MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota receiver A.J. Barker quit the team Sunday in a blistering email to coach Jerry Kill that he subsequently made public through his personal blog, the messy fallout triggered by their conflict about the treatment of the junior's sprained right ankle.
Barker confirmed his decision to depart the Gophers in a phone interview, shortly after he posted the rambling, accusatory and occasionally profane message of more than 4,100 words on his website at ajbarker82.tumblr.com. Barker is a walk-on who has 30 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games, by far the most on the team.
Kill made no mention of Barker's decision earlier Sunday in his regular media availability. He wasn't available for further comment. In a statement distributed later by the university, athletic director Norwood Teague said Kill tried responding to Barker after receiving his email but was unable to connect with the player.
"We understand A.J.'s frustration with his injury, and we regret that he has chosen to leave the team on these terms," Teague said.
Barker was hurt at the end of the Oct. 27 game against Purdue, and he said he aggravated the injury on the field before the Gophers played Michigan on Nov. 3. What was a minor sprain worsened when he felt a cracking sensation in the joint, and he experienced little progress the last two weeks.
Barker said he was forced to practice by Kill last Tuesday, but he was unable to get through warm-ups. An MRI test the next day revealed ligament tears and a bone bruise above his heel, he said.
Then last Thursday, according to Barker, Kill blew up at him in front of the team, claiming he wasn't listening to the athletic trainers or working hard enough on his rehabilitation and yelling that he'd never play for the Gophers again or get a scholarship.
"You demeaned me to a point of no return. You took the one thing you had a say in (my football playing career and my future) and you held it against me in an attempt to break me," Barker wrote.
Minnesota is 6-5 this season, Kill's second here after arriving from Northern Illinois, and 2-5 in the Big Ten. Barker said he's pained by the reality he'll never play for his hometown school again. The St. Paul native, a star at De La Salle High School in Minneapolis, had only one catch combined over his first two seasons until emerging as the team's best downfield threat this fall.
But just like that, he's gone.
Barker said he intended to tell Kill in person but was too nervous. He said he's not concerned about what people think of his delivery method or tone.
"It's been so encouraging to hear the support from my teammates. And those who don't support me, I'm probably not going to hear from anyway," Barker said, adding: "At the end of the day, I'm very comfortable with myself."
Barker said Kill's screaming session last week was his breaking point but that he overlooked some interactions with the coaches over the last year and a half, including verbal abuse from a couple of assistants and what he called generally a "cycle of manipulation."
But on the phone, Barker acknowledged his anger was with the nature of his sport at this level as much as Kill and his staff. Without a scholarship, he has carried an obvious chip on his shoulder. And he said Sunday he wants to become a coach eventually so he can "right these wrongs."
"The reality of the situation is college football is a dictatorship. Coaches are making a subjective evaluation about who is good enough to get a scholarship and who gets to play," Barker said.
Barker's brother, Ross, tried to walk on at Wisconsin this season but was prevented from playing because of a heart problem. Barker said he'll consider all Big Ten schools if they'll take him and believes as an un-recruited walk-on he'll be able to play immediately and not have to sit out for a season.
"That's all he wants, an opportunity to play," his father, John Barker, said in a separate phone interview. "He's made up his own mind."
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