Some players spend the offseason rehabbing injuries. Khalif Barnes has spent this offseason rehabbing an injury of a different sort: the injury his image suffered in the regrettable few minutes it took to say things he really didn't mean and, in the process, embitter fans to whom he may have to spend a career apologizing.
Can his image ever be fully repaired?
"I don't know. It's better now. You don't want to be perceived as that type of person, especially coming from college when you didn't have a rep for that," Barnes said.
You know the grim details. In the wee hours of Nov. 11, 2006, Barnes was arrested and charged with drunk driving. In the process, he made inflammatory remarks to the arresting officer. He made harsh remarks about Jacksonville and, subsequently, fell hard into the fans' disfavor.
"I made a bad decision. Of course I did. I made a bad decision and things like that should never happen. It was two days before the game and I should've been home chillin'," Barnes said with regret. "If you learn from those kinds of mistakes, I think it can make you a better man. Some people go through life and never have anything like that happen. Other people, it kind of defines who they are, wakes them up and let's them know what it means to be a good person, a model person."
Barnes is in the final year of his Jaguars contract. This is his unrestricted free agency year. One way or another, he is likely to strike it rich, but only if he plays well off the field as well as on it. This, simply put, is Barnes' prove-it season.
"I want this one to be the best. I would like to play here," he said. "My neighbors, everybody, they really love me. There's some people I know who want me out of town. It's perceived that's what you do all the time, but that's so far from the truth."
The irony is that Barnes graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in "Law, Society and Justice." He couldn't help but hang his head and force a pained laugh. It's a degree to which Barnes put the finishing touches in the spring he was drafted. As other rookies attended OTA practices with their new teams, Barnes used the graduation rule to good use. He went to class, got the necessary credits and left Washington with a diploma.
So how is it that a young man with a college degree and a high-paying future in professional football could make such a damaging mistake? Well, he was young. That's always a good explanation, but there is more.
"I actually came (to Jacksonville) with a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I was expecting to be a higher draft pick."
Barnes had been expecting his name to be called in the second half of the first round of the 2005 draft. As it turned out, he wasn't selected until the second half of round two. His selection was viewed as a major steal by the Jaguars, and that opinion was supported by Barnes' play as a rookie. In 2006, he was thought to be on his way toward the upper ranks of the league's offensive tackles. Then came that night in November.
"It's a sign that you're young and need to slow down a bit," he said, looking back on his DUI arrest. "That was a night that was not Khalif Barnes. That's definitely not me."
He can prove it wasn't him, but it'll take time. These things don't get erased quickly. Public images aren't restored overnight. He's being challenged to show who and what he is and he knows he must respond.
"I think I am right now. I think I have. Keep doing the positive stuff. Keep staying out of trouble. Hopefully, everybody knows I love playing in this town. I play in Florida. I play for a great team. Our quarterback is David Garrard," Barnes said.
As part of his court-ordered reparations package, Barnes elected to do community service work for MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). On Tuesday and Thursday evenings last fall, Barnes would share his story with the class. He would tell of the mistake he made.
How many times must he tell of his mistake? How many times must he apologize? He dare not ask.
"I feel like this is the year I have no room for error. I can't allow David to get touched. I feel like I'm too athletic and too smart to allow someone to beat me. I would be underperforming if I allow someone to get around me," Barnes said.
Playing well in 2008 will go a long way toward rehabilitation. Success breeds forgiveness. Play well, stay clean. That might work.