Top player quits, alleges mistreatment from Kill

Receiver A.J. Barker accused Jerry Kill of mishandling his injury in a lengthy public letter.

Minnesota wide receiver A.J. Barker scores a touchdown against Western Michigan on Sept. 19 at TCF Bank Stadium. Barker announced Sunday that he would leave the team and transfer to another school.

Anthony Kwan

Minnesota wide receiver A.J. Barker scores a touchdown against Western Michigan on Sept. 19 at TCF Bank Stadium. Barker announced Sunday that he would leave the team and transfer to another school.

Charlie Armitz

Top Gophers wide receiver A.J. Barker is quitting the team after alleged mistreatment from head coach Jerry Kill and members of his staff.

Barker announced his decision to quit via Twitter on Sunday and then posted a more than 4,000-word open letter to his Tumblr account.

In the letter, Barker accused Kill of employing more than a dozen manipulation tactics, including lying and intimidation, and said Kill misunderstood him.

Barker, a walk-on, has missed Minnesota’s past three games after injuring his ankle against Purdue. In the letter, he detailed a conflict he had last week with coaches and trainers about his injury.

He claimed Kill forced him to practice last Tuesday even though that “was proven impossible when I couldn’t get through warm ups.” He accused coaches of pressuring him to play while hurt and blaming him for his slow recovery. He wrote that the training staff withheld the details of his injury — a high-ankle sprain — for weeks.

Gophers athletics director Norwood Teague said in a statement that Kill had reached out to Barker on Sunday but could not connect with him. The statement did not address Barker’s allegations about Kill.

“We understand A.J.’s frustration with his injury, and we regret that he has chosen to leave the team on these terms,” Teague said in the statement. “Our concern first and foremost is student athletes, and we wish A.J. well.”

Barker alleged that Kill attacked “everything about me, from an athlete to my character as a person” in a 20-minute tirade in front of the team Thursday that stemmed from a dispute with the training staff.

Barker leads the Gophers this season with 30 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. No other receiver has half as many yards, and the Gophers passing game has suffered significantly since Barker’s Oct. 27 injury.

Barker thanked Kill twice in the letter for not giving him a scholarship. He said that as an unrecruited walk-on, he could transfer without sitting out a year.

Barker’s brother Ross, who was a recruited walk-on at Wisconsin, said he didn’t know before Sunday afternoon that A.J. intended to transfer. But he said A.J. had previously told him about his battles with coaches for playing time.

Despite success early in the season, A.J. Barker started only one game for Minnesota — a 38-13 loss at Wisconsin.

“A lot of his teammates knew he should be playing,” Ross Barker said, “but he had to win over the coaches.”

A.J. Barker also apologized to his teammates and fans in the letter. “This is extremely hard for me to do and I spent the last 4 years doing everything I could to make it work here,” he wrote.

Barker joined the Gophers in 2009. Before this season, he had caught one pass for 17 yards in 2010.

Observers take sides

Barker’s letter, which made national headlines, subjected him to backlash on Twitter and other social media. Most observers seem to support Kill, and many people have deemed Barker as immature for handling the situation publicly.

Barker, however, still has his fair share of supporters.

Notable Barker supporters include Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former Gophers defensive back Johnny Johnson.

“AJ Barker is human just like the rest of us,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Your opinions [don’t] matter the man made a decision that was best for him & his family.”

Kluwe wrote, “If true (and my bet is it is), it shows neglect by the training staff that should get them fired and complete immaturity by Kill.”

“Could AJ have approached it a different way? Sure, but everyone has a breaking point. I personally applaud him,” Kluwe wrote.

Barker tweeted Sunday night that he didn’t expect his decision to be met with unconditional support.

“Here are my priorities in the decision. 1) Told I wasn’t going to play here anymore, and 2) wouldn’t receive a scholarship next year,” he tweeted.