Malik Barrow never truly believed he was done playing football, even when he announced his medical retirement in October.
At the time, he didn’t have much of a choice. After tearing his ACL for the third time last spring, Ohio State’s team doctors would not clear him to return to the football field. He wanted to complete his degree and graduate from Ohio State, so he accepted a medical scholarship in order to continue his education even though he could no longer play for the Buckeyes.
Barrow’s goal of getting back on the football field, though, never went away.
“I never stopped working,” Barrow told Eleven Warriors in an interview last month. “Even when I did tear my ACL, I would still go to the gym, do as much as I could, until I get too tired or everything starts to hurt, and that’s when I knew. But I never stopped working.”
Now, Barrow has his sights set on being back on the football field this upcoming season.
After consulting with other doctors, Barrow has been cleared to play again, and he is on track to graduate from Ohio State this summer, allowing him to transfer to another school and play immediately this fall. He has two remaining years of collegiate eligibility and has received interest from a multitude of schools – including other schools in the Big Ten – since entering his name in the transfer portal.
Barrow has dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was a kid, and he’s not going to give up that dream without a fight.
“Why would I stop now? I’m about to be 21. Anything’s possible,” Barrow said.
Barrow has been playing football since he was in elementary school, and he has loved the sport ever since. While speaking on a panel at a ‘When Sports End’ event hosted by Ohio State’s Sports and Society Initiative on April 11, Barrow said his parents never pressured him to play football, but that many of his fondest memories in his young life have come from playing the sport.
“I still talk to my friends back home about memories we had beating teams, traveling around Florida,” Barrow said. “It’s not just a sport. It’s a part of me, and it helped me grow as a man, and building relationships with people I probably would have never met, seen places I probably would never have been, and those are my memories I have in my life. And I want to continue to build those memories, and build myself as a person, in school and on the field.”
Barrow ended up emerging as a four-star defensive tackle prospect in high school, and committed to Ohio State in the spring of 2015. During his senior year at IMG Academy that fall, however, Barrow tore his ACL for the first time, which led him to redshirting his first season at Ohio State in 2016. Then, in Ohio State’s fourth game of the 2017 season against UNLV, Barrow tore the ACL in his other knee, sidelining him for the rest of that season.
Barrow was back on the field the following spring, trying to work his way back for last season, when he re-ruptured the same ACL he tore just months earlier – effectively ending his Ohio State career.
In hindsight, Barrow feels like he was back on the field too soon after his previous injury, but he says he was simply following the plan that Ohio State’s medical staff had for his recovery.
“They tell you the protocol,” Barrow said. “I’m not a doctor. This is just how it happens. There’s a certain script you go through when you have an ACL surgery. There’s different phases that you go through when you start running and progress on the cutting, but I do feel that maybe it was too fast.”
There were low moments for Barrow after he was medically disqualified at Ohio State, as he had to question whether he would be able to continue playing football. Ultimately, though, Barrow decided he was not going to let his football career end that way. So as he has worked his way back from last spring’s injury and gotten healthy again, Barrow has been training on his own to prepare himself for his next opportunity.
It’s been different, Barrow acknowledged, to be training on his own at campus recreational facilities instead of working out at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center under the guidance of Ohio State’s football staff, but training on his own has allowed Barrow to work his way back from his injury at a slower pace while preparing to be back on a football team elsewhere.
“I love lifting actually; that’s just something that calms my mind, and I feel at peace in it. But on campus, it is a lot different, not being at the Woody Hayes and having somebody telling you to lift,” Barrow said. “But it’s also a good thing ‘cause you get to clear your mind, listen to some music, and get in your own work. You can go at your own pace, and that helped me a lot to heal.”
After playing in only two games in his Ohio State career, Barrow knows his goal of making it to the NFL won’t be easy. But he’s seen plenty of examples of other football players overcoming their own adversity to believe that it’s still possible.
Jamel Dean was selected in the third round of this year’s NFL draft after being medically disqualified by Ohio State for his own knee injury. Johnnie Dixon bounced back for two productive seasons with the Buckeyes, and signed with the NFL’s Houston Texans after this year’s draft, after being sidelined by knee injuries for most of his first three years at Ohio State. Barrow also mentioned Shaquem Griffin – who like Dean and Dixon, hails from his home state of Florida – who is now playing for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks despite having only one hand.
“Just hearing stories like that, what else do I need to do?” Barrow said.
While Barrow has been in the transfer portal since last fall, he’s still going through the process of deciding where he should continue his college football career. He visited Penn State in April and told 247Sports’ Chris Hummer that he hopes to visit Indiana and has been in communication with Virginia. Barrow has also drawn interest from several MAC schools and FCS schools and is still considering all of his options in hopes of finding the best fit.
Even though he didn’t get to play much at Ohio State due to his injuries, Barrow believes his experience with the Buckeyes will be valuable wherever he ends up next.
“I’m gonna be able to bring a guy who’s a leader, somebody who’s older, who knows what he’s doing. A guy who’s athletic, and a guy who’s ready to compete,” Barrow said. “I learned that nothing’s going to come easy and I’m going to have to work hard regardless of the situation, regardless of what injuries I had in the past, and that’s something that I have to keep in my heart to make sure that I accomplish. And I’m going to keep working hard.”
Off the field, Barrow will pursue a master’s degree at his new school and has visions of becoming an entrepreneur and eventually starting his own business.
With a degree from Ohio State soon to come, Barrow will have options in his back pocket if he doesn’t get the opportunity to play football professionally. But Barrow has always been one to dream big, and he hopes to inspire others to do the same.
“I want people to know that your story’s not done being written, just because somebody else told you,” Barrow said. “And that you should always chase your dreams.”