Playing with Purpose: Senior Jarret Bilbrey
By Steven Shaff, NAU Athletic Media Relations
Photos by Matt Beaty
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Senior defensive lineman Jarret Bilbrey was not always headed in the right direction growing up. But special people in his life motivated and guided him to be the person and player he is today. He honors them every day.
Jason Lee Paton, an older cousin, was someone he looked up to as a kid. Paton joined the military, setting an example of the dedication that could lead to success. He did three tours in Iraq and received two Purple Hearts. Bilbrey idolized him.
"He always had a higher purpose for himself in life," said Bilbrey. "At a young age he was a strong person and brought people together around him. When I was young, he would get me straight. He always helped me out. I saw him go off in the military and excel; it drove me to do more with my life."
At the age of 17 before enrolling at Northern Arizona, Bilbrey lost his cousin when Paton's Blackhawk helicopter went down in Iraq and he was killed along with 12 other soldiers on board.
"It was really hard on me," said Bilbrey. "He was like my best friend and was always there for me. He showed me the right path. Part of what I am doing is for him."
One week later, he got a tattoo on his right bicep featuring a cross and hands clasped above his cousin's name circled by his military dog tags. It serves as a memorial to his cousin, as well as Jason's dog tags that grace his neck daily.
"I want to make him proud because I know he is looking down on me," said Bilbrey.
Bilbrey was a standout at Bonita Vista High School in San Diego, where he was named All-Mesa League first team and all-region honorable mention and was named the school's defensive most valuable player as a senior. He recorded 91 tackles with 46 solos and 10 sacks, earning a scholarship to NAU.
After redshirting his initial season in 2008, he played as a backup for two seasons. While preparing for his junior season last August, he lost another special person in his life when his grandmother passed due to Alzheimer's.
"She did not know what was going on in the world but she would go to church every Sunday and would love to sing," recalls Bilbrey. "She would brighten up and be a whole different person. She could recite Psalm 23. She could not remember people's names but she could remember that."
The popular psalm that starts with "The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want" is scripted down his left arm.
"Grandma was a real strong lady who was there for me in my life," said Bilbrey. "She was there for me when I was young. My parents were working and she was taking care of all the grandkids. She took care of all of us. She was a big part of my life growing up."
While serving as constant reminders of his fallen loved ones, Bilbrey is proud to tell the stories behind the markings on his body.
"I get to tell the story every time someone asks about my tattoos," said Bilbrey. "It keeps their memory alive because they are both legends in my eyes. I know they are both looking down on me and it makes me stronger."
He is also stronger due to his intense work ethic on and off the field. After coming to Flagstaff weighing just 210 pounds, Bilbrey enters his senior season at 265. He gives credit to strength and conditioning coach Cody Hodgeson for helping create his new physique. He has blossomed under his guidance over the last two seasons.
"It has been a long hard process," said Bilbrey. "It is just dedication - every day doing the right things for your body. You can do the wrong choice or the right choice. I have chosen to do the right things. I don't drink alcoholic beverages or soda. I eat right. This weight program has helped me. He has a great program."
Defensive line coach Travis Baker, who took over the position prior to last season, has seen the growth in his player. He was named Defensive Outstanding Junior of the Year after seeing action in all 11 games with seven starts in 2011 when he recorded 27 tackles with five sacks and four pass deflections.
"He has really come a long way in a lot of areas," said Baker. "He has put on weight and strength. I think he is going to be a stronger, stouter guy in the run game for us. I thought he really improved with that last year. Pass rush he gave us five or six sacks. I have been really excited and impressed with his leadership abilities. He has done a great job."
Bilbrey, who is majoring in sociology with a minor in community health, will be asked to lead his positional group this season much like the shepherd portrayed in Psalm 23 leading his flock. With the graduation of All-Big Sky first-teamer Isaac Bond, Dan Pela and Blayne Anderson, Bilbrey enters the season as the only senior in the positional group.
"As the lone senior on the defensive line, I want to get my guys going and take them under my wing," said Bilbrey.
Junior Tim Wilkinson returns with a host of new talent recruited during the off the season, including seven junior college transfers and Boise State transfer Justin Jungblut that bring immediate experience to the group.
"The guys respect him because he does lead by example," said Baker. "He has one of the best practice work ethics of any kid I have coached. He is a very consistent, hard-working and competitive kid. He has the respect of the guys around him. His ability to lead by example and become a vocal leader, he'll help some of the new defensive lineman come along."
With training camp just a month away, the season cannot start soon enough.
"I am so excited for the year," said Bilbrey. "It is so far away but every day seems like there are games tomorrow. It just pushes me that much harder. I know that I am healthy. Everything is coming together for me. I have a lot of great people in my life and in heaven looking over me. If I just continue my path and training as hard as I can, good things are going to happen."
No doubt Bilbrey will cast his own impression when the Lumberjacks open the season on August 30 at Arizona State.