Barry McNamara  |   Published October 27, 2016

Thinking man’s football

Top scholar-athlete Barnes enjoys ‘outsmarting’ Fighting Scots foes
The Monmouth College athlete recognized as the top scholar among football players in the Midwest Conference says his intellect is just as important on the gridiron as it is in the classroom.

As a junior, Matt Barnes ’17 of Colfax, Ill., received the MWC’s Elite 20 Award. Modeled after the NCAA Elite 90 Award, it recognizes the student-athlete with the highest GPA in each of the conference’s 20 varsity sports.

The linebacker has decent size for a Division III football player – 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. But it’s not Barnes’ physical tools that figure to make him the second all-time leading tackler in the storied history of the Fighting Scots.

Rather, it’s his football IQ, which is in the same stratosphere as his academic IQ. Barnes has received an A in every class he’s taken at Monmouth except for two during his first semester – an A- in “Introduction to Liberal Arts” and a B in an Honors Program course.

“I don’t consider myself to be a superior athlete,” said Barnes, who is a Spanish and international business major. “I have to outsmart the opponent. I spend 10 hours a week watching video of the other team.”

Such detailed study usually gives Barnes the information he needs. Maybe he’ll notice an offensive lineman has his back foot positioned slightly farther back than normal, indicating he’s about to pull off the line. Or maybe an opponent tends to run certain plays out of certain formations.

“Whenever (one of our recent opponents) was in a certain formation, I knew they ran the counter,” he said. “I was calling it out before it even happened.”

A team leader

Monmouth football coach Chad Braun, who also has a high football IQ, certainly knows which player should serve as his defensive field general.

“Matt is first and foremost an outstanding student-athlete,” Braun said of the two-time All-MWC linebacker. “He has been very productive on the field and is a great leader that plays the game with great passion. He’s a different person when he steps on the football field, in a good way, and he’s the type of young man you’d want your daughter to marry. He will be very successful in the business world once he graduates from Monmouth.”

Monmouth defenders have about 50 play calls to sort through. Barnes is especially fond of a relatively new one – a blitz that has been added to a recently installed formation.

“They shouldn’t see me coming,” said the senior captain, who was interviewed following a 63-0 victory over Grinnell College, which raised Monmouth’s season record to 6-0.

Three more wins have followed, and Barnes now has 282 tackles in his career, third on the program’s all-time list and just seven stops behind the No. 2 player on the list.

The Scots have one regular-season game remaining and, if they keep winning, at least one NCAA playoff game for Barnes to add to his total. A playoff berth became a stronger possibility after a 29-22 come-from-behind victory against Wartburg College in the season’s second week. It was the Scots’ first win over the Knights.

“We got down 15 points in the first quarter, which is not ideal, but (senior quarterback) Tanner (Matlick) and I met on the sidelines with the guys,” Barnes said. “They were kind of panicking. We just got them together and calmed them down. For the last three quarters, we dominated and got a comeback win against a great team.”

Barnes has at least 82 tackles in each of the past three seasons, but he recorded only three in his rookie season.

“The speed of the game was a lot different,” he said. “I was only 200 pounds my senior year of high school. I knew I needed to put on some weight, but I did it the wrong way and put on some bad weight.”

Just like his first-semester academic classes, Barnes also needed to brush up on his football homework.

“I knew I needed to learn the playbook and get up to speed,” he said. “By my sophomore year, I knew the playbook, and I knew the speed of the game. I had a couple big games as a sophomore, and that helped me get more confident.”

‘A truly exceptional student’

Barnes has shown he’s a good learner on and off the field. He serves as an accounting tutor and is a member of three honor societies – Mortar Board, Sigma Beta Delta International Honor Society for Business, Management and Administration, and Sigma Delta Pi National Collegiate Hispanic Honor Society.

Barnes said that one of his toughest courses has been “Religion in Spain,” which was taught completely in Spanish and required Barnes to convey his opinions about religion in essays and discussions in Spanish.

This fall, he took an independent study course on Don Quixote, meeting regularly with his professor, Zach Erwin, to analyze each chapter. Barnes has written several eight- to 10-page essays for the class, which he says is one of his favorites. He hopes to submit at least one to a literary magazine.

“Matt is a truly exceptional student – extremely bright, hard-working, curious and open-minded,” Erwin said. “He’s also a great speaker and writer in Spanish, and I’m always impressed with his thoughtful and interesting interpretations of Spanish literary texts. The independent study he’s doing with me has been a real highlight of my teaching career at Monmouth so far.”

The combination of Barnes’ majors is no accident, as he plans to use his mastery of Spanish in the business world.

“I’d really enjoy traveling abroad for business, but I don’t think I’d like to live abroad,” Barnes said.

Barnes aims to enter the workforce immediately following his graduation in May. But graduate school is also a possibility. Barnes said he would like to study risk analysis, which is “a growing need for a lot of companies.”

But with the various postseason all-star games that are likely to call on Barnes, playing a little football beyond his senior year is also a possibility.

“It might be an option,” he said. “Maybe there will even be an international opportunity.”

No matter how that plays out, Barnes plans to stay around the game he grew up on.

“My dad and uncles coached in Colfax,” he said. “I was the tee boy for the team when I was 5 years old. I’ve been around football all my life, and I want to be able to pass it along to other people.”
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