Before Barnett Was JMU’s Quarterback, He Was A Proven Winner At Grimsley High School

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Walk into Jamieson Stadium on the campus of Grimsley High School, and its character — white paint on concrete with nine sections of metal bleachers on each side of the field — quickly sticks out.
It doesn’t look like a “cookie-cutter” high school stadium.
Rather, it’s unique with bowl-shaped stands that slightly curve around the playing surface.
Keep looking around the 73-year-old stadium, and another feature strikes the eye: a blue banner with white text that reads “2020-2021 4A STATE CHAMPIONS” affixed to the top of the press box.
That banner stands out for good reason. It was the Whirlies’ first state title in 61 years, and they did it with Alonza Barnett III at the helm in his first year as a varsity starter.
Barnett, who appears to be James Madison’s starting quarterback for this weekend’s season opener against Bucknell, helped guide Grimsely to the state championship in his first season at the school.
But before Barnett led the Whirlies to the top of North Carolina’s high school football circuit, he caught Grimsley coach Darryl Brown’s eye as a JV quarterback during his freshman year at nearby Page High.
As Brown watched Barnett play in that game, he quickly noticed there was something different about this young signal-caller. The ball came out of his hand effortlessly, and as Brown put it, “It doesn't take you long to notice a guy like him compared to other people.”
“Right away playing against him, you saw his quick release and arm strength,” Brown said. “The throws he was able to make on a Thursday night in a JV game were different from most Thursday night quarterbacks.”
Soon enough, Barnett transferred to Grimsley after a coaching change at Page. But after he arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut the high school football season down for months on end.
Even though they couldn’t do anything in person with the pandemic, Brown and Grimsely’s coaching staff held virtual meetings to install the offense. Barnett, who was new to the system, was eager to learn and picked up the system quickly.
And while the coaches held online meetings, Barnett organized off-campus workouts to get to know his offense. As Brown noticed Barnett’s willingness to study the offense and work with his teammates, it set him apart from other high school quarterbacks.
“Just right away,” Brown said, “you could tell he was going to be special and different.”
Once the team was able to get back together in the spring of 2021, Barnett had most of the offense down, which made the transition to the new program easier.
080323_dnr_JMU FTB Practice_2 (copy)
James Madison's Alonza Barnett III waits for a receiver during practice.
Daniel Lin / DN-R
It didn’t take long for the Whirlies to realize they had something different in Barnett when he took the field for his Grimsley debut against Cox Mill. The season opener was full of adverse conditions — pouring rain and 30-degree weather — but Barnett dazzled, including a physical touchdown run, which further turned the coaching staff’s head.
“The conditions were miserable,” Brown said. “And they didn’t phase him one bit. He made big throws, and just that run he had to put the game away let us know because we didn’t know that he had that in him. Then we were like, ‘OK, we’ve got something special.’”
Barnett parlayed his first game, a 27-0 win, into a 6-0 regular season record. From there, the Whirlies were on cruise control, and they marched through the playoffs to find themselves in the state championship game a year after Grimsely lost in the semifinals by one point.
With Barnett at quarterback, the Whirlies didn’t score less than 27 points in any contest and eclipsed 40 points four times.
In the state semifinal against Butler, Barnett led the Whirlies on a game-winning drive to score with 14 seconds left, but Brown remembered a play earlier in the drive that was another sign Barnett was an elite high school quarterback.
It was third down, and Grimsley’s offense was backed into its own endzone, but Barnett threw the ball across the field on a rope to pick up a first down, which helped keep the game-winning drive alive.
From there, it was all Grimsley.
The Whirlies won the state title over Cardinal Gibbons 28-8, which marked their first trophy in more than six decades, and it capped a perfect 10-0 season with Barnett as the guiding force under center. The young quarterback was named the game’s MVP to cap his junior season, which soon turned into a commitment to JMU.
Barnett threw for 1,806 yards with 23 touchdowns, another 434 rushing yards, and nine scores to pace the Whirlies to the state title in his first season as Grimsley’s starter.
As wide receiver Alex Taylor, then a freshman on the state title team watched Barnett at quarterback, it clicked in his head that the signal-caller was different.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming in my first year of high school,” Taylor said. “Just seeing how he led the offense, just seeing him roll out, extend plays, seeing him carry us to that championship, it was amazing.”
Barnett and company followed that undefeated season with another successful season. Just this time, it was a few months after they claimed the state title.
While it was a quick and unprecedented turnaround for a new season, Brown said Barnett was key in helping the transition. He lives and breathes football, so the opportunity to jump into practice four weeks after the championship game was music to Barnett’s ears.
Before Barnett’s senior season, he was named a team captain. His leadership capabilities were evident, and his competitive fire was palpable.
Brown called Barnett a quiet leader, but he demanded perfection from himself, even though the Whirlies were on top of the North Carolina High School ranks. He wanted more.
“I was hard on him because he’s such a competitor, like little things that probably shouldn’t bother him, bothered him,” Brown said. “He wanted to be perfect at everything. That’s a good quality to have, you just have to channel it the right way. … He’s so driven to succeed individually and collectively as a team. That’s what made him so special.”
Not only did Barnett hold himself to a high standard, but he held his teammates to that same bar.
“You better elevate your game because his game’s going to be elevated,” Brown said. “If you’re going through the motions or if you missed an install, he’s going to be on you because he’s on top of that stuff. … Everybody had to elevate their game because you knew he did.”
In his final season of high school football, Barnett excelled. He led the Whirlies to an undefeated 10-0 regular season, which was highlighted by seven games in which Grimsley scored 40 points or more.
For Brown, anytime Barnett was under center, he knew the Whirlies had a good shot at winning.
“He’s just one of them guys that he was not going to let us lose,” Brown said. “He was going to do whatever it took for us to win.”
Grimsley won its first-round playoff game over Cox Mill, the same team that Barnett beat in the first game of his junior season. But after winning 21 straight games in one calendar year, the Whirlies ran out of gas in the second round against Porter Ridge.
Though it marked the end of Barnett’s high school career, he had left his mark on Grimsley’s program with the state title and an uber-productive senior year.
Barnett threw for 2,954 yards and 36 touchdowns that fall, with another 648 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns to pace Grimsley.
Taylor, who didn’t play much his freshman year, was one of Barnett’s top targets. He caught 44 passes for 682 yards and seven touchdowns that fall, and he credited Barnett with making his job as a wideout easier.
“I never had to worry about a bad throw, it was always on target,” said Taylor, who is a four-star Class of 2024 wide receiver committed to North Carolina. “Even when I wasn’t open, he would run out and make some crazy plays. It was amazing having him back there, doing whatever he could do, kind of like Patrick Mahomes back there.”
Barnett was a playmaker for the Whirlies, and while he wasn’t recruited by in-state powerhouses like UNC and NC State, he made the most of his high school career.
Now, just three days away from what’s expected to be his first career collegiate start against Bucknell, there are a lot of intangibles that were born at Grimsley that Barnett still carries with him.
One of those is knowing how to win.
Brown, who had a front-row seat to Barnett’s ability to make plays, thought that was the biggest attribute of a successful quarterback.
“There were times where things were stacked against us, and he made plays with his legs, his arm, whatever it may be,” Brown said. “He just found ways to win games. To me, that’s what a quarterback is about. … You want your quarterback to be a winner, and he’s a winner.”

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