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.”

Michigan football offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart at practice.
Michigan football offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart at practice.

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.