Updated January 1, 2012
By Jackson Long
After the action has come to a close on Saturdays, the press conferences are over, the words from the coaches have been spoken and game day is over with, many college football players head to their locker and check their cell phones. Their phones are filled with a litany of emails, voicemails, text messages, Facebook comments or even news stories about them. Oregon Ducks junior running back Kenjon Barner is used to the large number of electronic notes waiting for him after every game. They come from family, friends, former Oregon student-athletes, respected coaches and analysts, even people he doesn’t know. But there is only one text message that consistently makes an impact. It is the same words, after every game, from a 12-year-old boy.
The message asks the question: “Did you play every down like it was your last?”
John and Stephanie Riley are both from Eugene. The couple has been together for 15 years and has been Oregon football season ticket holders since 1997. They have two children, Mikayla (nine) and Brayden (12). The Rileys love football, family and their faith.
In the spring of 2011, John and Stephanie were introduced to Barner through a family friend at a meeting of the Collegiate Christian Fellowship in Eugene. John approached Barner and after a casual conversation, asked if he had anyone in the area that was looking out for him, helping him make good decisions or was there to help guide him. When Barner replied no, John asked if the two of them could get to know each other better over dinner sometime.
“At that dinner I told him that I had no agenda and I wasn’t there to meet him as a football player,” said John. “My goal is simply making sure that you are accounted for.”
John saw something in Barner that he believed to be special.
“For me it really clicked when I asked Kenjon what his relationship with his family was like. He said, ‘I love my family’ and when I went to move on, he interrupted me and said, ‘No, you need to understand. I am in love with my family.’ I had never heard anybody say it that way in my life and I was really caught up in that and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is something special and really someone to invest in.’”
Kenjon believed, too, that having a family outlet in Eugene would be something that could benefit him and the two agreed to begin meeting on a weekly basis.
Through his relationship with John, Barner met the rest of the Riley clan and has since become an equal part in their family.
“We trust Kenjon with our lives,” said John. “Kenjon’s character is one that is far greater than most 22-year-olds have. He is just a blast to be with.”
The Eugene-based Riley family is simply an extension of Kenjon's already big family. His parents, Gary and Wilhelmenia Barner, have seven children – six boys and one girl, of which Kenjon is the youngest.
“I love my family so much,” said Kenjon. “My parents are so great and when I am here in Eugene, the Rileys are a great stand-in.”
With Barner joining the Rileys, he became the second football player in the family. 12-year-old Brayden plays middle school football in Eugene and since Barner met Brayden, he attends all of his younger “brother’s” games.
Before every one of Brayden’s games, John gives his son something to think about before he takes the field. Before Brayden’s final home game last year, he was asked by his father to do something. To play every down as if it were his last.
After the game, as Barner and Brayden walked towards the parking lot, Barner was called over by former Oregon running back and NFL player Dino Philyaw.
Philyaw and Barner spoke face-to-face for ten minutes while Brayden stood by Barner’s side intently listening to the advice the former Oregon tailback bestowed to the current one. Philyaw closed by telling Barner to play every down as if it was his last.
“I looked over at Brayden and he was looking at Kenjon, in awe that a former NFL pro was telling this current Oregon star, his friend, the same thing his dad had just told him,” said John Riley.
To celebrate Brayden’s great game, the Rileys and Barner decided to go out for ice cream. Barner and Brayden rode together in Barner’s car and discussed the exchange of advice that had just occurred.
“I asked Brayden if he had played that game like it was his last,” said Barner. “He said that he didn’t, so I said we should make a pact. I said, ‘After every one of your games I will ask you if you gave it all you had, and you do the same for me.’ Now after every one of our games we talk and hold each other accountable.”
Playing like you may never play again has special relevance to Barner, especially since a game against Washington State in October of 2010. Barner was the recipient of a brutal hit on a kickoff return that resulted in him being taken from the field in an ambulance. He was diagnosed with a concussion and even thought about giving up football because of the danger.
After missing three games, in his first game back in front of a home crowd at Autzen Stadium, Barner scored his first touchdown in over two months.
Barner and Brayden play in different leagues, one in the Pac-12 and the other in the under-12. Barner weighs in at 195 pounds and stands 5-foot-11, while Brayden is 82 pounds and 4-foot-9. Despite the disparities, the two had a chance to play on the same field recently, even the same team, at the Riley’s Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl. Barner was the signal-caller for the kid’s team, while the adults were quarterbacked by Kenjon’s brother Martel (who surprised Kenjon from out-of-state on Thanksgiving). On the game’s final play, Barner and Brayden connected for the game-winning touchdown.
“He is like a brother to me,” said Brayden of Barner. “I don’t have an older brother and he is there for me,” said Brayden.
“Brayden’s love language is time spent with someone and that speaks much more than any advice given, it is simply that Kenjon values time spent with Brayden,” said Stephanie, Brayden’s mother. “There is no other reason for (Barner) to be here other than to just be in our house and it is astounding to us.”
Barner and the Rileys now meet once or twice a week, for dinner, movie nights, and other family outings, while the Rileys attend all of Kenjon’s home games and other Ducks’ events.
In observing Barner and the Rileys together, it is plain to see that the fit is natural and both parties learn from and enjoy each other. The only argument they may have is who benefits more from the other’s company.
“The thing about our relationship with Kenjon is that I don’t think he could get more out of it than what our family does from him,” said John. “We think the world of him. When I lead him through scriptures or guide him with principles, the way he soaks it up, asks questions and applies it soon after, is amazing. It may be seen that I am mentoring him, but it is a two-way thing."
Barner acknowledged that he has something to contribute to his pseudo-family but believes he is the bigger beneficiary in the relationship.
“I feel like I get more. There are many reasons, but I don’t have any family up here and to have a family like this to take me in, it makes me feel good,” said Barner. “I have always wanted a little brother and I have that now in Brayden and Mikayla and I get to play with them and talk to John and Steph. It is special and I feel at home.”
What Barner learns in his dealing with John, Stephanie, Brayden and Mikayla benefits him not only in his daily and spiritual life but on the football field as well.
“I become a better man because of them,” said Barner. “And the relationship benefits me in my spirituality and my relationship with God and others. It also helps me be a leader for the team.”
Barner isn’t the most vocal or extroverted player for the Ducks, but as a veteran for the squad and a key contributor in many roles on the field, he, by default, adopts a leadership position.
John recognized this and asked Barner if he was prepared for that role.
“I once said to Kenjon that ‘God has called you to be a leader. How good of a leader will you be?’ In a second he said ‘I’m going to be a great leader.’”
Immediately following every Oregon game, Barner can be seen on one knee with many Oregon players and coaches, leading the group in prayer.
“It is something that some people asked me to do and I am happy to do it,” Barner said.
There is no questioning that Barner is something exceptional on the field.
“I feel like Kenjon could start at any other school in the nation, and is right up there as one of the best backs in the country,” said head coach Chip Kelly.
In the past three years no other player, aside from star running back LaMichael James, has scored more points for the Ducks, as Barner has accounted for 26 touchdowns in his reserve role.
But Kenjon Barner goes far beyond the accolades and stats that surround him as a college football player.
In speaking with his teammates, his coaches, people all around the University of Oregon, it is tough to find someone who has something negative to say about Barner.
He is a player who never turns down an autograph, accepts almost all appearance requests, attends local high school football games, and is plainly a nice guy.
“You look at Kenjon and he is a strong football player, but he has a different side. He is very caring, very loving,” said James of his fellow tailback.
“We are proud of the man he is and the character he has,” said John. “We are proud parents.”