He ran like he was in a street fight—rugged and unflinching and, above all, violent. Almost a dozen years after his last snap as a Cowboy, that is how I remember Marion Barber III, a dervish of dreadlocks colliding with and, more often than not, shrugging off whoever was in his path.
He was not the only Dallas running back who ran with force. Ezekiel Elliott, for instance, has plenty of thud. But at his apex, Elliott married that with comparable wheels and grace, the sort of well-rounded tool kit one expects from a fourth-overall pick.
Barber, on the other hand, was plucked from the fourth round, the realm of compromised skill sets. Violence was hardly the only thing to his game; Bill Parcells gushed over his former running back being “a perfect football player” for a reason. It was just that Barber was never the sort of physical marvel whose other plusses—blocking, pass catching, deceptive shiftiness—popped in quite the same way, so what he did often stood in service to how he did it. It’s why Marion the Barbarian, one of the greatest Dallas sports nicknames this century, fit so well. He hit the hole with the ferocity of a man razing villages.
And it was absolutely awesome to watch. One particularly ghoulish tweet made mention of his yardage total, and beyond the obvious disclaimer that there is no reason to ever critique an athlete’s résumé on the occasion of their death, it was also so terrible because it missed the point. Barber was embraced because of aesthetics. He made you feel things when he ran: excited, awed, maybe even a little scared. He was a spectacle in the way modern football players are because he embodied so much of what used to be glamorized about the sport before we knew better, but remained compelling even now that we do.
Which, truth be told, makes me a touch uncomfortable even writing this. Barber reportedly struggled with mental health after his retirement, including being submitted for a mental health evaluation after an arrest in Mansfield in 2014. Last July, his former teammate Dez Bryant described him as “down and out bad” in a tweet. Now he is gone, with a cause of death yet to be revealed, and it becomes impossible not to wonder what sort of role football—both the game itself and Barber’s brand of it—might have played. He would be far from the first and even further from the last.
Bryant wrote something else in that tweet: “We are just a stat and moments to most people.” Some of this is inherent to being any kind of public figure—a decimal point of a percentage knows the real person beyond the moments they consume on a screen—but this sport being what it is, in some cases, the moments we lionize are often the same ones that doom them once there’s nothing left to watch. There is an inextricable connection. I smile when remember Marion Barber III’s runs. Should I?
I don’t know the answer, only that it’s bigger than how or why he died. For that matter, so was he. Marion Barber III was more than his football career. He played piano. At least at one point, he ran a foundation for inner-city kids in his native Minnesota alongside his younger brother, Dom. There was much more to him, of course, little of which I know even though his life was far bigger than what he did with a ball in his hands.
But that is how I, and most people, understood him. That’s how we’ll remember him. And whether or not that’s a good thing, Barber was very, very good at it.