By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - As the 2016 NFL Draft reached its later rounds, the promising phone calls Peyton Barber received did not align with what played out on his TV screen.
"I had been getting calls in the fifth and sixth rounds, saying, 'We're going to try to pick you up in this round,' or 'We're going to try to pick you up on this pick,'" said Barber, two years later.
Plenty of calls, but THE call never came.
"I really started panicking at that point," Barber said. "I'm not going to get picked. What did I just do? I'm not going to be able to play football anymore. My mom is still going to be homeless, and now I'm out of school. What am I supposed to do?"
For the sake of his family and friends who had gathered to celebrate, Peyton kept it together.
"I made it a point to keep a straight face, stay calm." he said. "I would always go back to my Bible verse. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Several teams offered Barber the opportunity to sign as an undrafted free agent. Relying on his experience and financial savvy, Peyton chose Tampa Bay.
"I had trained there at IMG [in Bradenton, Florida], I knew the area well, and there's no state income tax," he said.
Barber's agent told Peyton he would need to outshine three or four other running backs to earn a roster spot. Encouraged by his performance at rookie minicamp, Barber gained confidence.
"I'm starting to see, 'I can actually do this,'" he remembers thinking. Then the veterans arrived.
"I'm sticking with them," Barber said. "If I knew the plays and I knew what I was really doing, I feel like I have a pretty good shot at making this."
Slowed by ADHD and dyslexia, Barber's mastery of Tampa Bay's playbook and his pass protection assignments represented one more hurdle to overcome.
"I was the last guy to get cut," said Barber, who accepted the Bucs' offer to join the practice squad after not getting picked up by other NFL teams.
After two productive seasons as a backup, Barber enters 2018 as Tampa Bay's No. 1 running back.
'The cream always rises'
A few days later, Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter stopped Barber in the hallway en route to a meeting.
"'You're going to be playing this week,'" the coach said, informing Barber that a veteran running back had been released. "'We really felt like you were the better fit for the team. You're a lot younger, you're a lot faster, you're a lot more physical. You just have to keep learning your plays.'"
On Oct. 23 of his rookie season, Barber scored his first NFL touchdown, a 44-yarder to secure the Bucs' 34-17 win at San Francisco.
"I just remember Jameis [Winston] calling the play," Barber recalled. "I had a good feeling in my heart that something really good is going to happen on this play. I ended up making a couple moves and all I saw was open grass. It was a dagger in the game."
As a rookie, Barber rushed for 223 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. A spot on Tampa Bay's 2017 roster was not guaranteed.
"I was still fighting," Barber said. "This is something I've always had to go through my whole life, just battling different situations."
The Bucs drafted a running back from Boise State in the fifth round in 2017, but Barber held on to his job. Tampa Bay released the rookie instead. Peyton told his mom he felt like he was the best back on the team.
"She would always tell me, 'The cream always rises to the top,'" Barber said.
Toward the end of the 2017 season, Barber cracked the starting lineup, rushing for 102 yards in his first start. For the season, he ran for a team-high 423 yards and scored three touchdowns, adding 16 receptions.
In February, Tampa Bay cut Doug Martin, its feature back for the past six seasons. Barber will enter his third season at the top of Tampa Bay's depth chart.
"I want to have a breakout season," Barber said. "Everybody knows your name. I also want to be able to reach out to people and let them know all things are possible. The odds may not be in your favor, but through Christ, all things are possible."
'I wouldn't change it'
The odds have rarely been in Peyton Barber's favor.
After his parents' divorce, Peyton and his sister lived with their mom, who struggled to provide a stable home after several car accidents prevented her from working full time.
"From the time I was 7 to when I was a sophomore in high school, I was in and out of different houses with my mom and my sister," he said. "There were nights where we had to stay in our car. There were times when we didn't have a car. The churches would gift us cars that people would donate."
In high school, Barber slept on his grandmother's floor in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
"My mom would make these little cots for us to sleep on," he said. "My sister would sleep in the chair. My mom and I would sleep on the cots."
Peyton's mom, Lori Barber, said, "When we were going through our time of challenge, I learned how to take one step at a time, one day at a time to make each day as successful as I possibly could. I knew that I had to make my child as comfortable as possible.
"I tried to always keep a smile on my face. To give him comfort and confidence in knowing that he's going to be alright."
"At the time, I felt as if it was regular," Peyton said. "Looking back on it, that wasn't regular what I experienced and went through. But I wouldn't change it for the world because that made me who I am today.
"My mom would always tell me, 'It's not about how you start, it's how you finish.' I feel as if I have so much more to go before I'm finished."
Peyton Barber gained 1,017 yards in 2015, scoring five touchdowns against San Jose State.
Coming to Auburn
In 2012, at the start of his senior year of high school in Atlanta, Barber committed to Ole Miss. In December, Auburn hired Gus Malzahn, who immediately targeted Barber.
I He's really the only coach, the rest of my senior season, who stuck with calling me. Making sure everything was going well with me. That really stuck with me.
-- Peyton Barber
"He's really the only coach, the rest of my senior season, who stuck with calling me," Barber said. "Making sure everything was going well with me. That really stuck with me."
Auburn's proximity to Atlanta also factored in Barber's decision to sign with the Tigers in 2013.
Because of ADHD, Barber was in special education classes until his junior year of high school. Peyton took the ACT five times, finally earning the score he needed to gain admission to Auburn.
As a freshman at Auburn, Barber's dyslexia was diagnosed, further explaining why his learning process was more deliberate than many of his peers.
While Tre Mason rushed for 1,816 yards to lead Auburn to the SEC Championship, Barber redshirted in 2013, then played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2014.
"I felt like physically I was there, but mentally when it came to the learning curve and picking up the defenses and just knowing my plays in and out," he said. "I really didn't learn everything until my redshirt sophomore year to where I just felt completely comfortable with everything I was doing."
That comfort level resulted in a thousand-yard season in 2015. Barber scored five touchdowns against San Jose State.
Overruling his mom's protests, Peyton sent Lori a portion of his Pell Grant and scholarship money to help her pay bills.
"Growing up homeless, that's a tough deal to see," he said. "You're playing in front of all these people and everybody loves you, but nobody really knows what's really going on. You've got people screaming your name, and Tiger Walk, everybody's giving you high fives.
"Even when I was in high school, I remember coming home and seeing eviction notices on the door, and asking, 'Do I need to get a job?' Barber remembered. "She would always say, 'The Lord is going to provide for us."
'That fed me and fueled me'
After rushing for 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore, Barber decided to enter the 2016 NFL Draft.
I remember seeing one post. 'This kid is going to be working at a carwash before the year is out.' That's something that fed me and fueled me.
-- Peyton Barber
At the Combine, Barber shared publicly for the first time the gravity of his family's financial struggles.
Earlier, when he had announced on Instagram his plans to enter the draft, not all of his followers supported Peyton's decision.
"People telling me that I wasn't ready," Barber said. "I remember seeing one post. 'This kid is going to be working at a carwash before the year is out.' 'He's afraid of competition with Jovon [Robinson].' That's something that fed me and fueled me."
'Peyton loves Auburn': Barber plays catch on the green space near Jordan-Hare Stadium between classes. Photo: Caleb Howard
'Back to school'
Even though he's positioned to be RB1 in Tampa Bay this season, Barber knows there are no guarantees. NFL players sometimes say the league's initials stand for "Not For Long." At his position, Barber says, the average career spans two and a half years.
"Being in the league and seeing how the NFL operates, you see guys come and go every single day," he said. "That's a scary feeling. You're making all this money, you have a job one day, the next you have no source of income. That just made me realize, 'You need to go back to school.'
"I felt like I owed it to myself with everything I had been through," Barber said, sharing how a high school instructor once told him he wasn't smart enough to be in regular classes.
"I promised my mom," he said. "I promised her that I would come back and get my degree."
Throughout his Auburn football career, Barber took advantage of Auburn's Student-Athlete Support Services, which provides tutors and supervised study tables.
The student who was once told he wasn't bright enough for regular classes made the academic honor roll in each of his three years as an Auburn student-athlete.
"There's so much help in the athletic department," he said. "It's almost impossible to fail, if you use the right resources."
'Peyton loves Auburn'
After his second NFL season, Barber completed a full course load in the 2018 spring semester, 15 credit hours.
I realize that there is life after football, and I have to start preparing myself as if football could end tomorrow.
-- Peyton Barber
He needs only one more semester, including an internship, to earn a degree in interdisciplinary studies.
"Peyton loves Auburn," said Lori Barber, sharing her son's reaction to her suggestion that he complete his internship near Tampa Bay to minimize travel. "'No. I want to go back to Auburn,'" he told his mom. "'I love Auburn.'
"I need the fans to know he truly loves Auburn," Lori said. "He has always loved being a student.
"To see him grow into manhood, and making wise decisions, it captivates my heart. I feel very blessed and amazed at seeing Peyton make some of the choices he makes."
"I want to be an entrepreneur," Peyton said. "I've already invested some of my money into some properties here, student housing. That's constant revenue that's always coming in."
Barber invested in another property with his NFL earnings. A home for his mom, in Smyrna, Georgia.
"It's like coming out of a box into a very open space and feeling as if you can breathe again, and breathe fresh air," Lori said. "Everybody's not on top of one another."
In high school, Barber's pastor drew a picture of Peyton's projected life span, assuming he lived 80 years.
"He showed me how short football was and how much more life you have to live after football," Barber said. "That has always stuck with me. I realize that there is life after football, and I have to start preparing myself as if football could end tomorrow.
"Football means a lot to me. It's already done a lot for me. But at the same time, I know football isn't everything. Football doesn't define me as a person.
"I want to be that vessel for many people who are going through situations like mine. My situation was bad, but it could have been a whole lot worse, and there are so many people who have a lot worse situations than what I've gone through. I want to be that voice for those people."
Campus photos are courtesy of Auburn University student Caleb Howard, a childhood friend and high school teammate of Peyton Barber. Caleb served as an intern in Auburn Athletics communications in 2017-18.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer