Sal Barnabei removed his hands from his pockets, grabbed a football and lined up behind his Wilbur Cross center. He drops back and starts slinging rainbows.
Barnabei should be: He’s put in all the work. He has the ability. And this is fun. Man, is it a whole lot of fun.
Cross plays its final home game at high noon on Saturday vs. perennial powerhouse Hand. A victory would propel the Governors into a Thanksgiving showdown with Hillhouse for an outside chance at the school’s first playoff berth since winning it all way back in 1984.
Exciting stuff, to be sure. “This is a huge game,” Barnabei said after recent practice. “Senior day… This is make-or-break for the playoffs. We have a huge shot here. We’re going to work hard in practice and try to get the win.”
He quite literally has all the right moves.
Funny, because until this season he’d never played in competitive football game his entire life. Not Pop Warner. Not freshman. Not junior varsity.
Not… one… snap.
“I’m a baseball player,” he says, sheepishly.
“Well, my father didn’t want me to play football because he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Barnabei explains.
He and his older brother, Tino, once helped Annex Little League beat mighty Fairfield American in the sectional playoffs. So, Sal has always been good at baseball.
But when he would attend Wilbur Cross football games in fall, he just couldn’t shake the dream of one day playing alongside his friends.
Acquavita and his staff knew of Barnabei. They knew he was a great athlete. Barnabei even played hoops for a while. “He’s probably one of the better athletes in the building,” Acquavita said. “So we’re like, Sal, you have to come out for football.”
“Every year, I’ve been asking him to play,” Sal said. “Every game I’ve come to, just the environment. I just wanted to be on the field, playing football.”
“He was like, it’s your last year, I’m not going to hold you back from playing,” Sal recalls. “So if you want to play, go out there and do it.”
Barnabei always wanted to play quarterback, but Cross already had Terrell Watts as the incumbent. So Acquavita and his staff put the 6-foot, 185-pound senior in at linebacker. Because he could throw a baseball, they penciled Barnabei in as Watts’ backup. “We never thought of Sal as a starter,” Acquavita said.
Then, suddenly, Watts transferred to Hillhouse and Cross and its talented senior class was going to be without a quarterback.
Now, Barnabei had to cram a lifetime’s worth of quarterback knowledge and skill in just three months before the season opener at Foran.
So Acquavita and his assistants went to work on their first-year senior. “We kind of accelerated the process,” the coach said.
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“We poured it all in there and he kept wanting more,” Acquavita said.
But none of it was real until Barnabei took his first, official football snap vs. Foran in the season opener.
Nervous, Sal? You had to be.
“Yeahhh,” he said. “The first drive… wasn’t a good drive.”
He was sacked for a loss. Later, a Foran lineman broke free around the left end and blindsided him during a bubble screen — his first real football hit. “Right in the back,” Barnabei said. “I got a little pain right there. It was… unexpected.”
He laughs. “But after that I settled into the game. Next drive came out a little better. It was my first touchdown pass (a 17-yarder to Taylor). That was great. It was a great feeling.”
He pauses, as if to relive the moment again.
“First touchdown I’d ever thrown.”
Barnabei wound up completing 10-of-15 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns — including a 46-yard strike to Washington. He was intercepted once.
The next week vs. West Haven, he threw for 124 yards on 13-of-21 passing and two touchdowns, but Acquavita says he and assistant Paul Morrell didn’t really unleash Barnabei, due to his inexperience. “We probably should have,” Acquavita said. Cross lost 47-20.
Barnabei said the team’s confidence skyrocketed. “It proved we could play with those teams, a team like Xavier,” he said.
Cross had one other hiccup. Cheshire took a three touchdown lead and nearly ran the Governors out of the Maclary Complex. But Barnabei shook of a nightmare first half and nearly engineered a second-half comeback in an eventual 35-26 loss. He threw for 267 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The next week, he torched East Haven for another 267 yards and four touchdowns. After that, Cross beat Notre Dame-West Haven with Barnabei throwing three more TDs.
“He works hard. He never misses a practice. He lets it go if he’s made a mistake. He wants to get better,” Acquavita said. “There’s been no hard part. He’s a pretty smooth, coachable kid. Every other night, my staff and I are thinking, imagine if we had this kid as a freshman?”
Barnabei says his proud father hasn’t missed one of his games.
Playoffs or not, Sal’s football career at Cross will be ending soon. But his youngest brother, Antonio, is now a budding quarterback for the Governors’ freshman team.
Think he’ll stick with it, Sal?
“I hope so.”