Chad Barnhardt

Chad Barnhardt

He may have grown up competing on fields in Polk County, but when it comes to his legacy, Chad Barnhardt’s was sealed the moment he walked onto the grass at Tampa Stadium on Sept. 6, 1997, as the first quarterback in the history of the University of South Florida Bulls.

It didn’t hurt that the Bulls won 80-3 over Kentucky Wesleyan – in front of more than 49,000 fans – either.

“I had battled four or five guys to get that starting job,” said Barnhardt. “I felt like I had a lot to prove, and real fortunate to be on the ground floor of the program. I feel like we set a good standard that is still known today.”

The youngest of two boys, Barnhardt grew up in Lake Wales, the son of two educators and very supportive parents.

“Mom taught first grade for 35 years,” he said. “Dad was a coach and teacher at Lake Wales High School until 1971, when he left to work in insurance.”

At home, he and his older brother were always playing sports.

“Brett was a great example,” he said. “Always was and still is a great supporter of mine. I was blessed.”

While he may be best remembered as the star Lake Wales High School football quarterback, baseball was his first love. A separated shoulder derailed his sophomore year on the diamond.  However, by the time he stepped onto the gridiron his junior year, Lake Wales football was a force to be reckoned with.

“Our football program had been good before then, but Lake Wales football really came into our own my junior year,” he said. “Ray Lewis and Kathleen came in to Legion Field, and we beat them 35-3. That was the starting point to a great run.”

His senior year, Lake Wales football lost in the finals to Bolles, 42-21. Barnhardt threw for 1,830 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for another 10 touchdowns, earning him Polk County Player of the Year honors.

Meanwhile, on the diamond, the Highlanders started off slow during his Junior season. A move of Barnhardt got things going, as the team won the state baseball title winning 22 of their last 24 games for a 28-8 record and earning a No. 11 national rank by USA Today.

“Turned out to be a great move,” he said. “I was at shortstop and Cleatus Davidson was at second. They moved me behind the plate, and Cleatus to short. Cleatus would go on to be drafted in the second round, and I was drafted in the eighth round.  “This change along with all of the other wonderful teammates and coaches certainly paid off.”

During his last two years at Lake Wales, the football and baseball teams went a combined 80-13. Barnhardt was first team all state in both sports his senior year.

After a year in the minors with Boston didn’t quench his competitive fires, Barnhardt switched gears.

“I just missed football, and I missed school,” he said. “So, I took the opportunity to sign with South Carolina.”

Barnhardt found himself behind Steve Taneyhill and Anthony Wright his freshman year. The next year, with Taneyhill graduated, Barnhardt and Wright battled for the starting job.

“Ultimately, Wright was the starter,” he said. “I came in and played well against Arkansas to keep us in bowl contention and played quite a bit at both Florida and Vanderbilt.”

Not pleased with being the backup, he transferred to USF.

“Coach Jim Leavitt had recruited me when he was at Kansas State,” he said. “Plus, Tampa was just an hour and 15 from my house. I missed that home support.”

When he got there in the spring of 1997, he found a program just waiting for that first game.

“They’d been practicing all fall against each other,” he said. “And as a transfer in from a bigger program, I felt like I had a lot to prove.”

But it was all worth it when he stepped out onto the field for that first game. Among those nearly 50,000 fans in the stands were his family – his brother had chartered a Greyhound bus to bring fans from Lake Wales to Tampa, which he did every home game for two years.

“Not many people can say that,” he said.

His second year, the team went 8-3, even with its star quarterback suffering from a separated shoulder.

“It was a unique tape job keeping it in place,” he said. “Just had to play through it.”

After graduation, Barnhardt would return to Lake Wales as a math teacher. He coached the baseball team for three years before switching over to coach the football team for three years. After a year as a graduate assistant on the offensive side of the ball back at USF for Coach Leavitt, it was back to the Lake Wales area as the offensive coordinator at Webber International University.

“I have no regrets, but it is a tough life for a married guy,” he said. “So, I looked for something more stable.”

Today, he’s the Ridge Regional President of South State Bank. His wife, April, is the principal at Bok Academy South, where his daughter Pyper attends and the family proudly resides in Lake Wales.