.”
Barrett, who also played football and soccer, said he never got down because of the lack of scholarship offers.
“I was just doing what my coaches were telling me to do,” Barrett said. “I thought whatever happened would happen, so I just kept working hard because that’s what I could control. … Sports kept me working hard, really. I’m still just a little kid who wants to play. The way I grew up, being able to play organized sports was always the best part of the day.”
Barrett was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica and moved to the United States at age 11 because his parents, Aedinne McNeil and Paul Barrett Sr., thought it would be a better opportunity for him. He bounced around to different residences, living first with his aunt through his freshman year.
Barrett transferred from Alonso to Gaither as a sophomore when he moved in with his grandmother, Pernel McFarlan. He lived with her for two years before she died.
Besides the blow of losing his grandmother, Barrett also worried about what school he would attend his senior year. He wanted to remain at Gaither, so he moved in with his football teammate Mikhail Reece.
“He actually offered for me to stay with him when he heard I’d have to go back to Alonso,” Barrett said. “I was always over at his house anyway.”
Reece appears more excited about the signing than the laid-back Barrett.
“If anyone deserved this, it’s Paul,” Reece said. “He never wavered. A blow would come his way, and he’d just let it roll off his shoulder. I’m happy for him, but in the back of my head I knew it was going to happen for him. I saw what he was doing and how fast he was. It was just a matter of time.”
The new residence benefitted both young men.
“It was pretty interesting because he really pushed me to get stronger in the weight room,” Barrett said. “I think that really helped me my senior year. I tried to be as strong as him, and he told me he tried to be as fast as me.”
Reece, who signed to play football at Yale University, said he’d given up trying to run faster than Barrett. Instead, he’s settled for winning in a less physical activity.
“I know I can always beat him in Super Smash Brothers video game,” Reece said. “I got him in that.”
The competition, both physical and electronic, helped prepare Barrett to have one of the most successful senior seasons in the history of Gaither athletics
Barrett only knew the postseason as a senior.
He caught five passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns for a Gaither football team that went 9-4 and made the regional finals for the second time in the program’s 27-year history. As a midfielder/forward in soccer, Barrett had six goals and seven assists to help the Cowboys (20-5-1) make consecutive state final fours.
Barrett also earned district and regional track titles in the 300 hurdles before claiming the state championship. He was not only named All-Laker/All-Lutz News Track Athlete of the Year, but also the overall Boys Athlete of the Year.
“I had a great senior year,” Barrett said. “Most kids don’t get to do what I did, and I don’t take it for granted. Sports wise, it was great to make it to the football regional finals, soccer made it back to the final four and then ended it all with a state title. It could have been better, but I think that’s good.”
Barrett said remaining at Gaither was important for his success because of the support system from people like Reece and his coaches, which are Jason Stokes in football, Eric Sims in soccer and Ditman and assistant Ed Moore in track.
“All they had to do was just be here for me, honestly,” Barrett said. “All I really needed was someone telling me to be at practice and to want me on the team, and they all did that for me.”
Ditman, who is also an assistant for the football team and a teacher at Gaither, said Barrett’s nature benefits any group he’s a part of.
“He just always has a smile on his face and takes things with the right perspective,” Ditman said. “Whenever I’d see him in the hall he’d look so happy. He would say ‘What do I have to be unhappy about?’ That’s the right attitude, and he brought that to the field every day.”
Barrett said watching his parents gave him an appreciation for what he has.
“Growing up, my mom would have three jobs to feed the family, and so did my dad,” Barrett said. “It was really easy just going to school and doing sports. I had it easy.”
Barrett’s parents sacrificed getting to see him grow up to give him a better life. They were understandably pumped about the scholarship.
“They were psyched,” Barrett said. “They knew I could do it, but they were still pretty excited.”
Barrett will have to change track events as the 300 hurdles isn’t a recognized NCAA race. He expects to run the 400 hurdles and in the relays.
As for the classroom, Barrett has already made the most of his education, graduating with a 4.5 weighted grade point average. He plans to study architecture while pursuing a master’s degree at USF.
“Architecture is something I’ve just started looking at,” Barrett said. “Officially I’m undecided, but looking at it over the summer it seems like what I want to do. I’m better at math, and I can draw pretty well.”
Another long-term goal is qualifying for the Olympics in four years.
“It’s going to take a lot to get there, but it’s something I’ll be going after,” Barrett said.
Ditman has no question Barrett will be great in whatever he does.
“He’s such a great role model,” Ditman said. “People can see what he’s been able to do and understand it doesn’t matter what your socio-economic background is. If you work hard you can succeed.”
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