WALLA WALLA - Brennan Barberich, a 13-year-old standout on the Garrison Middle School football team at running back and linebacker, is a bruising, powerful running back.
But sometimes it can be hard to know just how good one is at the middle school level.
Now, Barberich has a chance to find out.
He is playing in the JuniorRank Junior Academic All-American Game (JAAAG) on Jan. 2 in Phoenix, Ariz. The JAAAG features athletes from around the country; more than 300 will be making the trip, including the high school athletes participating in the Semper Fidelis Bowl, another all-star game.
The JAAAG is part of a week-long schedule of activities culminating with the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, featuring No. 3-ranked Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford.
Through six games with the Garrison Troopers this fall, Barberich amassed 13 touchdowns and 780 yards while at tailback and 63 tackles while at linebacker.
Barberich's journey toward being named a junior all-American began four years ago, when he first turned out for football in the Walla Walla Youth Football League (WWYFL).
When Barberich first arrived, his coach Allyn Griffin, of the WWYFL Cougars, said he was rough, but, thanks to his work ethic, improved rapidly.
"He had desire but he didn't have knowledge of the game," Griffin said. "It was his first year of football; he didn't have good form, good technique, so we worked with him a lot and he really grasped it early and thoroughly."
Over the three years that Griffin coached him, Barberich went from rough to dominant, ending in a five-touchdown performance in the 2010 WWYFL Super Bowl his final year in the program.
Griffin described Barberich's playing style as bruising and aggressive, saying that he had even been warned not to hit as hard when carrying the ball during the season.
Down 13-6 going into the second half of the 2010 Super Bowl, Barberich answered in a big way, going 59 yards for a kickoff return.
"You just couldn't bring him down," Griffin said. "He broke six or seven tackles - he ended up scoring on that. All at once his speed, his power, his vision - all of the gifts God blessed him with - he used in one play."
The Cougars went on to win the game, 31-19.
So, it is only natural that one of the most dominant players in WWYFL history was chosen by JuniorRank as an all-American. The only problem is that he was chosen as a linebacker, not a running back - his desired position.
"(I like) just the fact that you can score touchdowns a lot more (as a running back)," Barberich said. "I'm kind of better at running back also."
Griffin said Barberich is a great linebacker, but as a running back he is exceptional.
"As far as defense is concerned, he reminds me a lot of linebackers like (Chicago Bear) Brian Urlacher," Griffin said. "He has great speed, but he doesn't use it a lot. He goes hard from sideline to sideline, he's got great field vision, he's got a great feel for the game, he can anticipate where running backs are going to go and just that alone makes him very competent on the defensive side."
Although it wasn't his preferred position, Barberich said, he was still excited for the all-American game and the preceding practices.
"I love the game, just the fact of tackling and hitting people, it just feels good," he said. "It will be cool to see what Arizona looks like and I get to play with other kids from across the country, so it will be fun."
Barberich said he looked forward to learning more about the linebacker position - his favorite football player is Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
"I like the fact that when he runs, he runs people over," he said.
Barberich isn't given to long-winded answers, so when asked to describe his running style, he only needed one word.
"Powerful," he said.
His former coach Griffin was more effusive.
"Very powerful, fast," Griffin said of Barberich's running style. "He runs upright like Adrian Peterson, he runs upright with his knees up high. He's a violent runner, if you're not prepared you're going to take the brunt of his hit.
"He had a very bruising, very powerful running style," Griffin said. "You can have guys that are bruisers that don't have the speed, you can have guys who have speed but don't have the vision or who aren't able to hit, but he's got it all. He's special, I don't know how else to put it."
It can be difficult to spot talent at such a young age, Griffin said, since young athletes mature at different rates, but much of what makes Barberich special is his work ethic.
"I've been coaching for over 20 years. I'm very hesitant to say an athlete is special, but he is," Griffin said. "He has an amazing work ethic, a very coachable spirit. As far as the team goes he was integral. He really is a special kid as far as being a great young kid and being a tremendous athlete."
Brennan's father, Brent Barberich, heard of the JAAAG from other parents at a football camp in Seattle, Football University, and decided to look a little more into the JuniorRank program.
"Before we agreed to anything with this I did a lot of background research on them," Brent, who is an officer with the Walla Walla Police Department, said. "I wanted to make sure that it wasn't some kind of dog and pony show."
Then in September, with his questions satisfied, Brent nominated his son to play in the game. The nomination process included statistics, a highlight package Brent put together, and as the name might indicate, grades. The minimum GPA required is 3.0; Brennan said he carried a 3.55.
The whole package was then reviewed by JuniorRank scouts, who placed Barberich at linebacker.
Along with Benicio Madrigal-Ries of Arlington, Wash, who was selected as a defensive lineman on the 14-and-under team, Brennan was one of only two players from the state of Washington to be selected to the teams.
There are 27 players on the 13-U team in all.
Only one other player from the Northwest, Elijah Molden of West Linn, Ore., was selected for the under-13 team.
"I was pretty excited and grateful for the opportunity that I have to represent Walla Walla," Brennan said. Brennan will be making the trip south to Phoenix with his father and mother Marcie, but his brothers and sisters - all eight of them - will not be making the trip.
"It would be fun to take the whole family, but not practical," Brent said. "It would be tough to take all the little kids to all the things (Fiesta Bowl parade, Fiesta Bowl block party, etc.)."
The Barberichs will be busy on the seven-day-long trip, with practices, games, parades and different events taking up most of their time.
The Barberichs will even attend the Insight Bowl between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the No. 19 Oklahoma Sooners on Friday. However, they will not be able to attend the Fiesta Bowl.
Although it is still incredibly early in Brennan's football career, he said that he does want to play high school and, eventually, college football. His favorite college team is the Brigham Young Cougars.
The 2012 JuniorRank All-American Academic Game will not be televised, but will be streamed online at videos.footballusa.com.