In 2008, Huskies safety Dylan Barker made history at the University of Saskatchewan by becoming the first athlete in the Huskies football program to be drafted first overall in the CFL by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Never before in the resilient history of the Huskies program, which has generated nearly 50 CFL players, had there been such a buzz around a U of S athlete. Competing in two Vanier Cups and being named first all-Canadian of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport two times, the Moose Jaw Cyclones import was a pivotal piece of the Huskies defensive core during his time in Saskatoon.
Barker appeared to be the real deal — a polite, well-spoken individual, amateur chemist, champion speed skater, future dentist and a hard-hitting, explosive special teams player. He was poised to transition smoothly into the CFL. However, Barker may have taken the encouraging mantra “break a leg” a little too seriously.
In the midst of his CFL debut in a pre-season contest against the Toronto Argonauts in 2008, Barker fractured his fibula bone, dislocated his ankle and severely stretched some ligaments in what could have been a career-ending injury. Things looked dim for Barker, who was scrutinized by critics and told by physicians a full recovery was unlikely.
Fast forward to the fall of 2009; the Hamilton Ti-Cats have emerged from the cellar of the CFL’s East Division and are presently sitting cozy in second place and Barker has nearly completed his first season of pro football. Here’s what Barker had to say to the Sheaf on his time in Hamilton and the CFL, his injury and the critics.
The Sheaf: Was it a big leap to go from the CIS and the Huskies to the Ti-Cats?
Dylan Barker: There’s a lot better talent here. It’s some of the best college players from all over the States. It’s just a lot quicker and every step, every movement, needs to be made quicker. Your placement on the field and details are so much more important. College gets you prepared for all that and gets you ready.
All the schemes and the knowledge of the game — you kind of build that in the CIS and once you get to the CFL, it comes down to the details and execution. You have to watch film a lot more; you have to study your opponent and the tendencies of the other team. It’s not just enough to be a really good athlete anymore, it goes beyond that now. So it’s amazing now to take that next step to the pro level.
Sheaf: You underwent a serious injury last season that kept you sidelined. Can you elaborate upon it and the ups and downs along the way? Are you at 100 per cent?
Barker: Yeah, for sure I am. It was a tough season. Getting drafted first overall and just getting to play two pre-season games and that was it for the season — that was a hit. I really learned a lot last year though. I just stayed here, got to know all my teammates, watched film and got used to the CFL game. I just tried to get the most out of it as I could even though I was sidelined.
Coming back this year, it’s a lot better. I don’t even worry about my leg anymore; it’s still a little tight in games and I’m always trying to stretch it to get it back to totally 100 per cent. It doesn’t bother me late in games at all, so I don’t think about it. The rehab and the surgery went really well, but just sticking around here really helped me.
Sheaf: You silenced critics who claimed your injury as career-ending. How did you respond to such negative speculation?
Barker: I’m just as fast as I ever was and I’m just as strong as I ever was. When people said that, I tried to take the most positive things out of everything and do what I could control. The negative speculation — that’s going to come playing pro sports. It’s up to you what you really want to keep in your mind and what you want to take in. I just try and get the most out of it. I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody; I’m just going out and having fun. I’ve been given a great opportunity and last year was a little bit of a setback but I’m back and healthy.
Sheaf: What’s it like to compete in the CFL?
Barker: It’s a humbling, amazing experience. Every game you get to step on that field in front of tens of thousands of fans and you just don’t get that excitement from anything else. To play pro sports, especially in the CFL, is something I’m really proud to be a part of.
Sheaf: What has been your number one CFL memory thus far?
Barker: That’s a tough one. One of the coolest was the Labour Day game when we played Toronto. I always had been about Labour Day games in Saskatchewan but when I got to be a player on the field and experience a CFL crowd in Hamilton playing the Argos, it was very surreal with the jet planes flying over 30,000 fans. And also the win. That obviously helped.
Sheaf: What has it been like living up to the pressure that was put on you after being drafted number one overall in the CFL in 2008?
Barker: I really don’t think about that at all. I put on my equipment and go out there. I just so happened to be drafted first overall but I really don’t think about the pressure people put on me. I just go out there and execute.
Sheaf: How did the Hamilton organization deal with the recent death of CFL legend Ron Lancaster? Did you have a relationship with him at all?
Barker: I watched him growing up and heard all the amazing stories about Ron. It’s tough on our fans but we all appreciate what he’s done for the CFL. Everyone brings up all the great stories now and whenever Tiger-Cats football comes up, Ron Lancaster always comes up. He’s done so much for the city and the football team and it makes me proud to be part of the Ti-Cat organization. I never got to see him play live but you can really see how important he was to this community and to the CFL.
Sheaf: Have you been following the Huskies this season? Any advice to pass along to them?
Barker: I check up on them and keep up, for sure. I don’t know if I have a message for them but from what I’ve learned from the CFL they need to take their practices seriously, be focused and that really carries over into games.
photo Ron Scheffler