PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- A starry-eyed freshman quarterback making his first career start was just inches from leading his team to the second round of the playoffs. Fourth-and-inches at the opponents' 10-yard line with five minutes remaining in a tied game, the call from the sideline was for the game's simplest play: quarterback draw.
Except this story does not end the way most -- including Nadir Barnwell -- expect it to. Not yet at least.
The Piscataway (N.J.) athlete and ESPN 300 member was stopped short by Phillipsburg, knocked backward. Piscataway would not defend its state sectional title and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
"That was the worst," Barnwell said, adding he was shocked but not nervous that the game was in his hands.
But it didn't take long to realize Barnwell is the next in line of great talents to come out of Piscataway. NFL players Anthony Davis (49ers), Malcolm Jenkins (Saints) and Kyle Wilson (Jets) are all Piscataway graduates. The three have also helped Barnwell, who has double-digit offers, deal with all the attention from colleges.
"They said don't pick a school because of a coach," Barnwell said. "They said 'Could you go there without playing football? Could you be on that campus during the offseason?'"
Florida (he'll be at the Gators' Friday Night Lights on Friday), Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers and Tennessee are among the favorites for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound quarterback/corner ranked No. 23 among athletes. He will likely play corner in college.
But Barnwell has made his mark as a QB at Piscataway, and it didn't take him long. Redemption for that failed QB sneak in the playoffs would come almost a year to the day for Barnwell. He would have a second shot at Phillipsburg in the playoffs as a sophomore. And as fate would have it, Barnwell was staring at just a few inches, a goal line and a sectional championship.
This time the play coming in from the Piscataway coaches was for a dive to the Chiefs' 240-pound fullback. Coach Dan Higgins gave Barnwell one caveat, though.
"He said if you think you can get it, keep it. So, I'm keeping it. You should have never said that," Barnwell said smiling.
Higgins said it is Barnwell's mind that separates him from the pack. "He's calm and confident in pressure situations."
So with the score tied with just four seconds left in the game and the Chiefs looking at a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Barnwell took the snap. He never thought about turning around and handing the ball off.
"He takes a step and swings right, sees a bubble in the 'B' gap and moved and scored," Higgins said.
For Barnwell, his previous failure in a nearly identical situation never crept into his mind either.
"I forgot all about it until my coach brought it up again and said 'You got that inch this year.' I laughed," Barnwell said. "I wasn't trying to lose to Phillipsburg again."
In the championship game a few weeks after, Higgins said Barnwell turned a similar opportunity into a 30-yard gain after "breaking ankles," highlighting the Chiefs' rout and completion to a perfect season.
In 2011, Barnwell helped the Chiefs turnaround their season and led eighth-seeded Piscataway to a second straight sectional title.
What he'll do for an encore in his senior season remains to be seen, but safe to say when the game is on the line, the ball will be in his hands. He wouldn't have it any other way.