When the Eagles’ team huddle broke to end Tuesday’s OTA, dozens of players walked toward the NovaCare Complex’s main building that houses the locker room.
Walking alone in the other direction was offensive lineman Karim Barton. He slowly traveled about 50 yards with his helmet in hand and his green jersey drenched in sweat, passing many teammates along the way. He stopped at the two-person orange blocking sled on the outskirts of the facility to get additional work in.
“The coaches can’t come out here and give me one-on-one time because of time restrictions,” he said. “So I created one-on-one time with the sleds.”
Barton is used to traveling alone, and taking a different path than most of his peers is why he’s in Philadelphia in the first place. After growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, then moving to South Central Los Angeles, he has escaped the drugs, violence and poverty that plague both areas.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” he said. “When it hits me, tears will come down. To beat the odds, not a lot of people make it out of South Central, and not a lot of people make it out of Kingston.”
He owes his mother a lot. For several years, Carol Barton worked as a maid, nanny and other odd jobs in America to send money home to her husband and four sons in Jamaica.
During one of Carol’s six-month stints in Brooklyn, Karim was born – December 13, 1991. Although he only lived in America for the first few months of his life before going back to Jamaica, U.S. citizenship would end up being one of the greatest gifts his mother could give him.
“He’s very, very lucky,” Sadisia ‘Shawn’ Barton, Karim’s oldest brother, said. “Any of us would treasure the opportunity to be a U.S. citizen.”
But no one in the family expected Karim’s citizenship to be so relevant so soon. At the age of 47, Carol suddenly passed away from a blood clot leaving her youngest son’s future in doubt. He was 13-years-old when his family argued over where, and with whom, he should live.
“When she passed, dysfunction in the family started happening,” Karim said. “My dad just stopped being a dad. He stopped taking care of his kids.”
Against the wishes of his cousins, Karim ended up moving nearly 3,000 miles away to live with Shawn in Los Angeles. At the time, the 25-year-old was juggling multiple jobs and working more than 40 hours a week while attending El Camino Community College.
“I wasn’t feeling what my cousins were saying,” Shawn said. “He’s my brother, and I was going to do whatever it takes to help him be successful in this country.”
Just a couple of months after his mother passed, Karim stepped off the airplane into the bright sunshine of Los Angeles, pondering the possibilities America might bring him. But he would soon find out the sun didn’t shine as bright in South Central as he thought it would.
Rules Of Survival
In 2003, South Central Los Angeles changed its name to South Los Angeles in an effort to remove the associations of urban decay and street crime the city became synonymous with. But when Karim arrived a year later, he quickly learned the rules of living in the area: don’t be outside past 6 p.m.; never wear red or blue shirts because those were the colors of area gangs; avoid nearby Compton and Watts at all costs.
Shawn was so frightened of the neighborhoods Karim would have to walk through to get to high school, he didn’t allow Karim to attend Crenshaw, the local school. Because of that, Karim woke up at 5:30 every morning to take the bus nearly an hour to attend Verdugo Hills High School in the nicer Tujunga area, located in the northeastern most corner of Los Angeles.
“Walking to Crenshaw, I’d have to go through a lot of gang neighborhoods; both Bloods and Crips areas,” Karim said. “There’s a lot of gang tension in L.A. so it’d be a big risk.”
Despite the circumstances, Karim never got in trouble in the local neighborhood, the apartment complex or at school. Although Shawn wasn’t always around because of his busy schedule, he was still able to ensure Karim’s well-being by setting the standard high for himself, knowing his little brother would follow suit.
“My oldest brother was very strict. He told me to focus on the books so that’s what I did,” Karim said. “Looking up to him was easy because he led by example. He wasn’t about talking. He showed me the way, right from wrong.”
In his first two years of high school, Karim already tipped the scale over 300 pounds, but he refused requests from the football coaches to join the team for a simple yet surprising reason: he was scared.
“I didn’t want to get hurt,” Karim said. “I never played a contact sport like that.”
When his junior year approached, Karim finally relented. While head coach Victor Castro was happy to hear it, Shawn was frustrated because his little brother went behind his back to sign up.
“I was mad; I didn’t want him to play,” Shawn said. “Football is a dangerous sport. And I made clear to him that both football and school had to be 100 percent; school could not suffer at all.”
It didn’t take long for football to change Karim’s life. Shortly after he began summer workouts with the team, he met Darren Cantone, the closest friend he’s made since moving to America. The two played next to each other in Karim’s first season, with him at right guard and Cantone at right tackle.
Although he started to receive college recruiting letters at the end of his junior year, they began pouring in after Karim dedicated himself to the physical element of the sport.
“He started the weight program, completely went after it and changed his body in six months,” Castro said. “He developed a confidence and an aura around him that he found his direction. Football was what he wanted to do.”
Karim and Shawn began retrieving their mail to see new letters from Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State and Utah. Karim even met with Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood (on staff with Chip Kelly) and a member of Utah’s coaching staff.
Realizing the doors Karim opened up for himself, Shawn sat his little brother down to emphasize how important it is was that Karim take advantage.
“I was very shocked,” Shawn said. “I still have those letters today. I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Despite the letters and meetings, Karim received no scholarship offers. Not yet ready to give up on his dream to attend a four-year university for free, Karim opted for College of the Canyons, a junior college in Santa Clarita, after their coaches were impressed with his performance in the Los Angeles Daily News East-West all-star game.
‘Our Version Of The Blind Side’
Karim was in a seemingly impossible situation. For three months in the summer before the school year started, he needed to be at College of the Canyons by 6 a.m. for offseason training. Given his location and limited transportation options, though, it was difficult for Karim to meet the commitment.
Then his old high school coach came up with a solution.
“Shawn is a wonderful man and Karim wouldn’t be where he is without him, but they were both in a difficult situation,” Castro said. “We did everything we could to assist [Karim] because we love him and want him to succeed. He’s almost our version of ‘The Blind Side.’ ”
Castro woke up every morning to drive Karim, who was hoping he’d only have to be at the junior college for one semester before earning a football scholarship. Later in the fall, his plan came to fruition when UNLV said it would offer him a scholarship after the season ended.
But UNLV head coach Mike Sanford was later fired after five losing seasons, and Karim never received a scholarship offer.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “But Morgan State ended up offering me a scholarship so I had to move on, re-focus and start grinding in Baltimore.”
That he did.
After just one season under his belt in Baltimore, Karim became a captain in his junior year. Although he became one of the Bears’ best players, he still wasn’t an NFL prospect. His knowledge of the intricacies of the game were lacking because he didn’t start playing football until he was a junior in high school.
That’s where Marcus Gladden came in. The Morgan State offensive line coach was hired during Karim’s junior year, and they began working individually after the season.
“Having someone there every day to push him one-on-one made him so much better,” Gladden said. “His learning curve just skyrocketed. He did all the little things you asked.”
During spring ball before his senior season, representatives from NFL teams began popping up on the sidelines watching him practice. That caused Gladden to sit Karim down and “dare him to be perfect.”
Several months later when Morgan State opened its season against Army, Karim proved he accepted Gladden’s challenge. He won Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week honors, and soon every team in the NFL was visiting him in Baltimore.
“His standard for himself is so high,” Gladden said. “What you considered hard work for other kids on the team was easy for him because he’s so focused. He had no social life. He was already at the point where you had to kick him out of the meeting room because he’d stay late. He understood what it took to get to where he wanted to go.”
‘A Fourth- Or Fifth-Round Pick’
Karim played his last 11 games the same as he did his first one: to near perfection. He graded out at 97 percent (the highest Gladden has ever seen), recorded three pancakes, allowed zero sacks and won MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors multiple times. After the year ended and he earned first-team MEAC honors, the NFL Players Association invited him to play in the 2014 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January.
He transitioned to guard for the event after playing tackle since his senior year of high school, performing well against a defensive line that included players from Miami, Mississippi State and UCLA. He took four visits during the pre-draft process to the Browns, Cardinals, Chiefs and Texans, in addition to a local workout with the Ravens and several private workouts, including his first one with the Eagles.
“From every indication we had, we thought he’d be a fourth- or fifth-round pick,” Gladden said. “We were really surprised he did not get drafted.”
Karim had several teams interested in adding him as a priority free agent.
“When I first got in the country, the Eagles were the team,” he said. “I fell in love with them when they had Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb. But it wasn’t just them being my favorite team, I felt like I had a real opportunity to make the roster. I just thought this was the best situation for me.”
For many NFL hopefuls who dedicate several years of their lives just to earn a shot, it can be devastating to come up short at this point. But for Karim, he’s already won, regardless of if he’s on the 53-man roster or not.
“Whatever comes out of this situation, I’m going back to Jamaica to show the kids in the community it’s possible to get out,” he said. “You just have to take advantage, tune out the music and grind. Anything is possible if you’re willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish it.”
He can already mark down one person he’s inspired in Cantone. After not attending college or finding a long-term career to pursue in the past five years since graduating high school, he decided to attend Feather River Community College this fall to try to use football as a tool to get a free education just like his best friend did.
“Just having a person in my life like Karim, the kind of man he is, he’s kind of like a big brother to me,” Cantone said. “I look up to him. I know when things get tough, I just think of Karim and everything he’s been through.”
Until the day the Eagles take away his jersey and his pads, however, Karim continues to go back to that same orange two-man sled every day after practice to work on his speed, timing and hand work. Although Todd Herremans and Jason Peters are often assisting him with the technical aspects of the game, a defensive lineman is the one most inspiring him.
“Cedric Thornton pulled me aside and said how he was in the same situation I’m in,” Karim said of the former undrafted free agent. “Now look what happened to him. I look up to him because I respect that and he was in my shoes.”
His focus every morning is the same it has been for the past 10 years since he moved in with his oldest brother. Karim is just not sure if it’s possible to pay back his brothers, particularly Shawn, what they’ve given him.
“Trust me, when I say my brothers are all I got and that’s all I need, that’s my motivation,” he said. “They look out for me and I’m using this platform right now to help them out. Especially my eldest brother Shawn. I’ve seen how hard he worked to support me, so I’m striving to accomplish something to repay them.”