East Xtra: Cowboys, Penn Hills grad stay in hunt

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It's one thing to be the leading tackler of an NFL team that's in the thick of a division race coming down the stretch.

But for Dallas Cowboys safety Barry Church, a Penn Hills High School grad, his NFL journey has meant much more than just numbers on a stat sheet. His passion for football did not come from a desire to make a big name for himself.

He plays because he simply loves the game.

"I didn't even start until my senior year at Penn Hills," he said. "It was always about loving what I was doing, staying focused, and getting better at it."

That focus eventually earned him first-team all-conference honors and a selection to play in the Big 33 Classic. He was the top defender for the 2005 Class AAAA Quad East Conference runner-up Indians with 80 stops, 9 sacks and four interceptions.

A 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, Church was aware of the talent run that was taking place at Penn Hills prior to his senior year in which several Division-I recruits were being produced.

With a humble approach, Church didn't put much stock into being overlooked at times. He was aware of the other responsibilities that required his attention.

"I came from a good home," said Church, who holds a communications degree from the University of Toledo. "Before I could go out there and play, I had to have good grades. That helped my work ethic and focus level tremendously, because I would do anything in my power to get out on that field."

Also a threat at wide receiver for Penn Hills, Church caught 30 passes for 670 yards and four scores. In the end, he earned the respect of Toledo recruiters, displaying viable athleticism as he was also the top triple jumper on the Indians track and field team.

Their belief in him certainly paid off.

Church, 25, became the first player in their history to garner first-team All-Mid-American Conference, after each of his four seasons as a Rocket. He was also named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back) and would see his name on the watchlist for the prestigious Bronco Nagurski Award (top overall defense player).

"I'm still amazed at some of the things that I was able to accomplish in college," he said. "Looking at those numbers and awards blow my mind sometimes. I wanted to show that I was a top-caliber player. I was willing to do all that I could to prove that."

As impressive as his college resume was, he did not receive a call from any teams during the 2010 NFL draft. Instead, he'd get a shot as a rookie free agent with Dallas.

"It was an incredible feeling to know that I'd get an opportunity with such a great organization," Church said. "I was very disappointed that I didn't get a call on draft day. In fact, it was two of the toughest days of my life. But, I've loved my time in Dallas. I love the city. It's been a wonderful fit for me."

After breaking into the Cowboys defensive rotation in 2011, Church, now a four-year NFL veteran, went from being a special teams performer to becoming one of the league's premier tacklers and has gathered a team-leading 127 stops (100 solo), this season. He's forced three fumbles and collected his first career interception on Oct. 20 in Philadelphia during a victory against the Eagles.

That was one of the key games to the Cowboys' season. Dallas (8-7) will play the Eagles (9-6) in the rematch this Sunday in Texas. The winner will be the NFC East Division champion.

Last season, Church's efforts were rewarded with a four-year contract extension worth $12.94 million with nearly $4 million guaranteed. With that, he received a $2.5 million signing bonus.

"I'm proud of where I came from and, more importantly, I'm proud of how I got here," he said. "I wouldn't change any of it, not even if I could."

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