To most football fans around the country, Ramses Barden and his legendary college accomplishments have a tall-tale quality to them. Like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, John Henry versus the steam engine, Barden's heroics appear superhuman.
And verifying the monstrous Cal Poly wide receiver's accomplishments with one's own eyes is a tough task. Since the Mustangs only rarely played any televised games, amateur video of Sasquatch is more plentiful than quality Barden tape.
San Luis Obispo County residents saw Barden either in person or on the news for four seasons, watching him rack up nearly every Cal Poly receiving record and put himself in the same collegiate statistical stratosphere as Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss.
The average outsider is pretty much limited to grainy YouTube video of the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder leaping over small defensive backs in a single bound.
The question remains whether Barden's obscurity and the curiosity it generates will be a help or a hindrance in his bid to become the highest drafted Cal Poly player in NFL history.
No other Mustang has been selected before the third round. Many projections have Barden being taken in the second, which means his name would be called at some point during ESPN's 4 1 /2-hour broadcast of the first two rounds today. "I don't have any control over it, " Barden said, "but there will be a level of disappointment if that doesn't happen because that's the level of work I think that I have put in front of NFL personnel and coaches. I expect to be in those first two, but at the same time, I'm prepared not to be."
Whichever the case, Barden is no newcomer to the world of small-school athletics. They're what led him from tiny Flintridge Prep in La Cañada to Football Championship Subdivision school Cal Poly, his butterfly cocoon.
From the moment he first saw his son, Al Barden knew he was going to be special.
Not only because he would give him the name of the greatest and most powerful of all ancient Egyptian pharaohs -- nor for his ambitious middle name: Alexander, after Greek conqueror Alexander the Great.
Al Barden swears that just moments out of his mother Denise's womb and placed onto his stomach, Ramses flipped himself onto his back on his own power.
Appropriate to the previous tall-tale analogy, another famous Barden story has a toddler Ramses plucking a butterfly out of the air in their Altadena backyard with one hand.
A former college basketball player in his own right, Al played in the 1960 Final Four with New York University after growing up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Lenny Wilkens in the 1950s.
Ramses was swimming at six months, playing soccer at 4, and before long, Al had him on Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams with future NBA players Jordan Farmar, Gabe Pruitt, Amir Johnson, Hassan Adams and Robert Swift.
When it came time for middle school, though, the Bardens sent their son to Flintridge Prep -- a combo junior high and high school known more for its academic prowess than its athletics.
Aside from one CIFSouthern Section 8-man football title in the mid-'90s, the school's biggest athletic accomplishments were a collection of 15 championships in 6-man football in the '40s and '50s.
"He didn't want to go, but we talked to him, " Al Barden said. "If you've got talent, people will find you no matter where you are."
Before guiding Ramses Barden for five seasons as receivers coach at Cal Poly, Andy Guyader was an assistant at Flintridge's rival high school, Pasadena Poly.
It's where he got his first look at Barden.
"If I had to bet, I'd guess he was 190 pounds, " said Guyader, who joined former Mustangs coach Rich Ellerson when he left for Army in December. "He was just a long, skinny dude. He looked out of place in the uniform on the field.
"He kind of looked like he was running on stilts.
"There was nothing deficient, but it was just really a shadow of what he really became."
Just having Barden on the Flintridge football team was a coup for coach Marty Konrad. Already well over 6 feet tall, Barden never played football until he felt some pressure to join his friends on the 90-yard practice field in 10th grade.
Like any gifted athlete in a school with just around 325 students, Barden was wanted by all the sports programs. In addition to basketball, he also ran track, and in one senior season of volleyball was named the Prep League's Most Valuable Player.
Konrad put him straight to work on the football field, playing him at defensive end, as the receiver in the team's Wing-T offense and at punter.
Barden boasted of a 55-yard punt once, but he deftly declined to comment on any of his other kicks.
"We looked around, and we said, 'Who's got the biggest foot?'" Konrad said. "Size 15. At least we knew he wouldn't whiff."
Al Barden wasn't sold on the idea. He always thought kids could get hurt playing football. At least, he did before watching the rag-tag 25-player Flintridge practice.
"I went out there and looked around and saw these little quick guys running around, and I said, 'They can't hurt my kid, ' " Al Barden said. "The first time I saw him play football, I realized that he could play, and I had never seen him play because I never threw him one. I never had a football in the house."
By the end of his senior year in 2004, Barden was already a legend at Flintridge. He led the football team to its only CIF-Southern Section Divisional title in 11-man football -- a wire-to-wire victory over Guyader and Pasadena Poly.
He had more than 1,000 yards receiving and racked up double digits in touchdown receptions that season.
Barden's massive alley-oop dunk in an overtime game in the quarterfinals of the basketball playoffs is one that people still ask about.
He averaged close to 17 points and nine rebounds per game while taking the basketball team on back-to-back trips to the section finals.
"Usually when you have a small school, it's the bigger schools that get all the publicity, " Flintridge athletic director Alex Rivera said. "He brought on the news and put us on the map somewhat."
But unlike Al Barden wagered, the talent evaluators weren't finding Ramses, or they were finding him somehow inadequate.
Coaches from the Southern California basketball powers never came to watch, and the only football offers were from Ivy League schools and the University of San Diego -- none of which could offer full-ride athletic scholarships.
Stanford nibbled but never offered, and after Al Barden said the Cardinal tipped off Cal Poly on the wide receiver project his son appeared to be, the Mustangs were the only ones giving out a full ride.
It seemed Ellerson and the Mustangs were one of the few teams overlooking the doubts about the competition Ramses faced in high school.
So Ramses traded one obscure academic institution for another, not really figuring that by the time he was done with his college career, a whole new set of scouts would be doubting the competition he faced in the Great West Football Conference.
Ramses Barden stayed the course.
He broke two of Rice's collegiate records for touchdowns --one for games with a touchdown catch and another for consecutive games with a touchdown catch in the FCS. He broke Fitzgerald's Division I record for consecutive games with a touchdown catch and tied Moss for the most consecutive games with a touchdown catch in one season.
Another record-setting former Mustangs receiver could have made a run at such marks as well. Kassim Osgood set the school and FCS record for receiving yards in a game with 376 yards against Northern Iowa as a sophomore in 2000.
That season Osgood led the nation in receiving yards, but he transferred to San Diego State for an upgrade in competition level.
Osgood was signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Diego Chargers, for which he's played mostly on special teams and been a Pro Bowler.
Even though Barden has yet to find out the next step in his future, he's already a poster child for small-school loyalty.
Just like the Osgood situation, Flintridge has had its share of transfers by athletes looking to get more exposure.
Oregon offensive lineman Charlie Carmichael was a middle schooler at Flintridge before playing high school football for state power Long Beach Poly. UCLA basketball signee Anthony Stover played at Flintridge before transferring.
It's gotten to the point where Flintridge basketball coach Garrett Ohara is bringing Barden in to talk to current players, letting them know they can make it big at a small school.
Barden's sharing the lesson he's learned. If the scouts don't find, you find them.
Leading up to the draft, Barden started a blog on YardBarker.com.He made an official Facebook page. He's done weekly interviews with NFL Radio on Sirius Satellite programming and with Sporting News Radio. He's done interviews with Sporting News Diary and NFL Draft Bible. The past few months have basically been a Barden media blitz in an attempt to create as much buzz as possible.
"I just make the most out of the situation that I'm in, " Barden said. "I look to the future, and I appreciate everything that I've learned. It's made me work harder."
He's always heard that he's a big fish in a small pond but hasn't decided whether he likes the metaphor or not.
Big fish in a big pond would certainly sound a lot better.
* * *
BARDEN'S CAREER STATS
Year Rec. Yds TD Yds./Rec.
2005 40 655 9 16.38
2006 42 824 5 19.62
2007 57 1,467 18 25.73
2008 67 1,257 18 18.76
Totals 206 4,203 50 20.40
Recent Cal Poly draft picks
2007 -- Courtney Brown, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys, seventh round
2006 -- Chris Gocong, defensive end, Philadelphia Eagles, third round (71st overall selection)
2005 -- Jordan Beck, linebacker, Atlanta Falcons, third round (90th overall selection)
2002 -- Seth Burford, quarterback, San Diego Chargers, seventh round
1998 -- Kamil Loud, wide receiver, Buffalo Bills, seventh round