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October 12, 2009

FINDING HIS CALLING - Former Tech tailback James Barber now devotes his life to teaching and ministering to others

By: Jimmy Robertson

James Barber

Long before the likes of Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, another tailback showed a propensity for getting into the end zone.

These days, though, you have to go all the way out to Oklahoma to find him.

James Barber, who starred at Tech in the early 1970s and coached at Tech in the mid-70s, has gone from touchdowns to teaching, working as the director of field education and assistant professor of practical theology at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.

You could say that, with the help of a higher power, he navigated a bumpy and circuitous road to get there.

“In 1982, I kind of hit rock bottom,” Barber said. “I was looking for some changes in my life. I needed to make some changes.”

To briefly recap what got him to this point, his life started tumbling a bit after Jimmy Sharpe was let go as Tech’s head coach following the 1977 season. An administrative assistant at the time, Barber and former roommate Bruce Arians, who was also on the staff, debated on whether to continue their coaching careers. Arians stuck with it and has won a Super Bowl ring as the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Barber decided to get out of coaching.

Not long after that, Barber and his wife divorced and he left behind her and their twin sons, Tiki and Ronde, who, as most know, would go on to play at the University of Virginia and star in the NFL – in fact, Ronde still plays with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Barber bounced around from job to job, started hanging with the wrong crowd, and sadly, became a substance abuser.

A friend talked him into moving to Dallas in 1982, where jobs were plentiful. He landed one as the manager of a restaurant, but struggled to overcome his abuse problems. A friend at the restaurant spoke up one day and told him that what he needed to do was go to church.

“He took me to church and that probably saved me,” Barber said. “I started to realize what I was doing to my life. I got involved in a 12-step program and a discipleship program there. I became a pastor there. They discipled me and helped me get free from my past. They helped me come out of my stupor.”

The main pastor at that church also worked as an assistant dean at Oral Roberts, traveling to Tulsa during the week and then back to Dallas on the weekends to preach on Sunday. This pastor felt that many in the church were uneducated and he wanted his associate pastors to educate themselves, thus encouraging all of them to take some classes. Barber – who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in sociology in 1974 – decided to take a couple through a program offered by Oral Roberts.

“I was actually interested in going back to school,” Barber said. “I had gotten remarried in 1985 and I took a couple of classes. My wife and I talked about it and we thought, ‘Why not go full time at Oral Roberts?’ So we packed up in 1988 and headed to Tulsa.”

He worked as a pastor in Tulsa and became a chaplain at a couple of hospices. In 1991, he got his master’s degree in practical theology, which, in simple terms, is a subject devoted not just to Biblical knowledge, but also learning the necessary professional skills to minister effectively in the modern world. He decided to further his education even more, getting his doctorate in 1997.

When James Barber graduated from Tech 1974, he held the school record for touchdowns in a career.

These days, though, Dr. Barber does more than teach. He has written one book and is working on a second, and he literally has traveled the world, going to places like India – where his wife, Adeline, is from – Russia, Mexico and Jamaica on missionary trips. He has visited the Fiji Islands each of the past three years, ministering and sharing the principles of a godly life.

For him, that’s just as exciting as his days of playing on the gridiron at Lane Stadium. He played at Tech from 1971-73 and led Tech in rushing in both the ’71 and ’72 seasons (501 yards and 624 yards, respectively). The team went 6-4-1 under Charlie Coffey during his junior season, winning three of the final four games to attain that record. But his senior season in 1973, a six-game losing streak to open the season doomed the Hokies. They stumbled to a 2-9 mark.

Still, he scored 30 touchdowns in his career, a record at Tech at the time and one that lasted for nine years until Cyrus Lawrence tied him in the 1982 season. The two of them shared the record until Lee Suggs snapped it in 2001 (Suggs now holds the record with 56). Barber and Lawrence are still tied for fourth on the all-time list for rushing touchdowns.

“Yeah, someone told me that he [Suggs] had broken that record and I was surprised because I would have thought that record would have been broken a long time before that,” Barber chuckled.

Barber has been back to Blacksburg a few times over the years for games and he keeps in contact with a few of his teammates.

But more importantly, he’s gotten his life turned around, putting God and family first and excelling in both areas. He and his wife have two children – a daughter, Christa, in law school at William & Mary, and a son, Johnathan, studying pre-med at Oral Roberts. And after not being a part of Tiki and Ronde’s life for such a long time, he has made amends with them as well.

“We’re definitely on better terms now,” Barber said. “And I hope it only gets better.

“I’m 57 years old and I’ve got grandkids I haven’t seen. We’re trying to work something out where I can get out there and see them, but Tiki and Ronde are so busy. I’m proud of them. They’re doing such great things.”

The same could be said of Dr. Barber, who has no plans of stopping his teaching and ministering. He only hopes that others join him in a job profession that is so rewarding and always has openings.

The road to this point certainly wasn’t easy for him. But make no mistake, he has found his calling.