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Kurt Barber sits quietly in the Paducah Tilghman football team room after practice. Most nights, Kurt watches football tapes late into the night, studying for upcoming games.

It's Not About Football

story by Mary Mathis

Kurt Barber blows his whistle and bellows, "Start over," at the Paducah Tilghman High School football team.The third time he blows the whistle, he shouts at just one player:  "Get off the field."

The ejected player waits for two hours after practice to talk to Kurt.  After a lengthy lecture, it's clear Kurt is not playing around. He suspends his starting left guard the night before the homecoming game.

"I never wanted to coach high school football," Kurt says. However, in March 2016, a promising job fell through days before it was supposed to start, and his perspective changed.

Meanwhile, the job at Paducah Tilghman opened. He applied for it and, taking his own life advice, walked into an open door presented to him.

"I consider this my mission now," Kurt says about returning to his alma mater to coach.

Kurt graduated from Paducah Tilghman in 1988. He played football at the University of Southern California and was drafted by the New York Jets after he graduated in 1992. He played for the Jets for three years and the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears for a year before going into college coaching.

While coaching at Campbellsville University, he received his  master's degree in special education from the school. Now, in addition to coaching, he teaches special education at Paducah Tilghman.

"It's a breath of fresh air being around special education students," Kurt says. "There's something really unique about kids with special disabilities. You remembering their name makes them feel special . . . I think it's phenomenal."

When Kurt came back to Paducah Tilghman, the coach, the community and the team had high expectations for the 2016 season. However, within the first month the Tornados were 0-4. Kurt says the parents of the players were blaming him rather than their children's lack of discipline.

"I thought I'd walk in here and go undefeated," Kurt says. But he soon realized the way to improve  his players was by coaching their character first. On the whiteboard wall of the team room, the first rule posted is: "Treat women with respect."

So why coach high school football? "What's important is to give everyone a vision," Kurt says. "As much as I love football, it's not about football at all."


Tyrece Jones (from left), Dalton Ferrell, Kurt and Jordan Harmon play around after football practice at Paducah Tilghman High School.


Kurt calls for the ball at football practice. He says he never saw himself coaching high school after playing college and professional football.


In addition to coaching, Kurt teaches special education at Paducah Tilghman High School. Robert (left), and Dustin are two of his students.


Student Molly Watkins and Kurt share a high five after Molly solves a math problem.


Kurt reacts to a play during Paducah Tilghman's homecoming game. The Tornados defeated the Fort Campbell Falcons 55-3.


While Kurt delights in his team's success when they win, he says his players and the community see his work is about more than football. His aim is to help students find a vision for their future.


Paducah Tilghman alumnus Kevin Pascal (left), a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Kurt pray for the school football team after practice.

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