Sitting inside a spacious but empty classroom at Frederick High, Kevin Pirri, the school’s varsity football coach, stops himself before finishing his thought.
“I am not sure I want to say this out loud,” Pirri says.
He is about to go ahead and do it when he hesitates again.
The subject Pirri is being asked to talk about is senior Kisaye Barnes, the Cadets’ three-year starter at quarterback and unquestioned team leader, the coach in uniform and shoulder pads.
“Without letting his head get too big,” Pirri finally allows, “he is probably the savior of our program.”
When Pirri took over the program just prior to the 2015 season, Frederick was at one of the real low points in its football history, having won just three games over the previous two seasons combined. He knew it was going to take a major commitment from himself, his staff and his players to even begin moving the program back in the right direction.
Then, in the summer of 2017, a catalyst unexpectedly fell into his lap.
Barnes transferred into Frederick High from Wilson, North Carolina. His mother, Patti, had just accepted the principal’s job at Spring Ridge Elementary School before moving on to West Frederick Middle School, where she currently works.
The move was one of the toughest things Barnes ever had to deal with, leaving behind friends and family in North Carolina. But he was also accepting of his new life, his new opportunity and the challenge ahead.
Though his initial workout with the football team raised eyebrows in both good and bad ways, Barnes quickly made Pirri realize that he was a player who could help change the program’s fortunes.
Here was an extroverted kid with the talent to score six touchdowns in a game, like he did in last week’s season-opening win over Silver Oak Academy, who showed up to lift weights at 5:30 in the morning, who could wear a pink jersey and Toy Story or Christmas socks at practice and still command the unquestioned respect of his coaches and teammates.
Pirri thought to himself, “Of all the bad things that have happened to us [as a program], how did I get so lucky to have this kid?”
The season prior to Barnes’ arrival, the Cadets finished 1-9. So, he knew what he was getting himself into.
As he wrestled the quarterback job away as a sophomore from teammate Fontaine Weedon in an open competition, the team duplicated the record.
But last season, with Barnes throwing for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, Frederick made significant progress and finished 4-6.
“Being a quarterback, I always say, is 20 percent what you do in terms of throwing the ball and stuff like that,” Barnes said. “The other 80 percent is getting the rest of the team up toward the level you know you can play at. Getting a guy the ball in space. Spreading it around. Most of it is mental in helping the other guys out.”
Barnes does not shy away from adversity, which made him uniquely suited for the challenge.
He was cut from his football team as a seventh-grader because he lacked size and was struggling with severe asthma.
He struggled through his first workout with the Frederick High football team, in part, because he had consumed three big bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch just prior to the workout that slowed him down.
Pirri initially wondered if he was another kid “who looked athletic but was not going to make it.”
Barnes’ teammates questioned him as well because they thought he was trying too hard to get into the good graces of the coaches.
But, in each case, Barnes assessed his own shortcomings, realized what he needed to do in order to get better and then went about doing it.
“There is always an opportunity to make a negative situation better,” he said.
After getting cut from the seventh-grade team, he spent the following summer going to quarterback camps and working one-on-one with coaches, showcasing his commitment. The next season, he was named the starting quarterback.
After his poor initial workout at Frederick High, he flung a football roughly 60 yards in a throwing session with his brother. That opened Pirri’s eyes to his potential as a quarterback.
And he won over skeptical teammates with his talent, work ethic and magnetic personality. In Barnes’ three seasons on the team, the size of the varsity roster has doubled in size, which Pirri attributes largely to his quarterback’s ability to recruit teammates. The junior varsity program has also returned.
“Before I could tell other people what to do, I had to make sure they knew I was the hardest worker in this building,” Barnes said. “In order to get them to work hard and listen to me, I had to set the example. They had to know that there was nobody here that was going to outwork me.”
Now, off to a good start and with an expanded playoff field, the Cadets harbor legitimate postseason aspirations following Barnes’ lead.
“I am proud to step outside and say I have an F on my chest,” Barnes said. “Yes, I am the Frederick High QB. Yes, I want you to understand who me and my teammates are. When you have a sense of pride, it makes you play a little harder.”