If anybody was ever truly born to be a Gopher, they would be senior Thomas Barber. Nearing the end of his college career, the linebacker is adding to a family legacy and playing a key role on a team that is making history.
A native of Plymouth, Minnesota, Barber's father, Marion Jr., and older brothers, Marion III and Dom, all played for the Gophers before going on to have NFL careers. Having followed Minnesota football since he was a young child, Barber says it has been a long time since excitement for the program matched this year's levels after the 9-0 start.
"Probably going into the 2004 season, just after what they did in 2003," Barber said of when expectations were last as high as they are now.
That 2003 season was the most recent time the Gophers won 10 games, a feat this year's group can replicate with a victory at Northwestern this Saturday.
Though just an elementary school student at the time, Barber's ties to the program were already strong going into 2004, as both of his brothers played on the team, Marion III being a junior and Dom being a freshman.
Now in his final season, Thomas is trying to cement the family legacy by helping elevate the program to heights his father and siblings never experienced. If they can win their final two games, Minnesota will play for a chance at their first Big Ten Championship since 1967, a decade before Marion Jr.'s freshman season.
"They're just incredibly proud of the whole program," Barber said of his family. "It all means so much to the state and obviously, they're proud of me too, but they know it's not just me, it's this team and how special this team is."
Barber's play this season has helped anchor one of the nation's best defenses. He's currently second on the team with 51 tackles. With six tackles last week against Iowa, Barber brought his career total to a team-leading 259.
Among current Gophers, Barber is a respected member of a senior class that has risen to the challenge of establishing a player-led culture, something head coach P.J. Fleck said is crucial to building a championship-caliber program. With the group having persevered through a coaching change and a losing record during the 2017-18 season, Fleck says he's proud of the success his seniors have achieved this year.
"They've seen the most here," Fleck said of his seniors. "They've been through the most change. They've been through the most success and they've been through the most adversity. You can talk about things on the field and off the field. That senior class has seen a lot."
Seniors such as Barber, Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin have helped set the tone for the rest of the team, putting in extra work and challenging others to improve every day. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi says their ability to lead stems from their close bond with one another.
"We talk about all the time, care and love and sacrifice is key to any successful organization," Rossi said. "The fact that they're so close off the field helps them play harder with each other on the field."
The bond between this year's senior class is special for players due to the adversity the program has overcome during their time with it. After Minnesota fired former head coach Tracy Claeys in 2017, players had the option to transfer. Due to his Minnesota roots, Barber wanted to stay, as did others who are now seeing that decision pay off.
"It was a hard time, a lot going on," Barber said. "There were definitely guys who had to leave but we're glad to have the guys we have here. Coach Fleck always says he's chasing champions and those who stay will be champions."
Following the team's first defeat of the season, a 23-19 defeat at Iowa, Barber says the seniors know their job as leaders is even more important. Now that the Gophers' 11-game winning streak has ended, the team is looking squarely ahead to the opportunities that still lie ahead.
"Last week was last week," Barber said. "That was my message, just stay in the moment we have right now. Take it day by day. If you're still thinking about last week that will hurt us in the long run."
On Saturday, Barber and Minnesota will look to get back in the win column when they travel to Evanston, Illinois to take on Northwestern.