By Armen Zargarian
For a long time, soccer was the greatest part of Andrew Barrett’s identity. Since the age of 17, Barrett has been chasing his professional soccer dreams. Now, about a decade later, he finds himself at Ryerson as both a Ram and an advocate for positive social change.
While this isn’t the path he initially imagined he would be on, Barrett’s experiences both on and off the field have shaped him into a community leader first and a soccer player second.
Barrett’s soccer journey
Barrett’s first professional tryout was for a Bundesliga youth academy, part of the Hertha, Berliner Sport-Club in Germany. When he didn’t land a contract, Barrett finished out his Grade 12 year at Dante Alighieri Academy in North York and was named Academic Athlete of the Year.
Shortly after, Barrett earned a full scholarship to join the soccer team at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, but in his first few weeks, Barrett felt his skills were going unrecognized. He remembers coming onto the field only to get pulled off before hitting his stride.
“I didn’t go to class,” says Barrett. “I locked myself in the changing room and balled.”
“If you’re Black and you want to sign in Europe, there can’t just be this marginal difference”
Barrett’s dedication to the sport eventually earned him the starting spot on the Golden Grizzlies Division One roster, where his talent was on full display. He was still unsatisfied with where he was and continued honing his soccer skills.
Throughout his first two off-seasons, Barrett travelled to Latvia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Croatia, trying out for professional men’s soccer teams.
As a Black athlete from Canada, Barrett was inherently at a disadvantage when trying out in Europe. His coaches were well aware of the potential for racial bias and warned Barrett prior to his trips.
“If you’re Black and you want to sign in Europe, there can’t just be this marginal difference,” says Barrett. “Not only do you have to be the big, strong, fast Black guy, but you also have to be as technical or even a little bit more technical [than white players].”
Though he was momentarily discouraged, Barrett felt equipped to deal with the discrimination; he was twenty years old and at the peak of his athleticism. However, he struggled to land a contract despite his skill and his agent’s optimism.
“I was good enough to sign but nothing was happening,” he says.
“In this period of uncertainty, I began to question God. I just had to understand what I was doing and who I was doing it for”
Barrett’s remaining options were to play his third season with the Golden Grizzlies, entertain other scholarship offers from Syracuse University and the University of Vermont, or even jump on professional opportunities in Israel. Ultimately, Barrett chose to step away from the game he had worked tirelessly to prove himself in.
“It wasn’t like I got injured or anything bad, I just decided to stop playing,” says Barrett.
He vividly recalls the reaction to his unexpected decision. “You go from being someone who’s relatively ‘cool,’ ‘popular,’ ‘respected’ to nobody, nothing. All your friends think you’re crazy.”
Without soccer, Barrett found himself scrambling to restructure his identity.
“In this period of uncertainty, I began to question God. I just had to understand what I was doing and who I was doing it for,” he says.
Barrett comes from a Christian household that ingrained the religion’s values in him since childhood. He had not actively practiced his faith up to this point, but in the midst of his identity crisis, Barrett began talking to his friends about his relationship with God.
The discussions sparked and fostered Barrett’s spiritual relationship. He started holding meetings and bible studies at Oakland University, where any friend or student-athlete could have genuine conversations about finding purpose.
Unbeknownst to him, Barrett was already constructing his new path.
Among the meeting attendees was Devon Bailey, who was also on a full scholarship playing Division One football at Northern Illinois University. Barrett says Bailey “was on track to go to the [NFL] but his identity was so wrapped up in sport, when he was injured it sunk him in depression. He was battling purpose in life.”
The meetings gave Bailey a place to progress past football and positioned him to reconfigure his identity. Barrett says helping Bailey, now his best friend, find a meaningful path is one of his biggest accomplishments.
Bailey’s original aspirations were shaped by the rough Detroit neighbourhoods he grew up in. “All [Bailey] knew was football. To help be a part of the reason why he’s now studying pre-medical sciences, working to build communities, that to me is something significant,” Barrett says.
“Soccer was out of my system, I couldn’t even play”
Over the years Barrett’s relationship with God developed as he forged his new path. Along with his spiritual growth, he was guided by two important women in his life that helped lead him to the next stop on his journey.
His mother and stepmother are registered nurses and were big influences in Barrett’s life. Constantly surrounded by the perspectives of nurses, his understanding and love for helping others grew, ultimately leading him to pursue a career in the medical field.
In this chapter of his life, Patrice Gheisar, a former assistant coach with Ryerson’s men’s soccer team and Barrett’s under-18 youth club coach, instructed and motivated him.
“I didn’t have a map. [Gheisar] was saying ‘here, you’ve got to take this chemistry course, here you’ve got to do this thing.’”
Gheisar connected Barrett with soccer coaches at Ryerson, where he was preparing to attend the nursing program. Ryerson coaches implored Barrett to join the soccer squad, but he swore against it. Barrett recalls thinking: “Soccer was out of my system, I couldn’t even play.”
Barrett didn’t play in his first year attending Ryerson but maintained a healthy relationship with the program. He came to understand that Ryerson coaches valued off-field growth and in his second year he felt comfortable joining the team with support from his coaches. Barrett was creating a new relationship with the game.
“Before, I used to serve soccer,” Barrett says. “Now, soccer serves me.” He’s now applying lessons learned from the game to his current studies and work for marginalized communities.
“The ability to manage adversity, to continue going when things don’t go your way, I’ve learned from soccer,” he continues. “I didn’t grow up studying for hours, studying books. So I think in university, in life, that really helps.”
“The ability to manage adversity, to continue going when things don’t go your way, I’ve learned from soccer”
Off the pitch at Ryerson, Barrett is helping to redevelop the nursing program’s curriculum with the intention of challenging anti-Black racism. He was asked to help join a small team consisting of two professors and one registered nurse on the redevelopment project.
In his first year enrolled in the program, Barrett recalled being taught by only one Black professor, with the majority of faculty being older white women.
“Different cultures learn and teach in different ways—there’s different styles. If the type of students entered into school are culturally diverse, I feel like there is going to be a glitch or a gap in that teaching-learning process,” Barrett says.
Barrett said he believes that issues of psycho-social behaviours that are currently being taught in nursing aren’t including perspectives on anti-Black racism. He hopes to change that by including more Black professors and increasing Black student representation.
“You don’t see a lot of Black males [in nursing]. Even just having a week in our theory courses where we focus on the lived experiences of Black people to really educate, that’s definitely something I want to push as well,” Barrett explains.
He is also among the representatives from Ryerson volunteering for the University of Toronto’s IDEAS Lab initiative to combat racism in Canadian sports.
Through all his experiences, Barrett is also looking to give back to the sport he loves. When organized soccer returns, he’s excited to speak with high school and elementary athletes about how sports can be a pathway to education.
It’s been a well-travelled, winding journey for Barrett. But through it all, he’s learned countless lessons that he hopes can help future students and athletes to come.