The general response when witnessing athletic greatness is to be in awe. Without even thinking, we rise to our feet, let out oohs and aahs (and occasionally "holy [expletives]"), pump our fists, and clap like crazy when we see stellar catches, unbelievable runs, highlight dunks and other manners of elite performance that only the best of the best can achieve.
But there's an even higher level of involuntary response that's the ultimate indicator of sporting excellence, one rarely achieved. Pure laughter. Cheers are great, but when witnessing dominance on such a level that our brains' only response is to chuckle uncontrollably, that's truly remarkable.
Watching Eastern Washington University's Eric Barriere play against Idaho on a cold October 2021 afternoon felt like witnessing quarterback transcendence.
Barriere vandalized the Vandals' defense in a way bordering on cruel. He threw for 600 yards (17.1 yards per completion) and seven touchdowns (plus he ran for another TD), but that actually undersells the dominance. Barriere — who didn't even play most of the 4th quarter — could've easily passed for 750 yards and 10 passing TDs if EWU really wanted to rub it in (as if winning 71-21 wasn't rubbing it in enough).
The absurdity of Barriere's performance made the game an unintentional laugh riot, but really it was a serious display of the work that's led the sixth-year senior to be statistically the best quarterback in EWU and Big Sky Conference history.
"It's kind of crazy because as I woke up, I could just feel it," Barriere says of the Idaho game. "As soon as I stepped on the field pregame, it felt like it was about to be special that day."
First arriving on Eastern's campus in 2016, Barriere craved a change of pace from his Southern California upbringing. After redshirting his first year and seeing the field mostly in mop-up time during his freshman campaign, Barriere was thrown into the fire in 2018 when the Eagles' All-American quarterback Gage Gubrud suffered a season-ending knee injury. To say he seized the opportunity would be putting it mildly, leading EWU all the way to the FCS Championship Game that season.
"He was a backup, but prepared to be a starter as the backup," says EWU head coach Aaron Best. "And when Gage went down, there was no time to think. And he never looked back."
This season, Barriere has led Eastern to a 10-2 record — averaging a whopping 378 passing yards per game while tossing 41 TDs (and rushing for four more) against 7 INTs — and shattering records along the way. He's a finalist for the Walter Payton Award (given to the best FCS player), won Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year for the second straight year, and now holds the school and conference records for total yards, passing yards, and passing TDs. Those records are even more impressive considering EWU has become a QB factory: Seven of the last eight starting QBs for Eastern Washington have won at least one Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year award, with an EWU QB taking home the honors 11 of the last 21 seasons.
Barriere doesn't take his place in the record books lightly. "It means a lot," he says. "And it just kind of makes me like, 'Why me?' 'Cause it's like there've been so many great quarterbacks here ... and for me to pass these records, you know, it just shows the work and time and effort that I've put into my game."
From Best's perspective, it's Barriere's demeanor that's allowed him to reach this elite level.
"I think the one thing that separates Eric from all the others [is]... he's unflappable," Best says. "He actually enjoys the people that are doubters."
"When he speaks, people listen," Best adds. "He's not a loud person by nature, but he plays really loud. There have been a couple moments in his career where we've gotten the ball back to the offense, and [Eric] in a calm, cool, collected way has just winked at me and said, 'OK, now it's time to go. This is the series we're gonna get this done. We're gonna walk out of here with a W.'"
Let's play a game of Mystery FCS Quarterbacks.
QB 1: 5,115 yards passing (64.1% completions) with 45 TDs and 14 INTs; 1,028 yards rushing with 13 TDs
QB 2: 2,947 yards passing (65.4% completion) with 30 TDs and 1 INT, 1,325 yards rushing with 18 TDs
QB 3: 12,537 yards passing (62% completion) with 109 TDs and 26 INTs; 1,518 yards rushing with 20 TDs
The first two quarterbacks are North Dakota State products Carson Wentz and Trey Lance. They respectively went No. 2 and No. 3 overall when they entered the NFL Draft.
QB 3? The one who blows away their combined passing stats? That's Barriere. And good luck finding him on the top QB prospect lists put out by any leading NFL Draft experts. A few random deep-dive draft sites have mentioned Barriere, but for most of the NFL Draft industrial complex, he's not even on the radar.
The main reason? Wentz is 6-foot-5. Lance is 6-foot-4. EWU lists Barriere at 6-foot-1, but that may be a very generous measurement. For Barriere, the criticism feeds motivation.
"I see it. I hear it. I hear it all. Hand size. Height. Different things. They say a bunch, but at the end of the day, I let my playing do the talking," says Barriere. "And no matter what the critics try to say, I'm still going out there and obviously showing them I do what these 6-feet quarterbacks can do."
Eastern Washington play-by-play announcer Larry Weir would argue there's a playmaking intangible that makes Barriere special. Barriere could probably find a place in the Canadian Football League, where EWU alumni Bo Levi Mitchell and Vernon Adams have thrived. But when Weir recalls his favorite Barriere plays — scrambling bombs versus North Dakota State in the 2021 Spring FCS Playoffs, and the QB's 92-yard touchdown run versus Sacramento State in 2019 — they feel like NFL highlights.
"You know, Tom Brady or some of those guys, they're not running 92 yards for a score," Weir says. "It just shows his capability of being able to score from anywhere on the football field, either by passing the ball or running the ball. Kyler Murray, who's with the Arizona Cardinals, that's probably the closest comparable. As far as what the NFL scouts are looking for, the only thing that he lacks is height. And he can't do anything about that."
Barriere doesn't seem to be sweating his perceived draft stock too much. The calm demeanor those around him rave about translates when talking to him. The quiet of Cheney suits him, as he's more likely to be deep-diving music and comedy videos on YouTube than getting wild. His family keeps him grounded — he talks to his mom and sister daily — and also gives him perspective for whenever his football career runs its course. Heck, he even has dreams of opening a family restaurant so the world can experience the glory of his mom and sis' cooking (baked mac and cheese is a specialty).
Besides, for now, his sole focus is on bringing another national title to EWU. The loss to North Dakota State in the 2019 FCS championship still fuels his proverbial fire, and there's certainly an element of this final season that feels like the Eric Barriere Revenge Tour.
"I still think about [that game] a lot, because I know how close we was, and I know I didn't play my best game that day," Barriere says.
The path ahead is clear for Barriere and his Eagles. After gritting out a 19-7 win Saturday in the first round of the playoffs, EWU heads to Missoula Friday for a Big Sky showdown (EWU squeaked out the regular season matchup 34-28). If Eastern can get through the Griz and the following game, Barriere would likely come face-to-face with North Dakota State for a spot in the championship.
It will likely take some superstar performances by Barriere to get the Eagles that far, but he's determined to end his college career by getting the last laugh. ♦
Eastern Washington plays Montana on Fri, Dec. 3, at 6 pm. The game will be streamed on ESPN+