TAMPA — When Peyton Barber decided to leave Auburn after his sophomore year, with only one season as a starting running back, it was a risky decision, one he hoped would let him help out his family back home in suburban Atlanta.
But he wasn't drafted, and signed with the Bucs with a modest $8,000 signing bonus.
He was among the team's final cuts in September, but was signed back to the practice squad, which paid him $117,300 if he stuck all season.
Four days later, the first of many injuries to other backs meant Barber was signed back to the active roster, where he remained. He had 55 carries, including a 44-yard touchdown at San Francisco, and the NFL's rookie minimum salary of $450,000 made a huge difference in his life.
"The NFL's definitely done a great deal for me," said Barber, 23, still working to keep that roster spot in his second season. "I was able to do a lot over the offseason. I was able to buy my mom a house. I got a new car. I did a lot of things, but I'm still working toward that next step."
Barber isn't assured a roster spot yet. He helped himself at Jacksonville last week, gaining a team-high 42 yards on nine carries. On the opening drive of the second half, he had six carries in seven plays. He converted a fourth-and-1 for the second week in a row.
This time last year, Barber was motivated to help his mother Lori, who was badly injured in a 2013 car accident and had moved in with his older sister, Jade, and her three children in an apartment. Barber stayed there sometimes himself.
"It's a great feeling," he said of being able to give his mother her own place. "It's still not exactly where I want it to be, but at the same time, it's better than what we were in."
Lori Barber had 25 percent mobility after the car accident, but continues to improve and is now at better than 75 percent, her recovery aided by better physical therapy she can afford thanks to her son.
"I feel very blessed," she said. "From where we were before he went to the draft to now, it's a blessing. It's such an honor for Peyton to be part of the Buccaneers, and for all of us, such a blessing. I can't put it any other way. I'm overwhelmed by the blessings we've had since he went to Tampa Bay."
Jade Barber, a single mom who was working and putting herself through classes to be an esthetician last year, said she never thought about the odds Peyton would have to overcome. She knew how much he'd done to earn a scholarship to Auburn and improve himself there and how much he wanted to help his family.
"It's amazing. I never doubted him myself," Jade said. "It's not really a surprise to me. He's very deserving of where he's at, as much of a struggle as it was to get here. I knew he didn't come this far for nothing. Whenever he's in doubt, just feeling down or frustrated, I'm always the one to let him know that everything's going to work out. He's living his dream."
Barber isn't in the clear. When Doug Martin returns from a three-game suspension in October, Tampa Bay might keep only four running backs, which could mean cutting a backup if everyone is healthy. He goes into that unknown with confidence.
"It's having faith. There's nothing like having the man above behind your back," Barber said.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.