The Running Men: Running backs Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney

Go Gophers!
Go Gophers!

Go Gophers!

Peanut butter and jelly. Thunder and lightning. Macaroni and cheese.

The words just seem to go together. One word seems designed to fit with the other. For the 2004 Golden Gopher football team, nowhere is this truer than with the names Barber and Maroney, or Maroney and Barber.

Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroneyare the mac and cheese of Minnesota football. Since the start of last season, the Golden Gophers cannot imagine life on the gridiron without either of their star running backs. During the 2003 campaign, Minnesota boasted the third-best rushing attack in the nation as Barber and Maroney each ran for over 1,000 yards, becoming just the 30th pair of teammates in NCAA history to accomplish that milestone.

Barber amassed 1,196 yards in 2003 and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection. He also broke the school record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 17, became the 10th player in school history to surpass 2,000 yards for a career and tied the school's single- season record for 100-yard games with seven.

Maroney, last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, exploded onto the scene with 1,121 yards, the most of any freshman in the nation. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in rushing and averaged 6.92 yards per carry, the second-highest average in school history.

Together, and they're always together, Barber and Maroney enter the season with high expectations and lofty goals. Many college football pundits believe the Golden Gophers will go as far as the running backs take them. For Barber and Maroney, or Maroney and Barber, if you prefer, the 2004 season stands as another opportunity to show that their names fit together, much like macaroni and cheese.

ONE HAD a famous name, but was not a top recruit. The other came from a poor high school team, but was a blue-chipper. One attended a school where 93 percent of the population was white. The other's school was 99 percent African-American. One lived in a prosperous suburb of Minneapolis. The other was from a blue-collar, inner-city area of St. Louis. Barber and Maroney clearly took vastly separate paths to the University of Minnesota.

Marion Barber IIImade the short trip to Golden Gopher football from the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth and Wayzata High School. But it's not where he came from that makes his background unique.

Barber's family pedigree is well known throughout the state and in much of the nation. Four years ago, when the name Marion Barber was mentioned, Minnesotans would think of the former Golden Gopher and New York Jets running back from the 1970s and 80s. Today, it's Marion III, not Marion Jr., garnering all the attention. The younger Marion's road to Heisman watch lists hasn't been on the back of his famous father, however. "That was a different era," the younger Barber is fond of saying.

What may come as a surprise is that Marion was not a highly recruited player out of high school. Although he was a two-way starter at Wayzata, Barber did not get any offers from schools around the nation. He nearly didn't get an offer from Minnesota. "There were some mixed feelings on him as far as recruiting went," running backs coach Vic Adamle said. "He wasn't a 4.5 guy, but everything else about him was positive. We knew he was a good football player, we knew he was an athlete and we knew his family background. We thought, `How can we go wrong?' Now we wonder what took us so long to say, `Let's take him.'"

Although he came to Minnesota on his own merits, the questions of his famous dad followed him to Dinkytown. After a breakout year that saw him earn Freshman All-America honors and an All-Big Ten sophomore season in 2003, Barber is putting those "famous dad questions" to rest and creating a legacy of his own. "He always has had that shadow lingering over him - the legacy of his dad," loquacious senior defensive end Darrell Reidsaid. "Everybody knows Marion comes from a prominent football family. He has a big legacy to live up to. But I think he has created his own light that he walks in."

For Barber, it's a matter of being grateful for getting the chance to create his own legacy. "I'm just thankful the coaching staff stuck with me and gave me the opportunity. What has happened has been icing on the cake, a bonus. Being in a situation to build my own legacy is a plus."

Laurence Maroney's background is decidedly different, and no one explains it better than Darrell Reid. "Laurence comes from St. Louis. He wasn't one of the richest kids on the block. He's one of those guys I call a typical Minnesota player - typical of this program. A guy who goes from the bottom to the top. He probably came from almost the bottom, and now he's almost at the peak."

According to Reid, the bottom was Normandy High School, a public high school in the heart of St. Louis. Maroney is quick to agree that Normandy didn't exactly field the strongest football team from week to week. "The school I went to was not a football school. I was almost bigger than my linemen. I had to make holes for myself half the time."

Nevertheless, Maroney made a name for himself amid the humble surroundings. During his senior season, he exploded for 1,948 yards on 210 carries en route to St. Louis Player of the Year honors. It didn't take long for the college coaches to come calling. At Minnesota, co-offensive coordinator Mitch Browning was making the calls and the visits to the Maroney home. "Laurence was a guy who stood out on both sides of the ball. He started all four years and was an impact player from day one. On top of that, he was just a phenomenal kid who loved playing football and worked extremely hard at it."

After whittling his school choices down to Illinois and Minnesota, Maroney chose the Golden Gophers because, he said, "I wanted to go somewhere where I felt I could help and improve the team - to a team that was on the rise. I always wanted to go somewhere close to home. I never wanted to be too far from my mother."

Not too far from mom now, Maroney has joined Barber to form one of the most potent running back tandems in the nation. Their roads to Minnesota were very much different, but whether they came from an affluent suburb or a bad high school football team doesn't matter to Golden Gopher fans, coaches or the running backs themselves.

AN ENGINE needs fuel. A fish needs water. A bike needs a chain. In each case, one can't work at peak performance without the other. At Minnesota, Barber needs Maroney and Maroney needs Barber. And Minnesota needs them both.

At schools around the country this fall, there's controversy brewing. As battles for starting jobs heat up, quarterback controversies, running back controversies, kicker controversies and others are giving coaches stomach ulcers. At Minnesota, however, there's no running back controversy, aside from deciding who looks better on all those billboards around town.

"There's no controversy," Adamle said. "There's no selfishness on the part of either one of them. They're both most concerned with the team's success and know that's really what's important. Whatever they need to do to help us win, that's what they want to do."

"The competition between the two brings the best out in both of them," Browning agreed. "They are very unselfish guys. If we had Marion by himself or Laurence by himself, who knows the numbers that one of them might put up. But those guys have bought into what we've asked them to do for the betterment of the team and they've done a great job with it."

Apparently, that's not just coachspeak. Either Barber and Maroney have been impressively coached on what to say, or these guys have truly bought into the two-back system.

"It's never a rivalry between us," Maroney said. "I'm never a person to get jealous and go to the coaches to say that Marion's getting more carries than me or Marion's got more yards than me. I'm not going to put myself in position to jeopardize the team. If I'm tired, I'm going to want Marion to come in. There's no one bigger than the team. You can't win by yourself. All we want is a win. When we win, we're happy."

"I don't see it as a competition between us," Barber added. "I see it as both of us bettering ourselves. I never feel like I need to do something to look better than the next person. We're just looking to get that `W' at the end. There's a bunch of pluses between us; never anything negative."

It almost seems too good to be true. Either one of these two elite players would be able to carry a team's entire running game by themselves, and yet, Barber and Maroney scoff at the insinuation of a controversy. Good friends off the field, they have translated the inherent competition at their position into a `you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' philosophy.

"I think they feed off each other," Adamle said. "They help each other. They need each other. They're able to keep each other fresh. At the same time, we can keep firing a fresh back at the defense with different styles and different strengths and weaknesses."

"I always feel like I can learn something from Marion," Maroney said. "If I see Marion do a move, I tell myself I can use that and add it to my arsenal. I don't ever tell him that though."

It's hard to imagine a more ideal situation for the Golden Gophers to be in than with two premier running backs willing to forgo individual glory in favor of team success. Barber and Maroney operate at peak performance, not solely because of their individual talents, but because they have each other to lean on, learn from and win with.

A RADIO and an amplifier. A camera and a lens. Ribs and barbecue sauce. In each case, one is enhanced by the other. At Minnesota, Barber's strength and quickness is enhanced by Maroney's speed and vision, and vice versa. Defenses around the Big Ten are finding that enhancement a bit difficult to handle.

According to Reid, Barber is "a walking muscle" and Maroney is "one of the fastest kids on his block." It's the combination of brawn and blazing speed that gives the Golden Gophers a lethal one-two punch in the backfield. With their different set of running abilities, Barber and Maroney are well on their way to making `Big Ten defensive coordinator' sound about as attractive a job as `John Goodman's pedicurist.'

"On game day when people first see Laurence, he turns the corner and they're in shock," Adamle said. "It happened game after game last season. Even after watching all that film, they'd come on the field and realize that they were a step late on defense. He's got great vision and natural running back instincts. It's not like he's just a track guy. He's a football player that happens to be fast enough to be a track star if he wanted to.

"Marion, on the other hand, has great quickness, great feet and great strength when he's running the ball. His pad level is naturally three feet off the ground. He runs like that naturally; he has from day one. When people hit him, they hit nothing but shoulder pads. He's able to break tackles and come out the other end."

True to form, Barber and Maroney are quick to shed the praise and turn the focus to their teammates. "I can't take credit for all that I've done," Maroney said. "You can't leave out the great offensive line or the downfield blocking by the receivers."

"I look at all of this as a blessing," Barber added. "I'm just happy to be around this football team. Everything else is just a bonus. I'm just appreciative for all that has happened to me.

The Golden Gopher football program and its fans are just appreciative for all that Barber and Maroney have made happen on the field. From vastly different backgrounds, Minnesota now has two premier running backs with the ability to give the Maroon and Gold distinctive characteristics on the field. To have two student-athletes with the selflessness and willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team win, Minnesota is truly fortunate. The walking muscle and the fastest kid on the block are well on their way to making Barber and Maroney sound as natural together as macaroni and cheese, and hopefully, Minnesota and Rose Bowl.

Written by Assistant Director of Athletic Commincations Kevin Kurtt. He welcomes comments at kurtt003@umn.edu.