Return on friendship

Lifelong buddies Barton, Smith are quite the dynamic duo for Washington

The old friends can’t stand still as they wait for a kickoff, dancing, clapping their hands, pointing to one another and smiling.

Maurice Barton and Keith Smith. Mo and Beefy. Friends since kindergarten who together give the Washington football team one of the most potent kick return and running back tandems in the Academic Athletic Association. The pair has combined for 1,077 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns (including four scores on kickoffs and one on a punt) this season in keeping Washington (2-5 overall, 2-2 AAA) in the thick of the playoff race.

But there were times, as recently as this spring, when it seemed like their dream of playing in the same backfield would never materialize.

As Barton, a junior, was working out last year in preparation for his starting role in the Washington backfield, Smith was going through the stormiest period of his young life. Smith, now a senior, was already struggling with grades at Lincoln High School when he suddenly and tragically lost his brother Robert Chapman, who was killed six months ago with a gunshot to the back.

In the time since Chapman’s death, Smith has transferred to Washington, improved his grade-point average to a 3.43, become a team leader for the Eagles and now harbors dreams of going to college.

“I feel proud of myself, but for some reason I feel like I can’t be totally happy because [Robert’s] gone,” Smith said. “But now I feel like I have to do my job and stay in school like he wanted me to and stay off the streets.”

Smith and Barton met each other as young children growing up in the Western Addition, when Smith was given his “Beefy” nickname by an uncle who saw him wrestling his cousins. They both played Pop Warner for the San Francisco Seahawks, with Barton following one year behind Smith and emulating his charismatic, excitable style on the field.

Smith didn’t play football while at Lincoln, but now can’t imagine his life without it.

“I enjoy football so much,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t play.”

Smith has done a little bit of everything for Washington this year, rushing for 411 yards and four touchdowns on 62 tries, throwing for a score, catching six balls and returning two kickoffs for touchdowns — both in the first quarter of the game against Jefferson.

“I’m real proud of him,” Barton said. “He realized football was his life and not being able to do it was killing him.”

Barton has imagined himself running the ball for the Eagles since he could stand and the former Washington water boy would tug on then-assistant (and now head) coach Rick Stevens’ sleeve as a 6-year-oldand tell him he couldn’t wait to play for him.

“Coach Rick would just kind of laugh and say, ‘That will be fun,’” Barton said with a smile. “But now he’s got that same little kid running the ball for him.”

Barton broke through in 2005 as a sophomore, teaming up with first-team, All-AAA tailback Jordan Boone before an injured ankle caused Barton to miss the second half of the season. This year, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound back leads the Eagles with 666 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns on 130 carries and has three of Washington’s five special teams scores.

“It’s a privilege to be able to play with Maurice,” Smith said. “To see him do well makes me so happy. He’s like a little brother to me.”

melliser@examiner.comOther Sportssports

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