SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (WOOD) — The Fiesta Bowl will be Michigan offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart’s first game since the death of his grandmother.
“It’s hard to do, but I feel like it comes natural to me. I’ve had a lot of issues in the past, things that have helped me become mentally strong,” Barnhart, a Paw Paw High School product, said. “I’m just playing this game for her.”
His grandmother, Sandra, died last week after a battle with cancer.
“She was always so positive and would text me before games, after games: ‘Good luck,’ ‘Keep going,’ ‘Your time is coming,'” he recalled.
Barnhart was a standout at Paw Paw with dozens of Division 1 offers, but it took a while to see him on the field with the Wolverines. He was a backup lineman until this season.
“Last year, I was on the sideline the entire time and didn’t really get to feel what it’s like, and now I have the opportunity to play and help the team try to win,” Barnhart said.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has called him “as tough as a $2 steak.”
“He’s our most improved player on offense,” Harbaugh said. “Great team player, great teammate. Blue-collar, hardworking, talented.”
“One of the grittiest, hardworking dudes I’ve ever been around,” Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said of Barnhart. “And you’ll never hear a peep out of him. He never complains, he puts his head down and works and that’s the kind of guy that I want to be behind, that’s the kind of guy I want to follow.”
Paw Paw head football head coach Dennis Strey knew Barnhart was built for the Big Ten after first seeing him play as a 6-foot-4 sophomore. In Strey’s eyes, Barnhart’s love for his community is what makes him special. He and his teammates came back to Paw Paw last summer for a youth football camp.
“He’s top-notch; top-notch human being,” Strey said. “That’s huge for our kids to see, too, is a guy that’s at the top of college football, yet he still wants to come back.”
His small-town roots motivate Barnhart. When he plays Saturday, it will be for his team, his grandmother and his entire community.
“They’ve given me everything to help get to this step. I just want to give back to everybody in the community, everybody that’s helped me, and show younger generations from a small town that they can make it to this stage as well,” he said.
Michigan plays Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl starting at 4 p.m. ET Saturday. The game airs on ESPN.