ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Why are you here?
The question was posed innocuously enough, and the twenty-odd students sat in the classroom with blank stares on their faces. It was graduate school. They'd all done the first-day-of-school thing at least 15 times by this point, but still, that question seemed difficult to answer.
"When I was growing up we had three or four African-Americans go off to college, and they went off for sports," Ricky Barnum said. "I play sports here. I'm not here for sports, though."
It had been obvious to most other students. Barnum didn't need to say he was an athlete. He wasn't exactly the usual student in the master's program for social work at the University of Michigan. No, he was a 300-pound left guard, trying to camouflage himself as average with jeans and a Polo shirt, but gravity and his body tested the strength and hold of the desk's chair.
The other students had preconceived notions about student-athletes, mostly that they were here for sports.
And true, even his professor Gary Stauffer had preconceived notions.
" 'Is he taking this class just so he can continue playing?' I thought," Stauffer said. "But he never carried himself in a macho, arrogant manner. And then, my first impression was that he was a really thoughtful, engaged student."
That was part of why Barnum was there. He is thoughtful and engaged.
Never before had a Michigan football player graduated with a master's degree from the Michigan School of Social Work, ranked No. 1 in the world. He wanted to be one of the first.
So to answer Stauffer's question Barnum talked about his upbringing in a rough area of Lakeland, Fla. He talked about the pain of being labeled as an "at-risk student." He talked about the Simpson Park Community Center, and how it had provided him a safe place to hang out when he was young.
Simpson Park is where Barnum first learned to play football. As a child, larger than all the other kids, the coaches and his parents made the game into a life lesson: be an offensive lineman, protect the quarterback, protect the running backs, protect the people who can't always protect themselves.
That's why he was there.
Then there were his role models. His parents and older brother were a few, Marquis Roberts and Barbara Smith from Simpson Park were two others. And finally, Michigan football came up again when he talked about coach Brady Hoke's influence.
"Coach Hoke always talks about being competitive in everything you do," Barnum said. "He's very competitive and that's something our team has learned through him is to be competitive. You're going to have struggles on the field and in life and hoops to jump through. You have to be a competitor."
But what he didn't tell Stauffer and the rest of his class was the main reason he was there. That he had made a promise to his grandmother shortly before her death last June. And in a community where promises weren't always upheld, he knew that was one he needed to keep.
"I was talking to my grandma and she said, 'Why don't you get a master's? Why don't you make something more of yourself?' " Barnum said. "So I promised her that when I graduated that I wouldn't just sit around. I promised her that I would do something."
Something meaning a master's degree.
So after he earned his bachelor's degree in Afro-American and African studies in May 2012, he took his final year of football eligibility to make good on his promise to his grandmother.
He started classes that May and quickly found himself choosing an interpersonal practice of children, youth and families. It was something he could relate to.
"I know it starts with the youth," Barnum said of Lakeland. "If you can make a difference to a youth, you can impact the future. That's what's wrong with my community right now, our youth struggle. There's crime, there's a high dropout rate. I just want to help be a part of what they're doing down there now."
And he balanced football and classes -- a starting job on a team with a 2-0 Big Ten start along with hundreds of pages of reading a week. On the field, he's learning how to better protect quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. In his classes, he's learning how to protect the children of Lakeland.
Shortly before he graduated with his bachelor's and shortly before his grandmother passed away, shortly before he made any kind of promise and shortly before he did everything to keep that promise, he was asked to speak at his family's church.
The pastor said Barnum would speak about struggle and triumph. He expected the football player to talk about the Wolverines' distress under Rich Rodriguez and the redemption that came with Brady Hoke and an Allstate Sugar Bowl Championship.
Instead, Barnum got to the pulpit and spoke about education and the ability to choose a path if person chooses the right footing. It was a curve ball, but so is Barnum.
"He knows he could've been headed down a bad path, but he took the initiative and responsibility to change it up," Stauffer said. "I think a part of it comes from his football coaches, that mentality of 'You're responsible for yourself.' & And he's present. He's not going to social work school so he can continue to play Michigan football. He really wants to give back. He really wants to help people."