Several decades after it was immortalized in an Academy Award-winning movie, Boys Town continues to help thousands of at-risk youths mature into upstanding citizens.
On a much smaller scale, Boys Town also has established a reputation for producing quality high school football teams. But even as the Nebraska school won more than three-quarters of its games in the past 15 seasons, it hadn't produced a single FBS player during that stretch.
But when linebacker Shaquil Barrett suits up for Colorado State's Sept. 3 opener at New Mexico, he will become the first Boys Town alumnus to play Division I college football since Kevin Kush started coaching at Boys Town in 1996.
Boys Town produced a number of Division I players during its years as a barnstorming program several decades ago, but Barrett's emergence represents a new chapter in the program's history.
"Our teams have had a lot of success, but we're not a football factory," Kush says. "We use football as a tool to build better young men."
Barrett represents perhaps the Boys Town football program's biggest success story. Barrett, a sophomore, already has overcome plenty of adversity, from growing up in a crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood to beginning his college career at a school that suddenly shut down its football program. Rather than allowing that latest obstacle to short-circuit his athletic pursuits, Barrett actually managed to move from Division II to the FBS ranks.
"I can't wait for football season," Barrett says. "I can't wait to compare this year to last year to see how big a difference it's going to be. I'm happy to be playing Division I now."
Barrett's circuitous path to big-time college football exemplifies the Boys Town mission.
Boys Town was founded more than 90 years ago by Father Edward Flanagan, a Catholic priest who reportedly borrowed $90 from a friend to cover the rent of an Omaha boarding house that served as a home for needy or orphaned boys. The program's origin was chronicled in "Boys Town," a 1938 film that won Spencer Tracy an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Flanagan.
Boys Town continues today as one of the largest publicly funded non-profit child-care agencies in the country. Boys Town has a dozen locations scattered across the country and operates a high school for at-risk youths in its home base in a suburb of Omaha, Neb.
That school served as a safe haven for Barrett, who had grown up in a rough Baltimore neighborhood. His parents say Barrett was robbed on at least one occasion while coming home from school.
"They took his phone," recalls Steve Barrett, the linebacker's father. "I called the guys [who robbed him]. They told me they were in a gang and knew where [Barrett] lived and things of that nature. I just wanted to get him away."
The Barretts considered Boys Town a natural choice. Barrett's older brother, Kevin, already had enrolled at Boys Town about a year earlier to improve his academic situation. Now the Barrett brothers had a chance to stay together, though they were more than 1,000 miles from home. Having a sibling close by helped both deal with the culture shock of leaving Baltimore for middle America.
"It was real, real different. Nebraska's a lot friendlier than Baltimore."
- Shaquil Barrett, on his Boys Town experience
"It helped a bunch," says Kevin Barrett, a three-time state championship wrestler at Boys Town. "When one of us was struggling, we were able to talk to each other."
Boys Town represented a complete change in atmosphere. Shaquil Barrett said he and seven other students lived in a home with a married couple, which served as a host family. He would wake up and do chores and participate in early-morning workouts. After school, he'd lift weights and return home to complete his schoolwork and do more chores.
"It was real, real different," Barrett says. "Nebraska's a lot friendlier than Baltimore."
Even the football was different. Boys Town students often never have played organized football before and are learning the fundamentals of the game after they've arrived on campus.
Barrett was an exception in that regard. He grew up in an athletic family and had an older brother, DeShawn, who played semi-pro football in the Baltimore area. The only question Boys Town coaches had about Barrett was where to play him.
He started on both sides of the line as a senior and had 12 sacks and five blocked kicks. Barrett capped his high school career by compiling three sacks and forcing a fumble in the Shrine Bowl, an all-star game that featured top players from around the state.
"No one wanted to go against him at the Shrine Bowl," Kush says. "He made them look stupid with his quickness. He was like a Dwight Freeney guy. The kids from the larger schools were saying, 'Shaquil's a freak.' "
Barrett's progress at Boys Town earned him an offer to play football at Division II Nebraska-Omaha. His versatility became apparent again when the former high school lineman made a seamless transition to linebacker in his freshman year. Playing for Nebraska-Omaha also kept the Barrett siblings together. While Shaquil was starring for the school's football team, Kevin was redshirting for Nebraska-Omaha's wrestling team.
Both then suddenly found themselves without a team.
Last spring, Nebraska-Omaha announced it was dropping football and wrestling as part of its transition to Division I. The move came just days after Nebraska-Omaha had won its third consecutive Division II wrestling title.
"I couldn't believe it," Shaquil Barrett says. "I was in denial for a while."
While his brother moved across the state to wrestle for Nebraska-Kearney, Barrett needed to find somewhere else to play. The eye-popping statistics from his freshman season - 11.5 tackles for loss, 82 overall tackles, four blocked kicks - caught the attention of plenty of schools.
"As soon as that program was dropped, my phone was ringing off the hook," Kush says. "They were asking, 'How do I get a hold of Shaquil Barrett?' "
Barrett settled on Colorado State.
His new school offers him an immediate opportunity for playing time, since projected starting middle linebacker Michael Kawulok will miss the 2011 season with a knee injury. Barrett (6 feet 2/241 pounds) currently is working as the second-team middle linebacker behind junior James Skelton. Barrett also figures to play special teams.
"The thing I like about him is the way he runs," Colorado State linebackers coach Bernard Clark says. "He weighs 240 pounds, but he runs well on the field. He's a tough tackler. He gets downhill fast. He does all the things you want a linebacker to do."
Barrett said his only goal for the season is to get on the field as much as possible. After all the tumult he endured to get to this point, he savors the opportunity to prove himself at college football's highest level.
"I never thought of myself going to two colleges," Barrett says. "I don't like moving around. ... Colorado State is a pretty fine place to be. Hopefully, everything works out at Colorado State."
Barrett has spent the past few years on the move. He finally may have found a home.