One look and it’s pretty obvious — Raimon Barela is small. Next to some of his teammates — namely 6-foot-4 defensive end Logan George or 6-foot-6 tight end Mason Mickelsen or, heck, even Highland coach Gino Mariani — Barela can get lost.
Let’s compare his 5-foot-4, 115-pound frame to a car. Nothing crazy there. Every day, you see a car. No big deal. If you saw a car on a football field, though, it may cause a double-take, a befuddled look that leads to some sort of question along the lines of, “Um, is that supposed to be there?”
Who knows about the car, but Barela is definitely supposed to be on the gridiron.
And the Rams — ranked No. 4 in 5A in the latest media poll — are glad he is. On just 20 catches, the junior leads Highland’s wide receiver corps with 404 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns.
“I’ll tell you what, for his size, what he brings to the table, it’s incredible,” Mariani said. “If you’re going to take him one-on-one, he makes it difficult on defenders because he’s got that quickness to get around you and enough speed to get by you.”
At first, most people don’t believe that. Cornerbacks will line up against him, see they’ve got a few inches on their matchup and assume he’s a scrub. They’ll roll their eyes, press him and think he’ll drop like a coat rack on initial contact.
One time, back when he was just out of elementary school and standing around 5-foot-2, Barela attended a seven-on-seven tournament with Highland’s junior varsity squad. Like has happened so many times before and will many times in the future, a defensive back saw that he was covering a receiver who came up to his shoulder pads.
Naturally, and naively, cockiness took over.
“He went to bump me and I just swam him and made my route,” Barela said, referring to the swim technique. “Afterwards I was walking back and he goes, ‘Gosh, you’re quick.’ and I was like, ‘Thanks.’ I laughed because he knew I burned him.”
Even now, with loads of film on Barela and the surprise of his height mitigated, he still makes plays. Last week, with the Rams trailing against Skyview, the 5-foot-4 wideout twice snared touchdown catches from senior quarterback Easton Durham to put his team back on top in an eventual 38-23 win.
“He’s just a little dude that gets open,” Durham said of Barela. “(As a defender), you’d look around and be like, ‘Who’s this kid?’ All of the sudden, he’d blow past you. You don’t want to press him.”
Apparently, Durham noted, the other thing you don’t want to do against Barela is block him.
“He’s just a bulldog,” Durham said.
Mariani agreed. Somehow, someway, Barela gets it done. Sure, he has to throw his hands on guys with six inches and 60 pounds on him. He’ll do it with a grin and cease the momentum of any defender headed his way. It’s a remarkable sight that seems to defy physics.
The trick, he said, is let the big bodies charge at him. Not vice versa. He wants to absorb their first strike, then he’ll whisk his hands out to their pads, chop his feet like he’s dicing onions and “stand my ground.”
There’s something integral in that latter point.
The thing about Barela, the fascination with him isn’t just his height. It’s his will to excel doing things people don’t expect him to. Play football. Be a varsity starter. Block people like he’s a sumo wrestler.
He’ll admit to the cliche that he has a chip on his shoulder. Maybe that’s true. But what seems more clear is that he does everything so well because, in order to succeed, he has to. The genetics of his 5-foot-7 parents didn’t lend themselves to him excelling off talent alone. There needs to be some grit, some mental fortitude and, as Durham said, some “heart.”
“I just take every rep seriously and at 100 percent,” Barela said. “Just trying to be the example.”
“He’s the type that you’d want your son to be like him,” Mariani added. “And he’s being a leader right now. He’s stepping up right now.”
During Highland’s Tuesday practice, a gear-up for Friday’s home game against second-ranked Rigby, Barela ran routes where little things became noticeable. His cleats putting divots on the grass as he came in and out of breaks. The subtle ways he’d use his head and always-motoring arms to throw off defenders. And how he ran even rudimentary drills like he was darting out of the blocks for a sprint.
Then he’d snatch the pass, and 5-foot-4 became obsolete.
“Everyone underestimates me because of my size,” Barela said, “but size doesn’t really matter.”