How 13-year-old Barak Price became an inspiration for the Spartans

Meet Barak. That's Barak like the army lodging, not the president.

Barak is like most 13-year-old boys. He has discovered the secret to twisting a plastic water bottle into an air-pressure-powered projectile weapon. He enjoys free T-shirts and putting his buddies in unprompted headlocks. And like most 13-year-old boys who grow up in the middle of the country, he dreams of being on a football team and hearing a packed stadium cheer his name.

The only difference between Barak and the rest of the sixth graders in Greentown, Indiana, is that he knows that will never happen. He began his life in intensive care, battling what would become hypotonic cerebral palsy. The disorder keeps the brain from communicating properly with muscles, making them weaker and floppier than a healthy person's muscles.

That means Barak will always struggle with fine motor skills. When he speaks, his mouth and tongue have trouble forming the shapes he wants them to. The volume in Barak's world is only turned up to about 75 percent, even with the help of hearing aids. Any physical task is more draining than normal for somebody with cerebral palsy.

"He won't really get a lot of glory in sports. That's not what his specialty is going to be just because of the way he was born."

That's Josiah. Josiah is Barak's older brother by nine years and the third of Tim and Mary Price's four boys. By the time Josiah was the age Barak is now the idea of playing football in front of a roaring crowd was more than a dream. It was a possibility.

Josiah Price is now the pride of Greentown, the top tight end for the undefeated Michigan State Spartans. Only three tight ends in the country have caught more touchdown passes than the five he has this season even though he missed two weeks with an ankle injury. No tight end in Michigan State history has caught more than the 15 touchdowns the redshirt junior has so far in his career.

They saw this coming in the small, rural town an hour north of Indianapolis, where there is now a healthy mix of Spartan paraphernalia to go with the Colts gear. Churches outnumber stoplights six to one in Greentown, and the high school pulls in kids from half the county to reach a graduating class of about 100 each year. Josiah always stood head-and-shoulders above them all.

When he started to excel in football in high school, Josiah considered transferring to a private school in Indianapolis to help him get noticed by college recruiters. That's what the one or two other Division I athletes who have trickled out of the area in recent memory had done, but the Price family decided to stick to its roots.

"If God wants you to play football somewhere else," said Mary, his mother, "then He can find you here in Greentown, Indiana."

Well, Mark Dantonio found him. So a town that couldn't tell you who Bubba Smith was five years ago now beats a regular path to East Lansing to watch Josiah play. They talk about the passes he catches on TV and the service he does in the community (Price worked with an autistic child when he first got to school and has helped an older quadriplegic man for the past two years). For most of the boys dreaming of playing football one day, Josiah is a hero. But no one thinks higher of him than his little brother.

Barak played peewee football, even though just squirming into a pair of tight football pants was enough to wear him out. That's before he arrived at the practice field and added 15 pounds of pads to a body that was already fighting to support its own weight. This summer, to his parents' delight, Barak decided to give up football and try tennis. But before made a final decision, he needed to call East Lansing for approval.

"He called me a few times," Josiah said. "I was just like, 'Dude, do whatever you like and makes you happy.' He said, 'Man I don't know, I like football because I get to feel like you, but football is really hard.'"

Josiah can relate. When he got to Michigan State, he found that football, for the first time in his life, was hard. He was no longer the strongest or the fastest. Extra hours of work after practice or in the film room didn't seem to close the gap. School was hard, too. Then there was the challenge of living in a city, sharing a campus with 50,000 other students, the massive football stadium, the TV cameras and all those folks counting on him back in Greentown.

Josiah thought about quitting, too, heading home and taking a job at his dad's auto dealership. Barak, in his own way, talked him out of it.

"To see the amount of happiness me playing here gives him, that's my biggest motivation," Josiah said. "He went through a lot when he was younger. Now you see him and he's the happiest little kid in the world."

Barak doesn't miss a Spartan game. He'll be in Nebraska this weekend when Michigan State faces the Cornhuskers. Two years ago, his parents decided the 10-hour trip to Lincoln would be hard on Barak, so they left him at home. When they returned, Barak let them know that would be the last time he watched his brother through a television screen.

Instead, they share a hug outside every stadium before Josiah goes inside to pull on his pads. At each away game, he finds Barak in the crowd waiting outside as the team bus pulls up. In East Lansing, the Prices wait by the rounded corner of Chestnut and Hall a couple hours before kickoff. It's tradition for Michigan State's players to stop there and rub the feet of a Spartan statue for luck on their walk to the stadium. Most of them have added to the routine a fist bump or a point and a wink at their adopted 13-year-old teammate wearing the green-and-white hearing aids and bouncing on the tips of his sneakers.

Barak is the mayor of the players' families' tailgate at each home game. He plays practical jokes on the adults and organizes two-hand touch games with whatever kids happen to be around. He'll tap an assistant coach on the shoulder after the game and let him know Josiah needs to be getting more targets. He'll run up to give NFL first-round draft picks a high-five, only to pull it away and laugh with them when they whiff.

"A lot of people who have challenges have compensating mechanisms," says Tim, Barak's father. "For him it's just his dynamic personality. It's amazing the way he interacts with people."

The Prices usually arrive in East Lansing on Friday night before home games and stay in Josiah's apartment. Barak plays video games with Matt Costello, Josiah's roommate and a member of the Spartans basketball team that went to the Final Four in the spring. They stop by the team's hotel, where Barak will say hello to his brother and flip through a few YouTube videos with Connor Cook on the star quarterback's cell phone.

"I see him every Friday," Cook said. "I'll be hanging out with my mom and dad the night before the game. He just loves football, loves Michigan State and is always so happy. When you see a kid like that, he makes you happy. I know Josiah always talks about that. When he's having a hard day and goes home and sees Barak, all the sudden he's in a good mood."

Barak's indomitable good mood helped Josiah enjoy small victories during his first year at college. A year later, he nosed his way into the tight end rotation as a redshirt freshman. He continued to earn more playing time as Michigan State pounded its way to an unexpected 11-1 regular-season record. The Spartans earned a spot in the 2013 Big Ten title game against undefeated Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, 60 miles south of Greentown.

During the fourth quarter, Michigan State trailed 24-20 when Josiah found himself alone in the corner of the end zone. Cook hit him with a nine-yard pass on third down for a game-winning score, still the biggest touchdown of his career. After the game he found Barak, whose face was stretched in excited grin as wide as his muscles would allow.

They had no idea they would be back on the same field in nine months, roles reversed. This was a year before Barak called Josiah to see about quitting the football team.

The Prices decided Barak could be a part of the 2014 Greentown Comets, but they wanted him to be a team manager. When they found out the Comets would get to play an exhibition before a Colts' preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium, they told Barak he could suit up on the sideline for a game. A quarter of the town was planning to come. When they found out Josiah would be home that weekend between training camp and the start of his season, they figured trying to keep Barak off the field was a lost cause.

The Comets scored a touchdown and drew up a passing play for the two-point conversion. They had yet to complete a pass that season and would only complete a few more before the year was over. Barak, who normally played defense if he was on the field, lined up at tight end and slanted toward the end zone. The ball came his way. It thudded against his green No. 82 jersey -- same as his brother -- and he trapped it against his pads for a score in the corner of the end zone.

Josiah was the Price brother on the sideline this time. Barak came barreling off the field to find his brother.

"I'm just like you!" he yelled. "I caught a touchdown at Lucas Oil!"

"I don't remember if it was the same end zone or not," Josiah said. "We say it was. You would've loved to see his face."

Josiah and Barak watched the video together a dozen times on the car ride back to Greentown. When Josiah returned to campus a day later he burst into the apartment to show Costello, his roommate, the video.

"He came running in saying, 'Matt, look at this! Look at what my brother did!'" Costello said. "He was so excited for him."

Josiah was beaming with pride, thrilled by the little victory. Costello stood back and laughed at his contagious excitement. He was just like his brother.

Comments