Jenna LaineESPN Staff Writer4 Minute Read
TAMPA, Fla. — For Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, the grief comes in waves and some days he feels it worse than others, especially when he’s alone with his thoughts for too long — which is when football helps the most.
He misses his baby girl — his sunshine — Arrayah, his 2-year-old daughter who drowned in the family’s pool May 1, as Monday would have been the first training camp practice she’d attend with her mother, Jordanna, and her three older siblings.
“This is a daily battle. Tough battle,” said Barrett, speaking for the first time Monday since the tragedy. “Today I felt it heavier today than I did the last couple days.
“Her smile — I just miss her so much. Her energy, just like putting her to bed every night, reading stories. She just brought so much brightness and wholeness and completeness to our lives. And we most definitely have a big, big, big, big, big hole in our hearts and our lives that we won’t be able to fill …”
That smile is now permanently etched on his right forearm in a tattoo, with beams of sunlight radiating down her cheeks and soulful brown eyes that look so much like her dad’s. And she is surrounded by stars — her favorite. At night they’d read “Ten Little Night Stars,” written by Deb Gruelle and illustrated by Gabi Murphy. In it, baby animals go through their bedtime routines — from brushing their teeth to being tucked into bed — while counting the stars in the sky through the bedroom window.
“Every time we would read, she’d say be like ‘Star, star’ in just the cutest voice, and she would call the moon ‘stars’ too,” Barrett said. “But she loved her stars. And she was just … everything.”
He never imagined that tearing an Achilles in Week 8 of last year and undergoing surgery, which ended his season, could possibly have been his greatest blessing. At home, on crutches, they got to spend more time together.
“I’m not happy I got hurt, but I’m happy that I was able to spend all that extra time well from being hurt last year. So it, like, that was a hindsight, I’m looking back, I’m glad I was able to have that extra time with her so I could have more bonding time and experiences with her.”
Another blessing, one he calls “bittersweet,” is that he and Jordanna are now expecting another daughter, Allanah Ray, due in February 2024, something he admits scared him at first because of everything that had happened, but something he now believes Arrayah had a hand in.
Jordanna told him, “You can’t think like that — you’ve gotta stay strong, have faith and believe.”
“We know there’s no replacing Arrayah. There’s nothing ever in this world that can happen to replace our baby girl,” said Barrett, who said seeing Alannah’s heartbeat helped ease his mind.
“It’s never going to be the same without her,” Barrett continued. “She would’ve been the best big sister. Like, it just, it’s bittersweet. It’s bittersweet ’cause I know she’s in a better place, but I would 100% prefer her to be here with us, selfishly. It’s a lot. There’s just a lot that goes on throughout the day.
Now he hopes that their story can keep other families from experiencing their pain. They’re starting a foundation called “Arrayah Hope,” which will provide free swim lessons to children in Tampa, Florida, as 945 of the 3,572 drownings each year are children, according to the Children’s Safety Network. Most child drownings occur in the family pool, the network said, and for every child who drowns, five more are treated in emergency departments. Formal swimming lessons have been found to reduce the risk of child drownings by 88%.
Barrett said they also want to expand the program to Colorado, where Barrett attended college at Colorado State and got his start with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent. He is now a proponent of artificial intelligence in pool safety cameras, which activate an alarm not only when a child is in the pool but near the pool and pool gates. The Children’s Safety Network says that four-sided isolation fences to separate a pool from the home area can reduce a child’s risk of drowning by 83%.
“We always had gates up, but we just left it open that night,” Barrett said. “We got more gates up and so we going to just talk about as much as possible about like swim lessons for other families and start AI cameras for other families.”
He’s also hoping that by being transparent in their grief, they can help other families coping with tragedy.
“[Jordanna’s] been really strong and we’ve been able to lean on each other,” Barrett said. “But we also been really weak together too. We’ve also been sharing those tough times with each other, we’ve also been crying on each other, talking to each other, having times with the kids — everybody knows that it’s OK to still talk about Arrayah, to still show our emotions for her. That’s the way we need to remember her and just bring her brightness to our lives and to other people’s lives by talking about her.”
Their children have undergone counseling. Birthdays have still been celebrated, karate lessons have continued and so have the dance recitals and fishing trips. Barrett said they’ve been incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support from the Buccaneers, their local community and beyond.
“I feel like we doing the best we can in this situation,” he said. “I ain’t saying we doing perfect, but we doing I think the best we can is just, just being honest with our emotions, with each other, with our family and our friends, everybody that’s supporting us. And not like being afraid to be weak from time to time … and not even weak — it’s showing emotions.
“People have a stigma [of] being ‘weak’ as showing emotions, but that’s not weak — it’s just having like emotions and just being in the moment and expressing how you feel. So we do that and we strong together, we cry together, laugh together — like everything we do together and that’s what’s helping us stay close together and come closer together.”