He watches cartoons. He plays video games. He knows enough Star Wars trivia to win a contest in a room full of sci-fi aficionados.
He bench-presses 380 pounds. He sprints with an impressive mix of speed and power. He is one of the most feared running backs in the Big 12.
He is Alex Barnes, a Kansas State sophomore that astonishingly resembles both Screech Powers and A.C. Slater — half nerd, half jock. And much like the classic TV show “Saved by the Bell,” he has a passionate group of fans who can’t wait to see the next episode.
No K-State player produced a wider range of emotions across the fan base than Barnes did a year ago. The bruising runner from Pittsburg averaged a team-high 7.9 yards per carry, yet ranked fourth in rushing attempts. He carried the ball 56 times without losing yardage and scored as many as four touchdowns in a game, yet he is still waiting to make his first start.
He was K-State’s top statistical running back as a redshirt freshman while getting the workload of a third-stringer. Many wanted to see what he could do as a backfield star, especially when he topped 100 yards in consecutive games against Baylor and Kansas, but he never got the chance.
Perhaps things will change this season. Now healthy after injuries knocked him out of K-State’s last two games, he appears ready to feast on defenses in an even bigger way.
Before you can truly know Barnes, you must first know his mother.
She taught him how to give his all on and off the football field. And she introduced him to sci-fi movies.
Barnes didn’t grow up in a traditional household. Jaimi Dodson raised Alex while working as a children’s mental health case manager in Pittsburg. It wasn’t easy, but she got by with help from her parents, who live about an hour away.
Together, they drove Barnes across town for every type of activity and sport imaginable until he was a sought-after recruit. They spent time on farms, in movie theaters and at schools.
Her favorite memories revolve around her son. The Star Wars marathons were a blast. So were all the football games. Watching her son score a touchdown was the ultimate high.
“God knew what he was doing when he gave me a boy,” Dodson said. “I am not fit to raise the Disney princess type.”
Ask Barnes about the most important people in his life, and he will tell you heartfelt stories about his mother and his grandfather.
Grandpa travels to every game he plays, regardless of location. A military veteran, Barnes credits him for showing him how to take care of problems with a do-it-yourself approach. He was his father figure.
Mom is his biggest fan. He credits her for having him on track to graduate in May with a kinesiology degree.
“My mom was my backbone my whole life,” Barnes said. “I had to have her around. It was a hard transition up here at Kansas State without her.”
Barnes sees his father, William, less often, but he takes after him on the football field. William was a talented running back in the 1990s and received scholarship offers from several big schools. He met Dodson at Independence Community College before transferring to Texas. He now lives in Georgia.
Barnes says he has a good relationship with his dad, but his family is in Pittsburg.
“They mean so much to me,” Barnes said. “They are always there for me, no matter what.”
Tom Nickelson was not surprised when Barnes erupted onto the college football scene as a redshirt freshman.
He did the same thing when he played for Nickelson at Pittsburg High, and before that when he dominated youth leagues.
Barnes has long been a football star in his hometown. He was so strong and so skilled as a grade-schooler that he was given permission to play up an age level on the YMCA fields. Turned out he needed even older competition. After a few games, parents complained the youngest kid on the field was too big to play running back, as he was already nearly 130 pounds, and coaches moved him to tight end.
Fast forward to high school, and Nickelson was so impressed with Barnes that he decided to use him on varsity as freshman. Only a handful of other Pittsburg players have done the same. He was supposed to be the team’s primary backup linebacker, but ended up playing the whole season after starters were injured.
“In his first high school game, Alex was taking all the defensive signals and making all the defensive calls, and he never missed a beat,” Nickelson said. “He led our team in tackles as a freshman and as a sophomore. Then we moved him to running back, and he was really special.”
His highlights were too plentiful to count. Nickelson recalls dozens of plays when it looked like Barnes was going to get tackled for a loss, only to see him spin out of a hit and race up field for a first down. Those are the same moves he showed last season while averaging 3.86 yards after contact, the highest number of any returning running back in the Big 12.
Barnes says his offensive line deserves credit for that statistic. Still, tackling him is quite the challenge.
“He put defenses in quite the predicament,” Nickelson said. “He is fast enough to run around you and big enough to run over you. What do you against that? At the high school level, he put the defense in a no-win situation every time he touched the ball.”
That led to a string of mushroom-cloud games as a senior. Barnes ran for nearly 300 yards in a must-win game late in the season and then topped 300 yards in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“He put the team on his back,” Nickelson said. “We had a lot of skilled players, but he took it to a higher level.”
Half nerd, half jock
What does Alex Barnes do for fun away from the football field?
That’s the perfect question to ask K-State football players if you want to see a string of confused faces. None of them seem to know the answer.
“Great question,” running back Dalvin Warmack said. “I don’t know what to tell you, other than he likes Pokemon.”
“He’s a quiet guy,” quarterback Jesse Ertz said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him go out. I think he watches a lot of TV.”
“He definitely does his own thing,” right tackle Dalton Risner said. “He’s a goofball.”
The correct answer only becomes clear when you go straight to the source. Barnes does have hobbies — lots of them, it turns out — and he is happy to tell you about them. They just aren’t the leisure activities you would normally expect from a 6-foot-1, 227-pound wrecking ball in shoulder pads.
His favorite TV show is “Dragon Ball Z.” He watches re-runs every chance he gets and keeps action figures from the program in the cup holder of his car. Anime is his preferred genre, but he dabbles in everything from super heroes to aliens.
“He is a sci-fi nerd,” Dodson said.
Barnes plays video games that involve sports. He’s always up for a game of Madden. He is sarcastic and he likes to pull pranks. But he prefers to spend his weekends out of sight at his off-campus apartment with friends. His mom is his favorite houseguest.
“I spend a lot of time in front of the TV,” Barnes said, “just chilling, getting off my feet whenever I can.”
How is it that one of the gentlest students at K-State is also one of the school’s most fearsome football players?
That’s just who he is.
“He has a switch he turns on and off,” Risner said. “The way he plays football, you think he would go around just mean-mugging people, but he’s not like that at all. He is a really nice guy, but he is also a competitor. When he gets out there on Saturdays he flips that switch and does what he is meant to do — run over people.”
A funny thing tends to happen when Barnes enters K-State’s weight room.
One by one, teammates occasionally stop their workouts and turn to watch Barnes.
“He is freakish,” K-State defensive back D.J. Reed said. “He is just strong. His legs are solid muscle. He squats more than 600 pounds. I have never seen anything like it.”
Barnes says that is an exaggeration. He has never topped 575. But he has benched an eye-popping 380 pounds, nearly double his own weight. Put 225 pounds in front of him, the weight used to test strength and stamina at the NFL Combine, and he completes repetitions at warp speed.
That strength translates to the football field.
“When you tackle Alex, you have to really hit him or else you are going to get embarrassed,” Reed said. “I have done it in practice, but it always leaves my shoulder ringing. I was hurting real bad the last time I hit him. You have to get him before he builds up momentum, otherwise you don’t have a chance.”
Barnes built his love for weightlifting over time. In his younger days, he looked nothing like a future athlete. It wasn’t until a classmate rudely pointed that out to him that he got serious about his body. All of a sudden, he stopped asking for toys as birthday presents and started asking for weights and P90X DVDs.
His high school coach tells jokes about Barnes living in the weight room.
“He wasn’t just our best player,” Nickelson said. “He was our hardest worker. Alex is the total package.”
And he’s still getting stronger.
“The dude is obsessed with lifting,” Ertz said. “He is probably off lifting someplace when everyone else on the team is going out. He is crazy strong, and it shows when he carries the ball.”
Time to shine
It seems like a foregone conclusion that Barnes will start his first college game this season, or at least double his workload while splitting carries with Justin Silmon. But no one knows exactly how often K-State coaches will call his number.
The Wildcats have preferred a committee approach at running back over the past few years, and that seems unlikely to change. Still, this could be a breakout season for Barnes.
“He will get a chance to showcase what he can do this year,” offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said.
“Alex is an extremely hard, aggressive runner that can also move with speed,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He has the ability to do it all. I am very pleased with him.”
It is fascinating to wonder what kind of stats Barnes could produce with a full workload. His average run of 7.9 yards was 2.4 yards higher than any other member of the backfield last season. His highlights all felt “SportsCenter” worthy.
Playing fourth-fiddle in the running game a year ago had to be awkward. Some close to him described his debut season as humbling. But you won’t hear that word from Barnes. He has no complaints about last year. He calls his teammates brothers and says he enjoys watching them score touchdowns as much as he enjoys individual success.
His sophomore goals are entirely team based.
That’s because his focus is always on the big picture. Barnes’ mother illustrates that point with a story from eighth grade. Before he entered high school, Barnes wrote a letter to his future self listing some ambitious college goals. He wanted to be playing football at a well-known school, listing K-State among his dream destinations. He wanted to be a good teammate and an even better student. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in three years was a must, so he could get a head start on graduate school while still on scholarship.
His future was already mapped out. Today, he is on track to reach all his goals.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett