Donovan Barker is a third-grade teacher at Lovin Elementary School by day and wears many hats as a high school coach by night. Barker is the defensive coordinator of Archer’s ninth-grade football team and defensive coordinator of the varsity lacrosse team.
The Brookwood graduate of the Class of 2010 played middle linebacker for the Broncos and went on to play college football at Brevard College in North Carolina for two seasons before transferring to the University of West Georgia to finish out his early childhood education degree. It wasn’t long after that he found a position teaching third grade at Lovin and coaching ninth-grade football at Archer — coming off a state championship run — back in Gwinnett County. He shares common roots with Archer head football coach Andy Dyer, who played high school football at Brookwood and college football at West Georgia.
Barker and staff writer Taylor Denman discussed his passion for serving his community as a mentor and father figure and his adaption to coaching lacrosse.
TD: Can you tell me about yourself and your duties with Archer?
DB: I graduated from Brookwood in 2010. I played college football at Brevard College in North Carlolina for two years. I had the opportunity to transfer back in-state to finish playing football and school at West Georgia. Got my degree in early childhood education. I was really blessed Coach Dyer let me be on his staff for the past four years.
For football, I coach ninth grade and help the varsity every day. I’m the only ninth-grade coach able to be with the varsity in Sunday meetings to help prepare for their opponents. That really helps my coaching experience as well. The last two years I was able to call the defense for ninth grade and coach linebackers as well. I was under coach Brad Williams’ wing, and he really told me the ins and outs of being a great high school coach so far. I owe everything to him.
Other than football, I coach varsity lacrosse with Coach Wellington and Coach Lake. I reached out to coach Wellington saying, “If you need some help, I got you.’ He took a chance on me my first year. I had heard about lacrosse, but it came after my last year of high school. I was able to play a little lacrosse my last year of college for intramurals. So far, the three of us have been a great team … able to get our team to the playoffs last three years. I’ve coached wrestling as well. The head coach of the ninth grade wrestling team is the head coach of varsity lacrosse.
I have my dad job teaching third grade and coach high school kids year-round.
TD: Sounds like you’re always putting on different hats, figuratively and literally.
DB: Always, man. I’ve got to be a father figure for third-grade kids, be a teacher and educator. I put on a different hat for being a great mentor and coach for high school kids, trying to teach them how to be a man once life hits them after high school.
TD: Was there a guy, when you were at Brookwood, who was like that for you?
DB: Yes, really when I was in eighth grade, I had a coach named Mark Harris, who really opened my eyes. Football is more than just football. He really opened my eyes and showed me football is life. When I was at Brookwood, it taught me ways the football teaches lessons in life. Coacy Jones in high school, Dale Moore, Murray Bell. Those guys really helped me out. I always have to thank my parents as well.
TD: You were at Brookwood for the football state championship?
DB: I graduated the year after. … All of those guys that were juniors and sophomores, I was their senior. A funny thing about that story is, for my senior year, we were not together as a unit. We had some players transfer, some players quit. We had a lot of drama. I told the juniors on that team, ‘Please learn from us. You have what it takes to win a state championship. Learn from our mistakes and don’t make the same mistakes we did. We had the talent, but we weren’t together. It really made me happy I was able to be their senior and able to help guide them.
TD: Was that the only sport you played at Brookwood?
DB: That was, but I was also a peer leader. When I was a peer leader that really opened my eyes to helping the community. I really wanted to be around the elementary schools to help guide them. Because of that, it helped shed the light and want to be an elementary school teacher. That and my mother was a speech teacher. I was able to affect so much around the Snellville community.
TD: It seems like that community influence was important for you, how did you keep that going after high school?
DB: I tell people all the time, community building is my No. 1 goal. One thing I can say, Archer has a strong community. When you think about it, Archer isn’t really from a set city. The way we come together is spectacular. It’s definitely what I do it for. That, and to definitely have a positive influence on our next generation.
TD: Can you tell me about your college career, what led you to Brevard?
DB: I chose Brevard over a couple schools because a couple of my friends from Gwinnett, we went up there together. My friend Anthony Shakir, from Grayson — he’s a coach at Appalachian State — my friend Shawn Perry, who played and Collins HIll, xxx Wright, who played at Meadowcreek and Garrett Johnson, who played at Dacula. We went up there and we said, “We can make this place special.” Coaches were awesome. I really wanted to see what life was like outside of Georgia. It was such a beautiful place. The football was fun and exciting. I transferred to West Georgia because it had just gotten off probation. They had more scholarships to give and it would be cheaper for me to play back instate, and I also knew I wanted to teach in Georgia. It would be easier to get my teaching license if I was back instate. It wasn’t just a football decision, it was a life decision. It was definitely hard transferring, but at the end of the day it was one of the best decisions I made. … West Georgia does a great job of grooming teachers.
TD: You’re a high school coach, but you decided to teach elementary school. What made you decided to do that?
DB: When I was playing football in college, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to be around it anymore.” I had been playing since I was five years old. Five to 21, that’s 16 years. My last year of college, since I never redshirted, I had one year of college then I was done with football. That last year I was going to games as a student, and I missed it. I just missed being around it, I missed what it teaches you in life. My dad always believed I’d be a good coach … he really gave me the confidence to think I could be a coach. I actually emailed six to eight coaches in Gwinnett, I really took a leap of faith. Said, “Hey, I want to be an elementary school teacher, but I really want to coach high school.” The stars lined up where coach Dyer was the first to email me 24 hours later. Me and coach Dyer lived in the same neighborhood — I had no idea. He played football at Brookwood and West Georgia. And he has about five other coaches who played at West Georgia. They’re coming off a state championship run and he’s telling me he’s from the same place I am and went to the same college I did. It was really inspiring. I was able to meet with him. Talk about one of the best human beings I’ve been around, Coach Dyer is it.
He said, “I’ll email Dr. Blanchet,” who actually just retired in December. He was able to set that up for me. Dr. Blanchet said, “I don’t really get a lot of emails from the head coach, but I knew it must be a big deal, so I had to meet you.” I worked out and I was able to get my first job, because of Dr. Blancet. … that was spring 2015.
TD: How did you come to take such a prominent role with the lacrosse team and grow your knowledge of that sport?
DB: Coach Wellington and Lake took over the year before I came. They were tyring to make a new culture. We had a reputation for lacrosse players doing bad in school, not caring. They play hard, but they’re not involved with the community. I told them, “THis is what I believe in, I definitely think I can help make those changes.” I’ll never forget, my first year we had a really great senior class. Peter and Michael Baldini. They came to me and said, “Coach, thank you. Being out here, we’re calmer and more successful.” Just like elementary school, kids will not perform for you unless they know you love and care for them. I let them know, “I’m your biggest fan, but I will be your biggest critic as well.” That was able to carry on over the next few years. Culture is everything in high school sports: being accountable to your brothers and accountable to each other, be on time, study, be a great person and student to your teachers. My third year there, I can see the program shifting. It’s not because the success on the field, but the success of being young men. Our GPA scores went up, our kids are starting to get scholarships.
TD: What was it like trying to adapt to X’s and O’s of lacrosse.
DB: I always had to study up. I studied Duke and Johns Hopkins. I would read books every day after work and look at YouTube videos. I’m able to call the who defense over the last two or three years. If you’re prepared and your players know you are, you’re able to set them up for success.