COVINGTON, Ga. — Kevin Barnes has been Newton’s track and field coach long enough to know the drill when it comes to Senior Nights.
It’s been four years, to be exact, since he took the reigns of the Rams’ boys track team, and all he’s done is tutor a few school record holders and lead the 2016 team to the Class AAAAAA state title. During the previous three years, he’s seen guys come and go. He’s waved goodbye to talented graduating seniors while also saying hello to promising young freshmen.
But this year’s Senior Night is a little different. While every coach feels a little twinge of sadness in their hearts when they have to part ways with their outgoing senior class, Barnes’ heart felt a little extra burden this year.
Toward the end of Newton’s track and field Senior Night this past Tuesday, Barnes saved perhaps one of his most special senior recognitions for last. Mushadi Ibere.
If you’re a Newton athlete, parent, student or fan, it’s probably not the first time you’ve heard that name. Ibere, a key cog in last year’s state championship team, and a school record holder in the long and high jump, passed away in late August 2016, just as the current school year was getting underway.
According to Barnes, Ibere suffered from occasional seizures, and this particular one he had was, as Barnes puts it, “critical.”
“He was face down when this one happened, and it…it kind of took him out,” Barnes said. “It was very unexpected. We were looking to have a great (senior) campaign with him. He was a 23-foot long jumper, our long jump record holder and just a great all-around kid.”
And that not just on the track. Barnes said Ibere’s presence was such that it helped bond the team both in and out of the season.
“I can honestly say that he was our glue that held this team together,” Barnes said. “He was like a swiss army knife guy. He’s one of those who could pretty much do anything. He brought his hard hat on a daily basis and did whatever he had to do to make everything work for the team. He’s greatly, greatly missed.”
Yet, his spirit could still be felt. As the public address announcer called Ibere’s name, the entire contingent of Newton track athletes, fans, coaches and students stopped for a long, hearty stint of applause. Ibere’s parents and siblings walked out onto the field holding a framed picture of their son and brother — his name printed large at the bottom with, “gone but not forgotten” across the top.
Barnes said the greatest thing about his parents being there is that their presence is still a fixture at the school and in the track program, despite the loss of their son.
“His mom is like my second mom,” Barnes said. “We’re really close. I try to visit her every two weeks just to make sure she’s okay and to keep her around our track community, which she is still a really big part of.”
Barnes said the family still comes out to every event possible and are still vocal supporters of the program — something the coach says provides a special spark to the team, including himself.
“I know it’s hard for her,” Barnes said. “But it’s so good to see that when she’s out here, you can see that it just warms her. She’s the mother of all the track team, and it’s so cool to have her around.”
Barnes acknowledges that the season’s been a bit different with the loss of Ibere, but also the early graduation of Jeremiah Holloman and the departure of Alex Sans. He says newcomers like Devonte Williams, whom he called “a great addition to the team,” and senior leaders such as Sayyid Grant have helped bolster the team, along with junior Elija Godwin, the defending state champion in the 400 meters.
And it’s those pieces, plus the push to compete for the memory of a fallen teammate, that he believes can help keep this year’s bunch in the hunt for another state crown.
“We did lose a lot of key components with those guys, and again, especially the unfortunate passing of Mushadi,” Barnes said. “But I think with the tools that we’ve got, and the desire that these guys have to right some things, I think we’re still in a good position to make a run for another state championship this year. But after all this team’s gone through, it just feels good to have these guys out here having fun with each other on a senior night. I think it’ll get us ready for what’s ahead.”