SALT LAKE CITY — Days when the motivation wanes and monotony makes the grind unbearable do not exist for Cody Barton.
“I’ve told everybody at the backer spot, ‘Cody lives in the discomfort zone,’” said Utah linebacker coach Justin Ena of the senior. “He wants to be uncomfortable, and that helps him strive to be better than everybody else. … No one will work harder than him. He won’t allow someone to work harder than him.”
Ask Barton how he manages to stay committed and focused on those days when he’s tempted to skip class or cut a workout short, he doesn’t hesitate.
“I mean, I never feel that way,” the senior linebacker who enjoyed a breakout season last fall responds with a grin. “I like doing that stuff.
The Brighton alum is the second of four athletically gifted children of former Utah stars Mikki (basketball) and Paul (football) Barton, so it may seem his natural ability might be enough to carry him to success. However, the world will never know how much of his talent flows from good genes and how much comes from his relentless work ethic because he’s never attempted to rely on just his talent.
“He’s passionate about the game,” said Chase Hansen, who moved from safety to the linebacker spot this spring. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. … I’ve seen the way he works and the things he does, and it’s like, man, ‘I’ve got to step it up.’ It’s good. I feel like it’s huge for me and the whole defense to have a leader like him.”
Barton’s dedication to the grind has always been his strength. If he’s struggled, his mom said, it’s with patience and maturity.
“He’s always been my most disciplined child,” said Mikki Barton. “He writes lists, keeps his clothes organized, and he’s always been very detail-oriented. … And Cody has stayed true to himself.” She said his competitive nature and immaturity may have appeared like arrogance when he first arrived on campus four years ago. But mentoring from two of the best linebackers the U. has produced — Jared Norris and Gionni Paul — helped him to evolve into the kind of player his teammates see as a leader. They elected Barton and Hansen to represent them as captains this spring.
Barton said that only deepens his resolve to bring his best effort to every day he’s lucky enough to play football.
“I’m honored to be named a captain,” he said. “If I’m on the field and I’m a captain, it doesn’t mean I’m above anyone else. If I have Julian Blackmon on the corner telling me I did something wrong, I’m like, ‘All right, baby, I got you.’ We’re all leaders.”
Barton may be blessed with athletic talent, but his road to starting linebacker and team leader hasn’t been easy. He said he struggled growing up in the shadow of his very talented, much bigger older brother Jackson Barton, a redshirt senior offensive lineman for the Utes.
“Going through high school he had a ton of offers and success early on,” he said. “I was getting a little jealous because I didn’t get any offers until my senior year, and I got my Utah offer.” His brother’s success only pushed him to work harder, and it’s propelled both of them to starting positions on the football team they grew up idolizing as kids.
“We compete at everything,” Cody Barton said. “I actually think competing with your brother makes it a nastier competition. We’ll play basketball together, and end up in a fist fight. Our whole lives we’ve been going against each other. … Now that we’re here together, on opposite sides of the ball, going against each other, it’s kind of cool.”
His brother agrees, acknowledging that the entire family loves to compete.
“Even things that aren’t a competition become a competition,” he said laughing. “It’s definitely made us both better. I’m proud of him, where he’s come from.”
Their affection never gets in the way of their on-field competition, however. On that, both Barton boys agree with laughter.
“I’ll never help him,” Cody said. “I’ll try to get the best of him, and he’ll do the same, try to get the best of me.”
Cody Barton’s mental evolution really began in high school. Heading into his junior year of high school, he suffered stress fractures in his back.
“He really only played one season of varsity,” said Mikki. “He felt it break when he was running track. As all athletes do, he thought, ‘I’ll stay off it for a week, ice it, and then I’ll be able to go again.’ He couldn’t even stand up straight, couldn’t walk normally. He had to take six months off. That was rough.”
It was when he couldn’t train, play or compete that Barton learned patience.
“I worried when he broke his collarbone (in college) that he was going to struggle again,” Mikki said. “I asked him if he was going to be OK, and he said, ‘I will never let my mind do that to me again.’ He learned to be patient, and to give his body time to heal.”
Being unable to play for six months also turned out to be a blessing for another reason.
“Cody spent more time watching film,” his mom said. “He really put in the time studying, and it made his mind sharper.”
Ena said Barton's knowledge of the game sets him apart.
“I think he’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever coached,” Ena said. “Him or Jared Norris.”
Barton said he relishes coming to practice each day.
His coach, his mom and his older brother all agree that the biggest changes in Cody has been his mental maturity.
“A lot of times, it just takes some time,” Ena said of his maturity. “He’s grown up. He’s a natural leader. I think he kind of had that macho bravado the first couple of years, but he’s started to grow into it. He’s starting to believe it, and he’s becoming that leader.”
Mikki Barton said Cody's decision to get married last year has also made him more focused and mature. Cody beams when asked about being a newlywed.
“(Life) has changed for the better,” he said. “Being married is one of the best things I’ve done. I love her so much. It’s fun to be with your best friend every day. … I had to grow up. Marriage teaches you how to become a man, I guess, and not just on the field. Being married is awesome.”
His mom also points out that Cody’s leadership potential was evident way back in elementary school when his fourth-grade teacher told him she saw greatness in him.
Mikki said the teacher took him aside and told him, “You’re great in school, you’re great with your friends, and people are drawn to you. They want to be like you. And with that comes a lot of responsibility. Be a good person, and do the right things.”
She said her son has always tried to live up to that expectation.
“Cody has always been the same person, but he was just a more immature version of it,” Mikki said. “He’s always been pretty consistent, pretty true to himself.”
And Barton said he wants to take advantage of every opportunity this season because this is his dream, because he loves his teammates, and he wants to make his wife proud.
“It’s my last year, and … so I wanted to step up my game. It’s my last ride with the boys.”