Robert Barnes was scrolling through social media nearly two weeks ago when he saw photos posted by Makenna Smith, the oldest daughter of Colorado inside linebackers coach Mark Smith.
The photos were of the Smith home, one of more than 1,000 destroyed by the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30.
“That’s when I really lost my breath,” Barnes said of seeing the photos.
A senior linebacker for the Buffaloes, Barnes said his mind instantly went to the coach and family he has grown to love in a short time and he remembered the player gatherings at their home.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I know where that is,’” Barnes said. “I was right there; we were playing basketball on that hoop.’ It was definitely surreal, so I can only imagine how they felt when they saw it and they were able to pull up the day after it happened.”
Smith and his family — wife Michelle; daughters Makenna, 17, and Mailey Kay, 4; and son Micah, 13 — moved into the home nearly a year ago. Hired by CU head coach Karl Dorrell on Feb. 5, this is the latest stop on Smith’s coaching journey.
The family was shopping together on Dec. 30 when they got word that their neighborhood was being evacuated. They weren’t able to get back to the home and found out the next day it had been destroyed.
Since that day, the family has been blessed. Long-time CU supporter Jay Elowsky, the owner of Pasta Jay’s in Boulder, has opened his home to the family and they’ve received countless donations.
The family has also shared many tears.
“There’s been a more intense bond between us together as a family because at the end of it, we have each other and we’re leaning on each other to help us through this,” Smith said.
Smith’s loss has also shined a light on the coach-player bonds he has cherished during his coaching career.
On Dec. 31, Barnes posted a tweet to Smith, writing, “Next season is for you coach .. you have my word. That’s my Why.” Barnes also reached out to Makenna and offered his support to her.
“My daughter said she doesn’t remember, ever, a time when one of my players has reached out to her really about anything and that meant the world to her,” Smith said. “Of course, all the players have been messaging me back and forth during the course of this, but that tweet (from Barnes) meant the world to me. It just shows that these relationships matter and there’s genuine care and concern for one another.”
Like Smith, Barnes made Boulder his home only about a year ago. After playing at Oklahoma for four seasons, Barnes transferred to CU last January — before he knew Smith. It didn’t take long for Barnes to develop a bond with his new position coach.
“I’m a big man of faith and I’m always thankful for the people that God puts in my life,” Barnes said. “I feel like coach Smith was definitely placed in my life at the right time and for a specific reason. … We’re both trying to figure it all out together in terms of Colorado is a new scene for both of us. I’m super thankful that he was chosen to be my position coach.
“I just felt like it was only right to dedicate a season to a man that gives so much to his players and continues to have relationships with his players from all different schools that he’s been.”
Smith was overwhelmed by Barnes’ tweet and support.
“It just hits you right in your heart,” Smith said. “You know you’re making a difference in Robert’s life beyond the game of football.”
That has been Smith’s “why” throughout his coaching career, which has taken him from high schools to Oklahoma, SMU, Arkansas, Long Island University and now CU.
“That’s one reason why I love working for coach Dorrell is that this is his vision for us, as well, that we’re gonna make an impact on these guys’ lives on and off the field,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, the relationships matter, and they need to be strong.”
Smith still hears from players he coached at previous schools and has quickly developed a bond with Barnes and CU’s other linebackers.
“I get after those guys,” Smith said. “I’m demanding and I’m on them, but I also love them and care for them. And I think when Robert does something like that, it just shows that feeling is reciprocated.”
As players returned from winter break this week, Smith was eager to see them and start working with them again. He also said he can’t wait to get his family into a new home and have the players over for dinner and games.
“We love having the guys over,” Smith said. “We’re excited to get back to that point.”
Barnes was eager to get to work, as well, with a renewed sense of purpose.
“Each day we go out to practice and each day that we go out for winter conditioning, summer conditioning, I’ll definitely have in the back of my mind that whatever I’m dealing with that day that somebody has bigger problems,” Barnes said. “You’re talking about a man who lost everything, essentially. He lost his whole entire home. But at the end of the day was blessed and found a way to be thankful that his family was still there, and that he didn’t lose anybody in his family. … Somebody is always dealing with something more.
“I think that it’s important that they know that there are people that are out there to help and I wanted to be one of those people.”
Barnes and his teammates will help perhaps even more than they know.
The Smiths have been in the area for only about 11 months, but they’ve never regretted a decision to come to CU and move to a community that has come together in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, a mass shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers last March and now the Marshall Fire.
“I’ve seen this intense kinship amongst the community here at the university and this greater Boulder area that comes together every time something happens unlike anywhere that I’ve ever been,” Smith said.
“The Lord has us here for a reason and it’s to impact lives on this team and also maybe through tragic events like this within this community. That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to serve coach Dorrell and this university and this football team in the best way that we can and to be the best ambassadors and an example of a great family that loves and cares for what they’re doing and where they are. And if anything, we’re even stronger and more determined about that now.”