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Cook: Barlow ensures he will leave Pitt a legend

Saturday, November 25, 2000

Do you think maybe Pitt running back Kevan Barlow was motivated yesterday? Do you think he had a good reason to play the game of his life in the 38-28 win against West Virginia?

You have no idea.

Pitt wide receiver Antonio Bryant eludes a defender on a 41-yard pass in the first quarter (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

First and foremost, there was his uncle, Sidney Barlow, who was shot to death last Thanksgiving after playing in the annual Turkey Bowl football game in Garfield. You read about it on these pages the past two days, how the murder devastated the Barlow family, how the grieving widow, Angela -- a mother of five -- went back to that ballfield in Garfield this Thanksgiving Day to honor her husband's memory.

"I couldn't go back," Kevan Barlow said quietly last night. "It's too hard for me. I haven't stepped foot in that place since and I never will again ...

"I was going all out for him in this game. I dedicated it to him."

Then, there was the seize-the-moment speech to the Pitt team Wednesday from former Pitt quarterback Pete Gonzalez. With a bowl bid on the line, what a stroke of genius it was for Coach Walt Harris to bring back the guy who led Pitt on its last bowl trip. Gonzalez was so brilliant in 1997 that Pittsburgh fans still can't believe the Steelers let him get away. He might never play another down in the NFL, but he'll always be remembered as the best No. 3 quarterback in Steelers history.

"He left here a legend," Barlow said. "I wanted to leave here the same way. I want to come back and have people know who I am."

Finally, this was the last home game for Barlow. Do you know what that means to a Pittsburgh kid from Peabody High? When he came to Pitt in 1997, the Panthers were a joke. Now, thanks in no small part to him, they are 7-4 and headed for a bowl, perhaps even the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. He and the team's other seniors will leave knowing they have built something for the future.

"I'll get emotional if I talk about it," Barlow said. "I was emotional all day thinking about it, crying in the hotel. It's sad. This is my last home game with these guys."

The only ones who cried yesterday were the West Virginia players.

Barlow ran for 272 yards against the Mountaineers, the most against them since they started keeping statistics in 1919. The Panthers have been playing since 1890. Only Tony Dorsett had a better day for them, rushing for 303 yards against Notre Dame in 1975.

You might say it's official.

Barlow qualifies as a Pitt legend.

"Kevan Barlow was what we always dreamed he could be," Harris said.

Barlow's big day meant more to Harris than anyone for reasons that go beyond the significance of the win, which gave Pitt its first winning season since 1991 and its first seven-win season since 1989. He might be closer to Barlow than any player. He nearly threw him off the team in the spring of 1999 because he wasn't satisfied with his attitude. He benched him twice this season after fumbles.

"Tough love," Barlow said.

Harris had another reason to be thankful for Barlow on this day. Barlow saved his fanny.

Harris can be like a lot of coaches. They overcoach. Instead of sticking with what's working and winning with it, they try to win their way, with their system. Who knows why? Maybe they want to show how smart they are.

Harris got pass-happy in the second quarter yesterday, even though Barlow had scored touchdowns on 56- and 2-yard runs and had another 31-yard run. With Pitt up, 14-0, he called a pass for quarterback David Priestley on first-and-10 at the West Virginia 20. It was intercepted. He called four consecutive pass plays after Pitt had a first-and-goal at the West Virginia 9 on its next possession. The last was intercepted. Then, with Pitt ahead, 14-3, in the final minute and seemingly ready to run out the clock, he called a pass from Pitt's 37. That, too, was intercepted and nearly cost the Panthers points.

At least, Harris took the blame for the second and third interceptions. He also did something about it in the second half, riding Barlow long enough to secure the win. Barlow had five carries on Pitt's first third-quarter possession, the last for a 30-yard touchdown and 21-3 lead. He had four carries on their next possession, the last for a 24-yard touchdown and 28-3 lead.

"When you can run like that, that changes the whole game," said Pitt quarterback John Turman, who played the second half. "That's as strong and powerful as Kevan has ran all year."

"I give all the credit to my offensive line," Barlow said.

Imagine that. The kid is humble, too.

This is only a guess:

Twenty years from now, when Barlow comes back to Pitt, they'll know who he is.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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