AURORA — As he watched his pupil struggle mightily, Aurora head football coach Bob Mihalik took a deep breath.
He had a discussion with his assistant coach and decided a change was needed.
Mihalik didn’t waste much time. Once the longtime Greenmen head man made up his mind, there was no looking back.
Thus, Mihalik had the unfortunate duty of revealing some very bad news to a certain promising, but still developing player.
"I said to him, ‘We were thinking about doing a position change,’" Mihalik said.
So who was the subject of this uneasy discussion?
That would be AJ Barner, who was Aurora’s quarterback at the time. While Barner was wrecking offensive game plans on a regular basis, thanks to his play at linebacker, he often looked a bit overwhelmed under center.
Yes, Barner was an imposing figure on the gridiron. At the same time, he was still just a teenager. Telling someone you’re not good enough isn’t exactly the best way to boost one’s ego.
"We were worried we were going to hurt his feelings and he was going to be down in the dumps about it," Mihalik said.
That didn’t stop Mihalik, though. The season was just around the corner. He needed to do what was best for his team.
Therefore, Mihalik informed Barner that he would be moving to tight end. Barner’s response? Let’s just say he loved every word.
"He said, ‘Thank God, Coach,’" Mihalik said. "‘I don’t want to play quarterback anymore. I was just doing it because I thought you wanted me to play there. I would love to play tight end.’"
That delightful conversation between coach and player took place during a bus ride home after a summer scrimmage in 2018.
As it turns out, Mihalik isn’t the only one who was intrigued to see what his talented pupil could do at a position that lines up next to the tackle.
Barner’s future school is fascinated by his pass-catching and blocking skills, as well. That’s just fine with the Aurora senior. He has four more years to master a position that is still very new to him.
Barner signed a National Letter of Intent Wednesday to continue his academic and football careers at Indiana University Bloomington.
Barner, who plans to major in business, also received offers from 10 other schools, including Michigan State University and the University of Pittsburgh.
"Obviously, it’s a really good campus," Barner said. "It had a lot to do with the commitment the coaches have and all of the stuff they’re investing into the program."
Barner previously made a verbal commitment to Ohio University in Athens. However, when he started drawing interest from much larger schools, Barner didn’t lock himself in his room.
And once he visited the Hoosier state a few times, Barner had no choice but to replace his hunter green and white colors for crimson and cream.
"They were definitely good about it," Barner said of the Ohio University coaches. "It’s obviously difficult, committing to one school and then switching up. The difference between Indiana and Ohio University was something I couldn’t pass up.
"It sucks that I can’t be at both places, but Ohio University handled it well. At the end of the day, I feel it was the best decision for me to go to Indiana instead."
Playing in one of the most powerful conferences in the country was intriguing too.
The Hoosiers finished 8-4 overall and a very respectable 5-4 in the rugged Big Ten Conference. As a result of its success this fall, Indiana is scheduled to play the University of Tennessee in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.
"Being in the Big Ten East doesn’t get much better than that," Barner said. "There’s definitely room to improve, but it’s a good start. I feel like the recruiting class that’s coming in can definitely take this place to the next level."
Barner, who will receive a full scholarship to play at Indiana, is the fifth Greenman player to suit up for a power conference school. He joins Tom Curtis (Class of 1966, Michigan), Byron Spurrell (Class of 1983, Notre Dame), the late Adam Bellamy (Class of 2009, The Ohio State University) and Pat Dougherty (2013, Indiana).
Barner is the 17th Aurora football player in school history to join a Division I college program. So yes, Barner is a rare bird when it comes to his skills on the gridiron.
It didn’t take a magic wand for him to become special, though. This young man did his best work in situations that weren’t particularly glamorous.
Think of it this way: Barner’s lifestyle might be more like an oil rig worker rather than a Hollywood A-lister.
And if Mihalik had his choice, he would watch this gritty blue-collar employee perform over Dwayne Johnson or Ben Affleck any day.
"He’s such a good young man," Mihalik said. "I always said, ‘You have a chance to be really good when your best players are your hardest workers. AJ and [senior wide receiver/defensive back] Johnny Papesh were our two best players and without a doubt, they were our two hardest workers."
That hard work turned Aurora into a powerhouse again.
After the Greenmen failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last fall, Aurora had a season for the ages in 2019.
The Greenmen finished 13-1 and reached the state semifinals after a seven-year drought. Aurora also had its first 10-0 regular season since 1998 and captured its first Suburban League American Conference championship in three years too.
Barner certainly did his part. He easily led the team with 124 tackles to go along with 11 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, seven knocked down passes and three fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown. At tight end, Barner caught 12 passes for 118 yards and three TDs.
A number of people were surprised by the Greenmen’s spectacular 2019 season. Barner was not one of them. In his mind, it was actually disappointing. To some degree, at least.
"We all thought about a state championship," Barner said. "It was tough losing in the final four. At the end of the day, all the relationships that we’ve made, the memories that we made will last forever."
"It was awesome. We dreamed of playing with each other a long time ago. I wish I had one more game left, but it is what it is. We left it all out there."
When Barner joins the Hoosiers, his days of playing both ways will be officially over. He is expected to focus strictly on catching passes and blocking from his tight-end spot.
"At the start, I really wanted to play defense," Barner said. "As the process kept going and as long as I continued to play tight end, I started to fall in love with playing tight end."
If you made the trip to Veterans Stadium during the fall, it was easy to spot the 6-foot-5, 220-pound giant. Barner wasn’t always a goliath, though. Not even close, as a matter of fact.
"AJ wrestled as a 126-pounder when he was a freshman," Mihalik said. "He was about 5-8. When you think about the growth he has made physically, socially and as a young man, it’s a proud day for our football program."
Barner certainly will remember how he got here. If not for Mihalik and his staff, the standout senior may not have reached his full potential as a two-way terror. Perhaps he wouldn’t have received a scholarship either.
Fortunately for the gifted teenager, his coach found a position that made the All-Ohio superstar feel most comfortable.
In other words, think George Kittle instead of Tom Brady.
"Coach Mihalik is a great guy," Barner said. "He puts the players first; he’s always looking out for our best interests. It’s not always about football, but becoming a better man."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.