WALLA WALLA - Brennan Barberich worked hard to go to the Junior Academic All-American Game.
He held bake-sales, washed cars and held fundraisers. He also worked out with his father, Brent Barberich, to improve his conditioning, and has attended several football camps, including Football University in Seattle.
His parents worked hard, too, helping to raise money for the trip, filling out paperwork, vetting JuniorRank - the company which organizes and runs the camp - making sure Brennan got to practices, and doing all of the little things to make sure Brennan got to the game. And one step closer to his dream of playing college football.
But, in a cruel twist of fate, Brennan didn't get to play in the JAAAG, a showcase of young football talent for 13- and 14-year-olds put on as part of the Fiesta bowl festivities on Jan. 3 in Phoenix. He broke his wrist Dec. 30 in the second practice of the near-weeklong camp.
Brennan, who prefers running through tackles as a power running back, was making a tackle as a linebacker when his right hand got caught in an awkward position.
"I went to go tackle a guy and I couldn't get my other hand around him in time and my wrist kind of bent forward," Brennan said. "When he kept on running it bent even more foward … it kind of just … yeah."
"It was (hard to watch)," his father said. "I saw the whole play, I saw him tackle the kid and when the play was over I saw him bend over and grab his wrist. He has a real high pain tolerance, so when I saw him bend over I knew something was wrong. We had the trainers come over and look at it and I knew something was seriously wrong at that point."
Brent, Brennan and his mother, Marcie, were crushed.
"We went through the whole range of emotions, from concern for his wrist, to anger that this happened to frustration and then still grateful that we were even there to begin with," Brent said. "Throughout the weekend, those same emotions kept rotating the whole time. (There was) a lot of frustration and discouragement, but (we were) still grateful that he (Brennan) even had the opportunity; he would have been home doing nothing otherwise."
All was not lost, though. After being knocked out so that doctors could rebreak his wrist and put it in a cast, and a day of nausea and wooziness from painkillers, Brennan was back at practice the next day.
Despite being unable to work out most of the week or play in the JAAAG, Brennan soaked up football knowledge at the hands of former pro and college instructors, and ended up earning an invite to next year's JAAAG in the 14-year-old class.
"Once I started getting it, I started reading what was happening, then I started reacting quicker than I had before and it was just a lot easier and I started tackling the running back," Brennan said of his first practices. "Since it was just a whole different offensive scheme (they ran a spread offense) I learned lots of things. I learned how to read runners and cover passes because I didn't do much of that before."
Despite the broken wrist, Brennan came away from the week happy.
"It was good experience. It was fun," he said.
After the break, Brennan's linebacker coach Byron Evans, who played on the famed "Gang Green" defenses of the Philedelphia Eagles in the late '80s and early '90s, took Brennan under his wing. Evans gave Brennan a large amount of personal memorabilia, including autographed team photos, baseball cards and the like. He even introduced him to famed former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham - although Brennan didn't know who he was.
"Brennan had no idea who Randall Cunningham was, but I was kind of like, ‘Holy crap, it's Randall Cunningham!'" Brent said. "The next day he got an autographed card from him. I tried to explain to him, he was Michael Vick before there was a Michael Vick."
Brennan said he learned a lot from Evans.
"He just taught us a lot of different techniques," Brennan said. "While we weren't going full speed or full contact, he taught us how to do pass coverage and then did a whole bunch of speed and agility footwork."
Brent, who had been somewhat skeptical of the JuniorRank program prior to the camp, came away extremely impressed by the coaching and the administrative feat of handling 1,500-plus players and parents and the whole-person focus of the camp.
"It was (hectic). They kept the kids busy; there was not a lot of downtime between the events," Brent said of the camp.
"That was part of the experience, they get to do some many things. It wasn't just a vacation, that's what made it neat. They definitely kept the kids focused on education them and practice and they threw in some fun stuff too."
Not only did the players get an education, the parents did as well. Throughout the week, JuniorRank provided tutorials on different ways to get their children recruited to a full-ride scholarship. It was an eye-opening experience for Brent and Marcy.
"We learned that the recruiting process is very arduous, there's actually a lot to learn about the entire process," Brent said.
"It's not necessarily about being the best athlete out there which translates into being recruited.
"Obviously the elite athletes will get recruited, but there's a lot of other athletes out there that will not get scholarships if they don't get their name out there.
"They emphasized using your sport as a catalyst to getting a free education," Brent, who has nine children, said. "There's a lot of smaller (NCAA) Division II and smaller schools that are very good academically and are looking for football players. It was very educational for us as parents."
Despite the broken wrist, the Barberiches plan on returning to the camp, which is sponsored by the Marine Corps, next summer.
"We'd like him to actually have the opportunity to play in the game (next year)," Brent said.
"We'd like to try and go back next year because the whole experience was so positive - even without being able to play in a game. That's why we're excited about going again."