Photo by Jason SkodaThe blink of an eye is usually involuntary. It's those that have purpose behind them that matter.
Desert Vista senior Will Barfield, with his father's initials on his helmet, reflects after the Thunder's opening loss. The young man's father died after a car crash, and he's honoring him on every play.
The closing of an eye can sometimes substitute for possibly the most powerful three-word phrase in the English language.
"Every time I left I'd say, 'I love you' and because of the tube in his trachea he couldn't talk so he would blink," Will Barfield Jr. said. "And I knew exactly what he meant by it."
Barfield Jr. loved seeing Will Barfield Sr.'s eyes blink — until he didn't have to anymore. One day those three words finally came out.
"I turned and started heading for the door (of the hospital room) and he said, ‘I love you,'" Barfield Jr. remembered. "I ran to him and I started bawling. Even the nurses were emotional."
It was supposed to be a sign that everything was progressing in the right direction. The elder Barfield was going to be paralyzed from the neck down after the car accident on Sept. 12, 2012 that sent their vehicle into a large cactus near Chandler Boulevard.
There was no getting around that, but once he started communicating it made everything easier.
Or so it seemed.
Complications on Feb. 15 sent Barfield Sr. into surgery. Barfield Jr. was out for the night with a few of his Desert Vista (Phoenix) teammates. His sister, Alexis, was playing in the state basketball playoffs with the Thunder.
After the game, their mother, Michelle, was gone and her aunt took Alexis to the hospital. She sat in the waiting room by herself until it became clear that Barfield Sr., 51, was gone.
"He was improving so much and it was so unexpected," Alexis said. "I planned on seeing my dad after the game and telling him how it went. Then my mom wasn't there after the game. I was so focused on how the game went I didn't think too much about how serious it was until she came out from the back and couldn't talk.
"I was the youngest one there and they asked if I wanted to go see him. He looked more peaceful than he had in a long time."
Honor thy father
The effort Barfield Jr. plays with comes from his belief that his dad is still watching, and he doesn't want to let him down. He knows coach Barfield, as he was known to so many Thunder players from their pee wee days, wouldn't have it any other way.
So every time the senior cornerback pulls that No. 2 jersey over his shoulder pads — the same number his pops picked out for him in the pee wee days — Barfield Jr. is never going to let up.
If that weren't enough there is the "WB" on the back of his helmet and "RIP" on the back heel of his left cleat and the "DAD" on his right.
"Every time I put those on it is right there, right in my face, showing me he is watching," said Barfield Jr., who was in the car with his dad and made the 911 call. "What I do on the field is for him. Football keeps me alive, to be honest. If I didn't have football I don't know where I'd be today. I try to keep his legacy and represent his name."
It doesn't stop there, as the football team also goes out of its way to honor the fallen Barfield.
For years the team has closed out practice and games in honor of coach Jimmy Williams, who died from heart failure on Jan. 24, 1999, at the age of 35, by doing jumping jacks, or "Jimmy Jacks," as they spell out his name.
This year they've added "Willie-Bs" every day after they get done warming up, with Barfield Jr., a team captain, starting it off.
"The players came to me and asked if they could do it," Thunder coach Dan Hinds said. "It's really awesome to see the team step up and support him."
The support goes both ways, as Hinds lost his father, Benny, in June to cancer.
"Will and I have a pretty good connection," Hinds said. "He came to and asked me about my dad. It's been good for both of us. It's a lot tougher as a young man to lose your dad. I can't imagine."
Courage while coping
Barfield Sr., who played college basketball, loved being involved in the lives of his kids, including half-sister Brittany, especially when it came to sports.
"There is a weird sense of emptiness," Barfield Jr. said. "He was half of me and we did everything together."
It was all ripped away in an instant and yet the elder Barfield never showed the anger or frustration that had to be building up inside.
"In the five months he was in the hospital he never once complained," Michelle Barfield said. "I can't imagine what he was going through. He was so energetic and involved, and all of a sudden he was a quadriplegic. He never became negative and was always really strong for the kids."
The stay at the Barrow Neurological Institute was difficult. Seeing a loved one in a vulnerable state can leave a lasting impression and no one wants to be remembered that way.
It's not something the Barfields have to worry about.
"He talked to me about being a man, about how to take care of a family," Barfield Jr. said. "I'm more protective of my sister and mom."
For that, Michelle is more than grateful.
"I thank God for those five months," said Michelle, whose father died when she was 14. "If he passed away soon after the accident, as a family we never would have had that time together. We were all so much closer. We had talks and grew from it.
"I admire and I am in awe of how they handled it. We still have our struggles, but I see how strong they have been and it amazes me. It just goes to show how quick things can change."
Like the blink of an eye.
Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer, is a 19-year sports writing veteran. Follow on Twitter @JSkodaAFN and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.