Marquis Barnett knows one way to live.
It’s the expression that’s gotten him through the first 21 years of his existence.
“I was raised to fight,” he said. “Just keep fighting.”
He’s been through all things imaginable—pain, sadness, tragedy. He knows what it’s like to wake up hungry. He understands how it feels to lose somebody close. He even knows what it’s like to go through life without a home.
But he fought hunger; he fought sadness; he fought homelessness. He found solace at Quinnipiac.
He kept trudging along down the seemingly endless path that would lead him to better days. He’s defied the odds with every step.
All along, he’s continued to protect those close to him. It’s something that has always been natural to the 21-year-old, who has endured some of life’s toughest tests.
By the end of 2008, nearly 37,000 people slept in a New York City shelter each night, 15,884 of which were kids in families, according to coalitionforthehomeless.org.
Barnett became one of those 15,884 kids, and spent a vast majority of his days as a high school student without a home. He’s just a microcosm of what thousands of people endure on a daily basis.
The difference? It wasn’t just one shelter. It wasn’t just one area.
At one point, Barnett spent seven hours a day on public transportation to and from his high school in Parkchester, an uptown area of the Bronx. He remembers those long rides, waiting in traffic early in the morning and late at night – just so he could get an education and play basketball. His days would often start at 3:30 a.m., and he wouldn’t return home until just before the shelter home’s curfew of 10 p.m.
He would take a city bus, a train, and another city bus. Day after day he would commute, since it was the only way he could stay at his old school.
It wasn’t how things were supposed to be. But following an altercation between his mother and her boyfriend, Barnett’s family was forced to move out of their apartment in the Bronx just before he entered high school. Marquis, his mother, Francine Baker, and two younger siblings, Terrell and Nyazia, packed their bags and hit the road.
“We had to move,” Barnett said. “We just couldn’t be there anymore. My mother knew she had to protect her children, and I knew I had to protect her.”
One night, a counselor at the family’s first shelter noticed a man looking around the block shortly after dark. Suspicious, the counselor went to Baker and told her what he saw, describing the mysterious man in vivid detail.
It was later discovered that the man was Baker’s ex-boyfriend.
“We have to get you out of here,” the counselor said to Marquis’ mother, telling her it was a “temporary escape.”
The family moved to another shelter. Staten Island was too far away and Manhattan was too close to where they already were. They settled in Far Rockaway, Queens, and Marquis made the long trek to school each and every day.
It was the beginning of many moves for his family. They went from a shelter in the Bronx, to a shelter in Far Rockaway, to a shelter in Harlem, to an apartment in Far Rockaway, and finally, to a shelter on the lower east side of Manhattan. Barnett endured five total moves while he was in high school.
He got used to riding the bus during this time. Public transportation, as he saw it, was a place to do his homework.
“It was a long trip, but it could be peaceful, too,” Barnett said, leaning forward and pushing his glasses closer to his eyes.
Just like he had done in the past, he made things work.
There was only one thing going through his mind during the argument that day.
Thirteen years old at the time, Barnett had gotten sick and tired of hearing his mother and her boyfriend fight. It had become a regular happenstance around the apartment. He would listen through the wall from an attached room as the two yelled back-and-forth.
This fight, he soon recognized, was different than any argument they had in the past—Barnett could sense it.
Suddenly, the room went silent. He ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife, then quickly busted the bedroom door down, only to find what he had feared the most: his mother was being choked.
“I had to save her life,” Barnett said.
He charged his mother’s boyfriend, stabbing him in the back in order to protect her. The man got up and started throwing punches at Barnett, but the young teenager continued to fight back. The man was a danger to his mother, and Barnett was adamant on doing whatever it took to keep him away.
“He knew mommy was in trouble,” Baker said. “I still don’t know how, but he saved me.”
Suddenly, the fighting stopped. The man realized that the knife was still lodged into his shoulder. He left the room, ultimately fleeing to the hospital for extra care.
Barnett checked on his mother, who was uninjured. What had happened moments prior, he explained, was instinctive—he knew that she needed his help.
“No regrets at all,” Barnett said, with a stern look on his face. “I’d do it again for her.”
Barnett and his mother’s ex-boyfriend have since talked to one another about the incident. Three years ago, Barnett says, they were able to come to an understanding. There was no need for any more drama in his life.
“We cleared the air,” Barnett said. “I just want to avoid drama. You don’t need drama.”
Drama, however, would continue to follow him.
Barnett stepped into the guidance counselor’s office at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School for his first tutoring session. He noticed a box of donuts sitting on Nina Tricarico’s desk.
He was hungry, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten.
Tricarico began talking, going through the usual information she told all incoming freshman. After about a minute she suddenly stopped. She knew Barnett wasn’t focused on what she was saying.
“Are you hungry?” Tricarico asked, clearly concerned about him.
Barnett said yes, then quickly scarfed down one of the donuts on the desk.
The premise of not having food was something the 15-year-old had become accustom to during his freshman year of high school. He wouldn’t ask his mother for money. He knew they didn’t have any.
“He was literally dying of hunger,” Cardozo men’s basketball head coach Ron Naclerio said.
So the people around Barnett pitched in. Naclerio located some clothes for Barnett, who would eventually grow to be 6-foot-8, 260 lbs. by the time his high school career was over. Tricarico even began bringing two meals to school each day for Barnett.
“They were the only two meals I would get,” Barnett said. “I don’t know what I would have done without her. She saved me.”
Barnett began bringing some of the food home each night in a Tupperware container.
“My teacher brings me food every day,” he explained to his mother one night.
“Get her on the phone, please,” Baker said to her son.
Baker remembers thanking Tricarico over and over again that day on the phone. As she sees things, her son wouldn’t have the opportunities he has now if it wasn’t for those supporters. Without those people, Marquis simply couldn’t be Marquis.
“They’re the reason he’s able to be who he is today,” Baker said.
It was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.
A feeling of loneliness encompassed him. His eyes were full of tears and he couldn’t find the words to speak. The news had hit him at an unexpected time, and he wasn’t prepared for what was next. So he stood in the corner of the room during the entire service, not moving a single inch.
He was 16 years old. How could he be burying his 11-year-old brother? It all didn’t make sense.
Tavon Turpin had passed away in a fire. Barnett’s grandmother left the autistic child alone in her apartment to hurry to a nearby deli, promising young Tavon she’d be back in no time at all. The boy put one of his toys in the microwave. Moments later the apartment burst into uncontrollable, vicious flames and engulfed young Tavon, ending his life.
“Marquis couldn’t save him, and that’s why he broke down,” Baker said. “He felt like he should have been the one there, protecting his brother the way he protected me.”
But he wasn’t there to protect his brother. Instead, Barnett was at school when he was blindsided by the news. Naclerio was informed of what had happened, and now needed to explain things to Barnett.
“How do you break that news to somebody?” Naclerio said. “You just can’t … It just wasn’t fair to Marquis.”
Barnett wanted to be alone—he wouldn’t talk to anybody. So he rested in the corner of the room during the entire funeral. Moving wouldn’t bring his brother back.
“It was the first time I ever saw him get really emotional,” Baker said. “He never breaks down, he’s always carrying the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. But that day… that day he was just a mess.”
Barnett woke up the following morning, though, worried about his mother. He vowed to himself that he would no longer mourn in public. The time to grieve was over. So he held his emotions back, turning to his mother’s side to make sure she was at ease. He needed to be positive for her.
“You just have to suck it up and be a man,” Barnett said, looking off into the distance as he spoke. “I knew she needed me.”
For Barnett’s mother, it was a rare example of the soft side of her son, which usually hid behind a determined, hard-working human. When she thinks back on how Barnett acted during that period of his life she tears up, she just can’t help it.
“He’s just my little angel,” Baker said. “He’s my everything, and I’m absolutely in love with him.”
Basketball was Barnett’s way out. It was his escape. Every bit of anger and frustration he endured in his childhood, he used to receive a basketball scholarship.
Quinnipiac men’s basketball head coach Tom Moore was impressed with Barnett’s size, strength and his passion for the game. He saw a forward that could make a difference in his program, which is routinely built from the inside out.
A cloud of injuries, however, was the cause of a career cut short.
Barnett played in just 32 games over three seasons. He came to Quinnipiac with tendonitis in his knee, which bothered him from time to time. Then he suffered one concussion as a freshman and two as a sophomore. He was plagued by additional knee woes as a junior.
“I’m like a football player,” Barnett joked, recalling the three-year span’s worth of ailments.
But it wasn’t a joke. There was nothing funny about the injuries, as Barnett admits. They’re the reason that he couldn’t reach his full potential at Quinnipiac—the reason the college basketball spectrum doesn’t know the real Marquis Barnett on the court.
The team was going through a regular practice in January of 2014 when it happened—when Barnett’s career ended.
He stole the ball, then bent down to grab it when he felt a pop in his achilles heel. Barnett limped over to the side of the court to see what was wrong. He felt like he had badly bruised his heel, initially.
He then took off his shoe and felt his foot wiggling. He couldn’t walk, and was taken to the training room.
“The doctors said it was probably one of the worst, most complete achilles tears they had ever seen,” Moore said.
It was the end of Barnett’s basketball career.
Moore broke the news to him during a meeting in his office last spring. Due to the injury, Barnett was being medically disqualified from playing his senior year at Quinnipiac.
His basketball career was over.
“It hit me hard,” Barnett said. “It was something I just didn’t expect.”
But he took it as an opportunity. Like anything else, he had to make the best out of what he was dealt.
“He called me one day and told me the news,” his mother said, “and I just felt so bad. But Marquis quickly began telling me he was alright.”
“The real reason I’m here is to get that education,” he told his mother. “I’m going to buy you that house.”
Barnett plans on remaining at Quinnipiac to get his master’s degree in criminal justice. His ideal job? To become a police officer, because he wants to continue to protect others.
“It’s something I’m good at,” he said.
Barnett has always taken his academics seriously, which is why he ended up at Quinnipiac in the first place. The decision wasn’t based on basketball.
Now, he was being forced to move on from the game he loved.
“I think he envisioned himself having success,” Moore said. “He could see his life turning around.”
When Barnett talks about the first 21 years of his life, only one thing comes to mind.
“One step at a time, that’s how I approach things,” Barnett says.
He’s never been lucky. Pain has always found its way toward his direction.
“No matter how bad things had been, they always seemed to get worse,” Naclerio said.
But Barnett keeps on the path toward better days. He knows they’re coming soon. He deals with emotions the only way he knows how to—he ignores them.
“I’d rather think than feel. Once you feel, that’s when you see life as a tragedy,” Barnett said.
The people around him know what he’s been through. They also know there’s only so much they can do to help. They’ve never walked as Marquis Barnett. They can’t imagine what it’s like.
But they can tell his story. They can tell you that he’s the greatest human they’ve ever known.
And they all do.
“We never won a basketball championship with Marquis, but he’s won the real championship that counts,” Naclerio said.