Words of wisdom

Por­firio Bar­rera tells a tale of tri­umph on the field and tor­ment off it while chron­ic­ling the 1991 George Wash­ing­ton foot­ball sea­son in his de­but book When Win­ning Hurts. 

  • Barrera originally penned When Winning Hurts as a screenplay before converting it into a novel. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • A storybook finish: 22 years ago, Barrera was a tight end/defensive end for Washington. He scored two touchdowns in the 1991 title game vs. Frankford. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • A season to remember: Porfirio Barrera is the author of When Winning Hurts, which chronicles the 1991 George Washington High School football season. Despite terrible adversity off the field, the Eagles went 11-1 and won a Public League championship. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Un­planned preg­nancy. Un­ex­pec­ted, vi­ol­ent death. Ab­sent­ee and drug-ad­dicted par­ents. The fright­en­ingly real pro­spect of the no­tori­ously un­for­giv­ing Phil­adelphia streets swal­low­ing up a few more troubled youths.

Pile all of these is­sues in­to a va­cu­um, and the last thing you’d ex­pect is a res­ult­ing 11-1, Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship foot­ball sea­son. Heck, that’s the kind of stuff you see only in movies, the up­lift­ing sagas that make folks feel good but rarely mir­ror any type of real­ity.

Only this wasn’t a movie. This was real life, haunt­ingly real for mem­bers of the 1991 George Wash­ing­ton High School foot­ball team, a group that used tor­ment off the field in or­der to find un­fathom­able suc­cess on it. 

That ex­traordin­ary sea­son can be re-lived in When Win­ning Hurts, the de­but book from Por­firio Bar­rera. Bar­rera, now a 38-year-old psy­chi­at­ric tech­ni­cian at Temple Uni­versity’s Epis­copal Hos­pit­al, was a mem­ber of that in­cred­ible team 22 years ago and battled many of his own demons to tell this tale, which was self-pub­lished through a com­pany called Out­skirts Press. Out­skirts is call­ing the book a nov­el, but des­pite the fact that Bar­rera changed the names of many key play­ers, he main­tains that everything de­tailed in the book is based on ac­tu­al events.

“As in­di­vidu­als, we all went through so much, which is why I think we were such a close group of tight-knit guys,” Bar­rera said dur­ing a nearly two-hour phone in­ter­view. “I told a friend back then, when I was in the el­ev­enth grade, that I was go­ing to write about this one day. He said, ‘Nobody will ever be­lieve you.’ But that’s the real­ity. We went through some very, very ser­i­ous things, to the point where foot­ball was thera­peut­ic be­cause it was all many of us had.”

Bar­rera de­tailed a laun­dry list of is­sues some of his team­mates that sea­son went through. One, Tyr­one Simpson, had a vi­ol­ent, crim­in­al fath­er fea­tured on Amer­ica’s Most Wanted, and a moth­er so tor­tured by drug ad­dic­tion that the team­mate had to put his fin­gers un­der her nose be­fore leav­ing the house to make sure she was still breath­ing. An­oth­er, Hakim Hansen, was led away in hand­cuffs by po­lice in the middle of a G.W. prac­tice after a young wo­man had ac­cused him of rape (the charge was later dropped). One of Bar­rera’s closest friends, Byron “Pea­nut” Free­man, lost his broth­er in a drive-by shoot­ing, while oth­ers sold marijuana to put food on the table. 

“It was just that type of life for us,” said Bar­rera, who star­ted the pro­cess about sev­en years ago, ori­gin­ally writ­ing When Win­ning Hurts as a screen­play be­fore con­vert­ing it to a book. “It stayed with me, tor­men­ted me throughout the years. I think the story can en­light­en people, not only to show them what went on back then, but now, too. It’s something people can re­late to, even if they didn’t go through what we did.”

Then, of course, there’s Bar­rera’s own story. Born in North Phil­adelphia, his fath­er left him and his moth­er when he was 4 years old. He vividly re­mem­bers go­ing on trips with her in an at­tempt to track down his dad, which took the duo all the way from Los Angeles to Mex­ico (Bar­rera, who is of Pu­erto Ric­an and Mex­ic­an des­cent, men­tions in the book that he be­lieves his fath­er had ties to Mex­ic­an drug car­tels). Years later, in high school, Bar­rera’s fath­er showed back up, only to leave again a short time later (Bar­rera has not seen him since). When Bar­rera was a ju­ni­or, the same year of Wash­ing­ton’s fairytale sea­son, his girl­friend at the time, an un­der­gradu­ate stu­dent at Temple, no­ti­fied him that she was preg­nant. Bar­rera’s moth­er is a pas­tor at a Pente­cost­al church, and the fam­ily’s re­li­gious back­ground looked down on abor­tion; however, the girl­friend still went ahead and ter­min­ated the preg­nancy. 

All of that and more turned Bar­rera in­to an angry young man, something he could chan­nel on the foot­ball field as a 6-foot-2 tight end/de­fens­ive end. The tur­moil off the field left the Wash­ing­ton play­ers long­ing for something else, a for­eign feel­ing they didn’t get much of at home: joy.

“For us, it was a fresh start,” said Bar­rera, now the fath­er of twin 9-year-old girls. “We real­ized we could be in the pa­per not for the crime and sad­ness go­ing on around us, but for foot­ball.”

The res­ult­ing sea­son was one that still vividly stands out like it was yes­ter­day. There was the sea­son-open­ing win over Shawnee (N.J.), des­pite the team los­ing start­ing quar­ter­back Jason Brock­ing­ton to a broken arm. Backup Xavi­er Nice then stepped in and re­mained the team’s start­ing sig­nal caller for most of the sea­son.

There was the play­off win over Dob­bins, a game the Eagles were so fired up for that the team bus was lit­er­ally rock­ing back and forth when it ar­rived at North­east High School. “We ran onto that field like crazed dogs. You could see the fear in their eyes,” Bar­rera re­called with a laugh. Wash­ing­ton went on to blow out Frank­ford in the league title game thanks in part to two touch­downs by Bar­rera.

Then of course there was the Thanks­giv­ing game against Arch­bish­op Ry­an. The Eagles, losers of 17 in a row vs. the Raid­ers, fell be­hind 21-0 at half­time and used a mo­nu­ment­al comeback to stun every­body in at­tend­ance.

“We went from our own fans boo­ing us to get­ting to be le­gends,” he said. “With everything go­ing on around us, we were all each oth­er had.”

Ron Co­hen, Wash­ing­ton’s foot­ball coach for nearly 30 years, also re­mem­bers that sea­son as if it were yes­ter­day.

“Every win, es­pe­cially Thanks­giv­ing, was like win­ning the Su­per Bowl for these kids,” he re­called. “These over­achiev­ing young men came to­geth­er, and every single one of them has a story. And for people like you and me, we can’t un­der­stand what these kids went through, be­cause we didn’t live it. The book forces you to ask ques­tions like, ‘What would I do if I needed to put food on the table if my fath­er wasn’t around,’ or, ‘What would I do if my young­er sib­ling was cry­ing be­cause he or she was so hungry and scared?’

“The av­er­age per­son may not go through it, but it’s im­port­ant to real­ize that many young men and wo­men do. I think my cur­rent kids can re­late to it, and I want them to read this book. It opens up the thought pro­cess and makes you won­der. No mat­ter how bad you have it, some­body else has it a little bit worse.”

Bar­rera de­scribed the book as “When Fri­day Night Lights meets The Wire” be­fore quickly adding, “But there was no cow-tip­ping here. This was real hard­core stuff, some of it bey­ond com­pre­hen­sion. We couldn’t pick our par­ents, and nobody came from money. We felt like losers every­where, ex­cept on the foot­ball field.”

In the month-plus since the book was re­leased, Bar­rera said it’s selling bet­ter than he ini­tially an­ti­cip­ated. But he said it’s about a lot more than re­liv­ing one glor­i­ous sea­son just to sell a few books. It’s about en­light­en­ment, the abil­ity to show people how things were in or­der to hope­fully change how the fu­ture un­folds. It’s about learn­ing from past mis­takes and about matur­ing as a per­son cap­able of de­fi­antly swat­ting away ad­versity. And per­haps most of all, it’s about the un­flinch­ing, un­waver­ing sup­port of a group of young men who dared to defy the odds, re­gard­less of how so­ci­ety viewed them.

“That’s called char­ac­ter, and that’s what we stress,” Co­hen said.

And now that he was fi­nally able to put all of his thoughts of that sea­son in­to a 178-page book about the past, Bar­rera is in­tently fo­cused on what lies ahead, namely com­ing up big where he thinks his own fath­er dropped the ball.

“As an adult, when you have chil­dren, you can re­flect on memor­ies,” he said. “Be­cause of what I went through as a young man, I handle stress dif­fer­ently now. It’s forged me in­to the man I am today, and I’m a great fath­er be­cause of it. Those things that happened to us, they made us emo­tion­ally tough. I feel any hard­ship can be dealt with, be­cause I’ve already dealt with much worse. It pre­pared me for every fa­cet of life down the road.

“How will I be a man? Who will teach me? These are ques­tions I asked my­self back then, and my daugh­ters saved me in that I don’t want to let them down. I strive like no oth­er to be the best fath­er in life and al­ways tell them I love them. I do my best so they don’t lack. It’s not about me any­more, and I think that’s made me a bet­ter per­son.” ••

When Win­ning Hurts can be ordered through Barnes & Noble (www.bn.com) and Amazon (www.amazon.com). 

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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