DETROIT -- Ronald Bartell Sr. and his wife, Phyllis, will celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary on April 23. And, they hope, much more. That is the opening day of the two-day NFL draft and their son Ronald Jr., a cornerback from Howard University, has aspirations of being selected early in the second round.
"We have a double celebration," Phyllis Bartell said here last week, sitting alongside her husband on a couch in their living room while Ronald Jr.'s 2-year-old son, Jaedyn, played nearby. "We hope his celebration exceeds ours."
Ronald Bartell Sr. and his wife Phyllis play with their grandson Jaedyn in their Detroit home. Jaedyn is Ronald Bartell Jr.'s 2-year-old son.
(Gary Malerba - The Washington Post)
It will be a family accomplishment. Ron Jr.'s parents were regulars at his high school and college games. His older sister, Nichole, attended rival Western Michigan when he played for Central Michigan, yet would sport both teams' colors at their games. His parents and sister did much of the researching legwork when it came time for him to pick an agent.
But his parents say they want the family festivities come draft day to be focused on their son -- and their son alone. "It's his day," Ronald Sr. said.
Ronald Bartell Jr.'s path to the cusp of NFL fame and riches began at the same cozy house in Detroit -- a few miles down Outer Drive from Renaissance High School -- in which he first realized football might take him somewhere in life.
Ronald Sr. and Phyllis grew up in Detroit and were high school sweethearts, and came back to settle in their home town after living in Japan when they first were married and Ron Sr. was in the Navy. He ended up working for General Motors as a service parts operations supervisor. Phyllis processes bills for DTE Energy.
"It's a supportive family," said Harold Goodwin, who recruited the younger Bartell to Central Michigan as an assistant coach at the school.
The Bartells moved into what they originally considered an upper-middle class neighborhood, then watched drug and gang activity increase around them over the years. They say they made an effort to know what their children were doing and with whom they were doing it. Ron Jr., 23, is two years younger than his sister. "We made a conscious decision to spend time with our kids," Ron Sr. said.
Ron Jr. said he had some childhood fistfights but "was never in any real big trouble." He had acquaintances get involved with drugs and crime, he said, but he and his close friends steered clear. He was busy pursuing his first sports love, basketball.
He did not play organized football until his junior year of high school. "It was probably the coaches," Bartell said, relaxing between workouts at the Tempe, Ariz., facility at which he has been training for months to ready for the pre-draft evaluations by NFL teams. "They were too strict for me."
School came easily to Ron Jr., but his academic motivation was the issue. When he took the ACT national college admission and placement exam, he says, he fell asleep during a break but still managed to score a 24, above the national average of around 21 (out of 36). His parents sometimes were able to seize upon his competitiveness to motivate him in school. He was his middle school's valedictorian, they say, after betting his father he could do it.
"It was money," Phyllis Bartell said when asked what was at stake in the bet. "Cash has always been a good motivator for him."
He promised his mother she wouldn't have to pay for his college tuition, that he would get a scholarship one way or another. But it took some prodding by others to get Ron Jr. to the sport -- football -- that eventually would get him his scholarship.
Phyllis Bartell said she thinks her son realized at some point that there were more scholarships available in football than in basketball. And, after being nudged by childhood friend Darryl Nunn and some other classmates at Renaissance, he joined the football team his junior year, playing wide receiver and running back. A knee injury cut his season short. But then he showed promise as a senior, playing safety and wideout, and he quit the basketball team when his football scholarship was ensured.