Barnett Still Looking Up

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Nick Barnett does his best not to think about it, but the media doesn't do him any favors.

Ever since Week 2, when the first-round draft pick proved to be a playmaker in the Green Bay Packers defense, making 14 tackles and intercepting a pass against the Detroit Lions in his second NFL game, the subject has come up weekly.

In fact, if Barnett had a brick for every time he's been asked about the infamous -- and perhaps mythical -- 'Rookie Wall' this season, well, this rookie would be able to build a wall that would make China envious.

"Once you start believing stuff like that, it starts taking a toll on you," said Barnett, who already has played more games this season (15, including the preseason) than any college schedule would mandate.

"The people that start saying they're hitting the rookie wall, those are people that start doing bad and need to find an excuse to throw out there. Maybe some people's bodies really can't handle it, but I conditioned well in the offseason and I'm not worried about it anymore."

If Barnett's performance last weekend is any indication, the Packers shouldn't worry either.

In the team's 10th regular season game at Tampa Bay, Barnett made a team-high 10 tackles while also recovering a fumble and making an interception, which was good enough to earn him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Although still learning the nuances of the middle linebacker position, Barnett is proving a quick study, which is fitting for a player touted for his speed.

Since Week 2, he's played nearly every defensive snap, which might sound like a recipe for a late-season collapse, but could be his saving grace.

"He doesn't have a whole lot of time to think about rookie walls," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "A lot is put on his plate every week, and the expectation level we have of him and he has of himself is very significant.

"So I just don't anticipate (hitting the rookie wall) happening with this player. I think it happens more to guys who aren't playing on a regular basis."

Considering all that Barnett has added to the defense this season, he won't be leaving the field any time soon.

Barnett's 100 tackles and three interceptions lead the team, and his two sacks trail only defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's five.

But Barnett is nowhere near satisfied. That's just not his style.

Other than Oregon State's 41-9 pummeling of Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, when he was just a sophomore, Barnett's not sure he's ever felt content after a game.

"I'm always happy when my team wins," he said, "but I'm always hard on myself. I'll probably never say I'm playing perfectly. But maybe one day I'll hit that prime and be able to feel like that."

Perfection is a lofty goal, to be sure, but Barnett has never been one to set the bar low.

When the Packers made Barnett the first linebacker selected in the 2003 NFL Draft back in April, most people east of the Northwest's Cascade Mountains hadn't even heard of him.

But as of Nov. 12, Barnett was leading NFC linebackers in fan-voting for the Pro Bowl. And, just this week, he narrowly missed being voted NFL Rookie of the Week for a fourth time.

All of those accomplishments and accolades might seem unimaginable for a converted safety who many considered too small to play middle linebacker. Unless, of course, Barnett is the one doing the imagining.

"I could try to give you a story that Nick Barnett never expected this, but I dreamed it," Barnett said. "This season really has been a dream come true so far, but it is my dream. Now, to say that I really thought I was going to reach it, I don't know. But I was going to try as hard as hell to get there."

Barnett's play on the field speaks for his rightful place in the NFL. But so much of the intrigue surrounding the 22-year-old stems from the fact that he seems to have come out of nowhere.

So nonexistent was his media hype in college that going into his senior season -- the year he would lead the Pac-10 Conference in tackles -- Barnett said draft pundits didn't even consider him the best linebacker on his team, never mind a potential first-round choice.

But to those that knew him then, Barnett's performance this season isn't out of the blue, it's out of the blood and sweat they noticed all along.

"I'm not surprised at all," said San Francisco 49ers head coach Dennis Erickson, who coached Barnett at OSU. "He's just a hell of a great football player.

"What he's doing as a rookie is really amazing ... I'm happy to see him having a great year."

Of course, the year isn't over yet, and if the Packers are to succeed in a second-half run to the playoffs, Barnett will have to be a significant figure in that late push.

If the rookie wall does exist, now would be a terrible time to find it. But Barnett is determined to keep climbing, regardless of what challenges he encounters along the way.

"I've still got goals," he said. "Every player in the NFL, if they're going to tell you they don't one day want to go to the Pro Bowl or, when they come in, be Rookie of the Year, they're lying to you. They should expect that out of themselves. As a player or a team, that's how you succeed.

"You have to reach for the stars."

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