The piercing sound of gunshots echoed throughout the neighborhood, and Deion Barnes’ family responded exactly the way they always did — ducking for cover.
It wasn’t anything new. The reaction was the same because it had to be.
The ramifications of adolescent violence hit close to the Barnes’ Erie Avenue home in North Philadelphia many times during the redshirt freshman’s childhood.
Within half mile of Barnes’ home, there were 130 shootings and at least 20 deaths in his first three years of high school alone, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some of his childhood friends and family members have been involved on both ends of the spectrum.
“Not a lot of people make it out,” Barnes said.
Yet, the Northeast High School phenom overcame the odds and has become a standout defensive end at Penn State.
Now, when Barnes returns home, he walks the streets of his old neighborhood and no longer blends in with the crowd.
He receives countless high fives, fist pounds, shout outs, you name it. The 6-foot-4, 246-pounder has become a hero to those children still living in his hometown.
He was the exception. He made it out.
Maybe they could, too.
Erie Avenue and its surrounding North Philly neighborhood are far from safe havens for young children.
Barnes has had an uncle and several friends die at the hands of the harsh street violence, where he said it’s easy for somebody to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I got a couple of friends that are in jail right now, a couple friends running from the cops,” Barnes said. “I had a few times, when I’m outside, shootouts and things like that.”
Deion’s mother, Cynthia, said she and her husband, Robert, chose to bus Deion out of the immediate area to go to a better public school system. That way, he spent as little time around the neighborhood as possible.
This didn’t stop them from worrying about Deion, the youngest of five children. His mother said they constantly called him to make sure he was safe during the rare times they would let Deion out of the house for anything unrelated to school.
“We were probably more scared for him than he was,” Cynthia said of Deion’s upbringing. “He used to always tell me that [he is] street-wise and all…. The kids tease us about that now, but we didn’t let them go too far from the door.”
A community organizer, Cynthia said she and her family have done everything in their power to protect the other members of the neighborhood.
Yet, the results have been unsettling. She said shootouts have occurred on a frequent basis, as close as right in front of their home.
“I can actually see the flash from outside the window,” Cynthia said of the shootouts. “You hear the noise, and instincts make you look. And you have to get down. It’s like a way of life around here.”
Deion’s father, who works at the local library, said he always encouraged his son to focus on his education and walk away from the violence, but sometimes it was inevitable.
Robert recalled one fateful evening when a young Deion and his older brother found themselves caught in the middle of the crossfire on their way home from a basketball tournament.
Deion and his brother made it home safely, but Robert said his youngest son was noticeably shaken by the incident.
“He came to me. He was just so scared,” Deion’s father said. “And I just told him, ‘Just pray to God that nothing happened.’ And he said, ‘Dad…Why? Why?’”
Robert said he told Deion that when kids lack goals, it leaves them with nothing better to do.
But Robert said his son was tired of the violence. Deion knew he wanted to get out.
“If you want to make it happen,” Robert told his son, “you can make it happen.”
Making it out
So how did Barnes avoid all the distractions and become the first member of his family to go to college?
Besides his dedication to school, the answer is best summed up by one word — football.
“When things are going on in the streets, I’m at football practice,” Deion said. “When things are going on in the streets, I’m lifting weights. Football actually helped me be able to get away from all the stuff that was going around.”
Deion’s father, who starred as a football player at Olney High School, introduced his son to the sport at an early age. Robert enrolled Deion in the North Philadelphia Aztec youth program, where Deion played throughout his childhood.
Wayne Allen, the president of the organization, said Deion was not only coachable but also acted as a mentor to other players on his teams and was always goal-driven.
Deion’s mother said many teenagers often struggle when faced with the opportunity to make bad decisions, but the role of football in her son’s life eliminated this option.
“He couldn’t [make bad decisions] in order for him to get to where he had to go,” Cynthia said. “So [football] did play a major role in his life. It was everything.”
Deion said as he grew older, he had friends in the neighborhood who began to make wrong decisions. But, instead of joining them, he tried his best to look out for them.
“They are still my friends. I grew up with them,” Deion said. “But, when things go down, I’m street-smart. I’m asking them, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m staying away from drugs and stuff like that.”
Deion’s commitment to football not only kept him out of trouble, but it also allowed him to become one of the best defensive linemen in the area as he got to high school.
The defensive end recorded 85 tackles in his senior season to lead Northeast to its first Philadelphia Public School league championship since 1983, with Deion being named a second-team all-state defender that season.
Ranked by Rivals as the sixth-best prep defensive end in the country in his 2011 graduating class, he received offers from many big time programs and ultimately settled on Penn State.
Deion’s father, who said prejudice at least partly prevented him from making it to the next level, told his son to seize the chance to get out of town.
“So I told him, ‘You got the opportunity,’” Robert said. “‘You take full advantage of this. You understand? The doors weren’t open for me. The door’s open for you now.’”
Leaving his mark
Despite shining in his first active season as a Nittany Lion — Barnes leads the team in sacks and forced fumbles — his role in the North Philly community is far from over.
Deion’s mother said the rebuilding period of the neighborhood’s culture is not going to happen over night, adding that a shooting occurred as recently as two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, she said her son has continuously come back to speak to the youth in an effort to encourage them to start molding positive futures.
Allen, the president of the Aztecs, said Deion gave a motivational speech at one of his football camps earlier this year and many of the campers could relate to the Penn Stater’s tumultuous childhood.
“[Deion’s] impact is unbelievable when you can see these guys coming from the same environment,” Allen said. “He actually keeps coming back.”
Cynthia said her son has become an ambassador for the neighborhood and has been received well, even from those who have chosen the wrong path.
Deion acts as an inspiration to the struggling youth, and as his mother puts it, that group is not afraid to show their devotion.
“When he does come home, people are coming up and slapping five and they’re glad that somebody is doing something,” Cynthia said. “Somebody made it.”