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Cottonwoods and apple trees cover the 300-acre ranch along the Duchesne River. Cows, horses, turkeys and chickens dot the land around the opulent, three-story ranch house.
For Lander Barton, one of Utah’s most sought-after high school football recruits, the land is a sanctuary, a home away from home, a field away from the field.
Barton, a four-star recruit, has led the Bengals to a 8-2 record this season and done it mostly on the defensive end, racking up double-digit tackles in practically every game. The linebacker has played football for as long as he can remember. He wants to play in the NFL, and is being recruited by the likes of the University of Utah, Texas and Michigan. Those 100 yards of green grass and white lines are where the 17-year-old spends large amounts of time.
At the end of every week, Barton takes the football field and tries to help his team win.
Then he and his family spend most weekends at their ranch. He rides a horse that is blind in one eye. He hunts. He collects deer antlers. He runs cattle. He practices roping on a fake bull’s head, his friends and his older sister’s three dogs.
“That’s probably my favorite place in the world,” Barton said.
The Barton family has owned the ranch for close to two decades. It’s been an integral part of the development of Barton and his siblings. It’s a place to think.
And right now Barton is currently mulling a decision that might separate him from his favorite place and tight-knit family for the next several years.
Hard shell, kind heart
Mikki Barton describes the entire family as “talkers.” But not her youngest.
On a recent visit to Michigan, Barton and his parents sat in the office of coach Jim Harbaugh. The meeting lasted for about two hours, and in that entire time, Barton hardly spoke. Harbaugh asked Barton what he thought of Michigan and he replied, “It’s nice.”
“I don’t think he said more than 10 words,” Mikki Barton said. “And he’s the recruit.”
Barton’s quiet nature might lead some to believe that he’s shy or standoffish. But those closest to him say nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, Barton has a great deal of confidence and is even learning how to be more of a vocal leader on his Bengals team.
“He kind of likes to sit back and observe and he really notices a lot of things and he’s always kind of listening,” said Dani Drews, his older sister who recently became the all-time kills leader for Utes volleyball “He doesn’t really waste words. He’ll say something if he needs to, but he’s mostly just observing, noticing and kind of taking in his surroundings.”
Once someone gets past the quiet Barton, they’re introduced to the selfless Barton, the wisecracking Barton, the kind Barton, the laid-back Barton.
Brighton coach Justin Hemm said that after a recent game, his star linebacker broke away from talking to friends and fans and offered to help carry equipment. Barton also regularly holds the door to the weight room open for his teammates and waits until every single one enters.
“It’s just the little subtle things like that, that sometimes might go unnoticed, that he does second nature without even having to be asked to do or told to do,” Hemm said.
Twice a year, Barton will also participate in events where he’s helping those less fortunate. Jake Reece, one of Barton’s friends and teammates at Brighton, said he helped feed the homeless with Barton on multiple occasions. He recalled Barton having a five-minute conversation with a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk.
“I really like hanging around him just because he has a really kind heart,” Drews said. “But people might not see that when he’s competing on the football field. He’s just [a] good soul.”
Barton is a two-way player on the field who is hard to miss. He’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds of pure muscle. He’s athletic and flexible, attributes aided by his diligent nutrition, hydration and Pilates practice. And not only is he a football player, he also plays basketball for Brighton and contends with enough practice, he could start on his older sister’s Utes volleyball team.
But Barton is much more than just a physical specimen. His friends, family and coaches marvel at his maturity and intelligence. Drews said she constantly forgets that she his older than her brother because of how he talks and carries himself. Mikki Barton said her youngest son is the most mature of all her children at 17.
And aside from being a straight-A student at Brighton, he’s also a straight-A student of football. He watches hours more film compared to the rest of the defensive players. He picks up concepts and schemes faster than his teammates.
Hemm said in all his years of coaching, he’s never had a high school player with the emotional intelligence and mental toughness of Barton. That’s why he thinks any school that ends up landing the linebacker will be quite lucky.
“He’s the elite of the elite when it comes to the mental and emotional, which I think is what makes him that much more special,” Hemm said. “Whoever gets him is going to get more than what they know they’re getting because of those things that they can’t necessarily tell from off the field.”
Barton is the youngest of four children. His two older brothers who play in the NFL, Jackson and Cody, are 26 and 24, respectively, while Drews is 22. After this season, they will all be Utah alumni.
Barton’s parents, Paul and Mikki, were two-sport athletes at the U. Paul played football and baseball, while Mikki played basketball and volleyball.
The Bartons bleed Utah red. So it’s no wonder why the matriarch of the family is openly lobbying for her son to follow in everyone’s footsteps and commit to the Utes.
Barton has already made visits to Michigan and Texas. He’s visiting Utah this weekend, and plans a visit Oregon at the end of the month.
Mikki Barton said the main reason she wants him to stay is so that he’d be close to home and his beloved ranch for a while longer. Her two other sons live in their NFL cities, and Drews is preparing for a professional volleyball career overseas.
But Mikki Barton also wants her son to make what he feels is the best decision for his life and career. Still, it’s been difficult for her at times.
“All these visits are kind of weird,” Mikki Barton said. “It almost makes me feel like I’m cheating on Utah. … Some days I’m more OK with it than others.”
Barton’s close friends think he’ll eventually choose Utah, but they are not certain. Barton keeps his thoughts about recruitment close to the vest, not even talking to his parents about where he might be leaning. Mikki Barton said her son’s independence with his decision reminds her of herself.
Drews, who is affectionately considered Barton’s second mom, said it makes no difference to her where her youngest brother plays college football, even though it would be nice to have him close by.
“For me personally, I just want Lander to go where he’s going to be happiest and is going to set himself up to be successful in the future,” Drews said. “And selfishly, I’d love for him to be close to me. But honestly, I just want him to go wherever he’s going to feel happiest and wherever he feels is right for him.”
Barton said he’ll make his final college decision in November, early December at the latest.
“It’s not about trying to be different or unique,” Barton said. “It’s just about doing what I think is the right choice for me or the best fit. A lot of people think it’s about me trying to be different from the family or break off or be my own self. But it’s really just doing what I think is is my best opportunity to get to the next level.”
The Utes might have a unique advantage in wooing Barton. Their linebacker coach, Colton Swan, is an avid cowboy, and has taken his players horseback riding on off days in the past. Some close to Barton think that connection with Swan might be too good to pass up.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t go to Utah because coach Swan, the linebacker coach, is a cowboy type too,” said Max Alford, a childhood friend Barton from when they lived in Park City. “They connect on that stuff.”
Barton’s identity has been tied to cowboying so long that for the first five years of his life, he only wore Wrangler jeans, a button-down Wrangler shirt, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, his mother said. He even keeps a rope tied around a headrest in his car.
Nick Hagman, another of Barton’s teammates at Brighton, said his friends refer to him as “Horse Boy” or “Cowboy.” He also said Barton has worn a cowboy hat to a school dance, and that there are rows of cowboy boots in his room.
Barton said he’s more of a “poser cowboy” at this point than a real one. But he’s serious about becoming a real one. He said once his football playing days are over, he will become a full-time rancher.