DENVER — How they got here? Well, that's a long story. Got a minute? It's worth your time. It's an exhausting, improbable, memorable story. It's a love story. There were angels.
It started on Facebook and took a pit stop at Taco John's. It's still going, through this Broncos preseason where Shaq Barrett is forcing the NFL to notice him, through his inspiring wife, Jordanna, through the best part, their three kids.
They had one, Shaq Jr., when Jordanna was closing a Fort Collins Taco John's at midnight and opening a Starbucks at 5 a.m., when Shaquil was a football player at Colorado State with weightlifting at 6 a.m. How they did it? How the newlyweds juggled college football, classes, two or three jobs while starting their own family?
Still can't wrap my head around it. But they did it, and they're doing it.
They met at church. Jordanna's friend was dating Shaq's brother, and Shaq was all about this new girl. "The first time I saw her, I was like, 'Whoa,'" Shaq says. Jordanna, though, took some persuading. "I wasn't that into him at first," she says, laughing.
That night he sent her a Facebook message. Then, a movie. Then, a wedding. Then, three kids. It all happened fast, before either turned 22. Coming next is the part in the movie where Dad makes an NFL roster and a hefty paycheck just a couple years after Mom was locking the doors at Taco John's.
She supported him. He's thisclose to supporting them. And Shaq Jr., Braylon and Aaliyah? The kids don't know it yet, but their parents are marvelous.
"He's a really amazing man," Jordanna says.
"I wouldn't be here without her," Shaq says.
Where is he, exactly? He's on the cusp. He's a 250-pound linebacker who went undrafted out of CSU, and the surprise of Denver's preseason. The Broncos had Von Miller, signed DeMarcus Ware, drafted Shane Ray — and Barrett, another pass rusher, still is the breakout player that seems to arrive with every Broncos training camp.
Two preseason games, two sacks, including a sack-fumble at Houston. The highest grade for a 3-4 linebacker — in the NFL, not just on the Broncos — according to Pro Football Focus. A snap-quick first step that seems to startle offensive linemen when Miller and Ware are over on the bench.
"Shaq was a great wrestler in high school," CSU linebackers coach Marty English says. "A lot of kids with that background are pretty good players."
He's been a disruptive key in a defense that can carry the Broncos until Peyton Manning and the offense figure it out.
"Being a father, a husband and everything, I'm not surprised at the success he's having," English says. "Shaq is a very focused individual. He had to be. He embraces it."
Barrett was on the practice squad last year. A bum ankle in the preseason held him back. His wife has helped him to the brink of making the team.
His agent emailed Jordanna a dietary plan this offseason, and his wife prepared each and every one of his meals. Shaq says his body fat dropped from 18 percent last year to 11.3 this year. "I just feel lighter out there," he says.
He credits his wife. She credits him.
"Pretty good team," she says.
Will Barrett make this team? He should, if the Broncos are serious about combining sheer ability with high character. It looks good for a roster spot, but hardly guaranteed. Barrett recently signed a two-year deal with Nike — "Nothing huge," Jordanna says, but it all helps - and is a favorite in the locker room.
"Shaq can play," Vonnie Football says.
Taco Tuesdays at Miller's house count as Barrett's social hour. At CSU, he was never one for the bars, preferring to hang with Jordanna and Shaq Jr. They had help, namely from Bernard Blake, a cornerback for the Rams, and his brother, Eric Blake.
"Please mention them," Jordanna says. The Blake brothers would babysit when the Barretts had work, school, football or all three. They tried to pay Eric, but he refused to take their money and would hide it around their apartment.
"Pretty much an angel," Jordanna says.
"We pray every day he makes the roster here (in Denver)," she says. "But I know if he doesn't, I know he's going to make it somewhere else."
The Broncos host San Francisco on Saturday and must cut down their roster to 75 players on Tuesday. The final cut, down to 53, arrives next Saturday. Mom and Dad agreed not to buy a "Barrett, No. 48" Broncos jersey for Shaq Jr. until it's official. Did Barrett expect this early success?
"To the degree I've been able to do it? No. It's felt really good," he says. "That's been somewhat shocking, because I didn't think I'd get this many opportunities. But I think they like me."
Who wouldn't? Shaq's worry isn't football. It's about whether he chose the right Power Ranger for his son's birthday, whether he could see his kids on Facetime while they were in Omaha and the Broncos were in Houston.
"I'm so glad we named him Shaq Jr.," Jordanna says. "He's a spitting image."
Last Saturday, Barrett erupted past the Texans' right tackle, sledgehammered his right arm at the football, smacked the quarterback to the turf. The ball bounced loose. That wasn't the best part of his weekend.
"Waking up with my son," he says.
How they got here, juggling crazy lives to provide their kids great ones?
Shaq's parents once told him to look under his seat. There, he found a pair of Jordans. See if they fit, his dad said, and they did. Another time they drove through a car wash, and Dad rolled down his son's window. Shaq got soaked, laughed all the way home. Then there was that family trip to Florida. Or was it California? No matter. It could've been the moon, but 16 years later Shaq remembers where his parents taught him to swim.
"I had my dad and my mom in my life. I was lucky," Barrett says. "As far as love from both my parents, I had unconditional love. Now we want to have that for our kids."
Pretty good team.