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Rookie Diaries: Kalon Barnes chasing his dreams

Kalon Barnes

CHARLOTTE — Kalon Barnes has always been fast, even though that's not why they called him "Boogie" as a kid.

He's also been competitive, so he and his family have gone back and forth about high school track records, and also who makes the best ramen noodles.

The combination of the speed and the drive helps explain the Panthers' interest in the former Baylor cornerback when they were on the clock in the seventh round, even though they were already extremely deep at the position.

But he knows that to hang around this roster, he's going to have to be more than fast.

"Most people say that I was a track guy that played football. I say I'm a football guy that ran really fast and ran track," Barnes said Saturday after the second day of rookie minicamp. "I have football skills."

Those have been evident since his younger years, but when he got to high school, he really began to fly.

He broke the Texas high school record in the 100 meters by running a 10.22 in the state final as a junior. His father ran a 10.26 in 1988, so Kalon had family bragging rights as well. He ran a personal best 10.04, which he thought was actually a 9.9, though it was ruled wind-aided.

That speed at an early age led to offers to concentrate on track professionally, with a shoe company offering him a six-figure deal to go that route.

"I was 16 years old, just thinking about the money, so I was going to run track," he admitted. "Luckily I had dad and mom on my side, and dad went through the same deal.

"He was like, 'Why would you take that deal? When you get to the NFL, you'll get paid on a weekly basis.'"

Of course, there's no guarantee that's going to happen just yet.

If there was any hesitance in using a seventh-round pick on Barnes, it was because the Panthers didn't really need another corner. When you bring Donte Jackson back to go along with former top-10 picks Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson and others, it was hardly a necessity.

But then they thought about Barnes' speed again (his 4.23-second 40 was the fastest time at this year's combine), and gave it a shot.

"We're really deep in the secondary, so we'll have a lot of great battles there," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "He'll have to utilize his speed and physicality on special teams. . . .

"For us, it's going to be learning the playbook, cleaning up some technical things, and then making an impact on special teams with his speed."

Rhule recognized that because he's been watching Barnes run for years. When he was at Baylor, he realized they couldn't necessarily compete for the top recruits in the Big 12. Five-star kids choose between Texas and Oklahoma. So the priority was finding explosive athletes at every position, guys with rare physical traits (like the Panthers' draft strategy this year).

So even when Barnes would get beat on a double move, there was a chance he could run the play down.

"One thing we say about Kalon, it's not his 40-yard dash, he can run as fast as he needs to run," Rhule said. "If you need 4.3, he'll run a 4.3. If you need him to run a 4.2, he'll run a 4.2."

Sometimes on the same day.

Barnes continued to run track in college, leading to a bit of double duty. Rhule recalled one spring practice at Baylor where he intended to let Barnes ease through with few reps so he could get to a track meet later that day. Cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper didn't get the memo, and put Barnes through a full live scrimmage.

"Coop, who I love, forgot that I said that, practiced him the whole practice, live tackling the whole deal," Rhule recalled. "Kalon finishes, walks in, showers, changes, goes across the river to the track and ran like a 10.43, and was distraught that he ran a 10.4. He was that kind of track athlete. . . .

"It's just his mentality. Kalon is one of those guys who will play banged-up and beat-up. Football's his first love. He broke a finger one time, taped up, and kept playing. He's a football kid, that happens to be really fast and runs track."

Barnes dreamed of playing football since he was five, and played up an age division in tackle football. And while his parents cheered him, they also provided his nickname — Boogie.

"I liked to dance when I was younger," he said. "The dance was called the boogie. I don't know what the dance was or how it went. But the name really stuck.

"It started at games; mom and dad were like 'Let's go Boogie,' and the name stuck."

To stick with the Panthers, it will take all his speed and then some, considering how deep they are.

But Barnes has been thinking about this shot for years, passing up early guarantees to chase his dream.

"It was something I always did. That's where my passion was," Barnes said. "I played football. I've been playing football since I was five years old. Football was always my first passion.

"I stuck to the course. From day one, I always wanted to play in the NFL. Track was never a thing I wanted to do, it just happened, out of the blue. It was always football, so I stuck with the course."

Barnes was picked in the seventh round (242nd overall) by Carolina in 2022 NFL Draft.

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