Tattoo gives Argonauts veteran receiver Jason Barnes proper perspective
OAKVILLE, Ont. - When adversity rears its ugly head in Jason Barnes's football life, he doesn't have to look far to gain proper perspective.
The Toronto Argonauts receiver bares a tattoo of a heart with angel wings on the left side of his neck featuring the phrase, "Never Give Up.” But the significance of those words is real: Barnes got the tattoo for his mother, Ann, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and succumbed to the disease less than a month later.
So when life as a pro athlete presents Barnes with a hurdle, he need only look in the mirror to understand football is passion, it's not what defines him.
"I got it for my mom to keep fighting and that's something I live by every day," Barnes said following Thursday's practice. "Just a reminder there are bigger things than football.
"This is a game I love to play for a profession and everything but at the end of the day it's just a profession. There are bigger things to worry about than that.''
Unfortunately for Barnes — who has just 25 catches for 358 yards and four TDs — it's a mindset he's had to put to the test this season.
The 28-year-old California native signed with Toronto in the off-season, reuniting with quarterback Ricky Ray, his teammate for three seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos. The expectation was Barnes's familiarity with Ray would help him become the Argos' No. 1 receiver.
But that didn't happen as Barnes had just one touchdown catch through Toronto's first eight games. Then last month the Argos released the six-foot-three, 190-pound receiver after he recorded just 18 catches for 250 yards, before adding him to the practice roster shortly afterwards.
Barnes returned to the Toronto starting lineup Oct. 14 for a 24-12 home loss to Montreal, registering three catches for 37 yards. He had four receptions for 71 yards in last weekend's 44-32 home loss to Winnipeg, with a career-high three TD grabs.
"I got rejuvenated, I had a little bit of time off," Barnes said. "I was mentally exhausted, I wasn't making plays I normally would ... I had the chance to re-focus and come to work.
"I just had to step back. I got my body back right and took my mind from all the stress and everything I was dealing with daily. I took a trip home to see the family and came back ready to go.''
Ray shouldered part of the blame for Barnes's slow start. The quarterback said it took him time to get used to new head coach Scott Milanovich's offence.
"It took us a while to really have that kind of game together, that's what we both kind of expected would be early in the season for us,'' Ray said. "Some of it was me early in the season missing him on a few things but it was nice to get him back into a rhythm.
"He's such a good teammate, being off the starting lineup for a few weeks and then coming back and playing a game like that was awesome.''
Despite Barnes's struggles this season, Ray never felt the need to pull his teammate aside and offer encouragement or timely words of wisdom.
"I think sometimes it's awkward to talk about stuff like that,'' Ray said. "We all understand what's going on and you know he's a good player and will sort things out himself and he doesn't really need me coming up and giving him a pep talk.
"I mean, if it was something that really needed to be said but I knew he'd be fine and (would)keep working hard so I didn't feel the need to say anything. He's the same guy, he just deals with it, comes to work every day and works hard.''
Overcoming adversity is nothing new for Barnes.
On Oct. 8, 2010, he suffered a career-threatening ruptured spleen along with a bruised kidney and lung while making a catch in Edmonton's 36-11 road loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Fortunately, Barnes didn't require surgery and recovered but the Eskimos released him prior to training camp in 2011 amid concerns about an old ankle injury.
Barnes eventually rejoined the Eskimos and played out the season before being let go to pursue NFL opportunities. When he didn't get any offers from south of the border, Barnes signed with Toronto.
"I've been through some pretty tough things so being released or being on the (practice roster) is something I've been through already," Barnes said. "I just know to continue to work hard and be a consummate pro and everything will work out.''
Despite being released and relegated to the practice roster by the Argos, Barnes never contemplated retirement or leaving Toronto.
"I just felt I had something to prove still, I just didn't want to leave on that note knowing I can contribute more to this team,'' he said. "I didn't want to let those guys down.
"I just like being out here with these guys and going to war with them.''
Milanovich praised Barnes's perseverance and professionalism.
"Since he has been back he has practised real well, which was encouraging," Milanovich said. "Sometimes things happen for guys at different times so we're happy for Jason.
"He's been a pro the whole time.''
The Argos (7-9) head into Regina having lost five of their last six games. But they still control their own destiny in securing second spot in the East Division and home-field advantage for the conference semifinal Nov. 11.
Toronto can lock up second place in one of two ways: either with a Winnipeg win over Hamilton on Saturday afternoon or by downing the Riders on Saturday night. Ideally, Barnes would prefer the Argos win their game and create momentum heading into the playoffs but quickly added the top priority is qualifying for the post-season. Period.
"Once you get into the playoffs it's a whole new season, that's all we're worried about right now," he said. "Our record doesn't matter as long as we win and get in.
"That's what we're striving for.''