Brittany and John Newberry had a lot in common when they fell in love — friends, football and felons.
Now they coach the University of Central Arkansas women’s volleyball team together.
After John was offered the job of assistant coach, “the very first people we told were the Texas death-row women inmates,” John said. “How random is that?”
John, 32, a native of Crossett, and Brittany, 30, who grew up in Texas, met at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
Brittany’s father is Mike Barber, a former National Football League player and the founder of Mike Barber Ministries, a worldwide prison ministry.
John started working for the Mike Barber Prison Ministry while he and Brittany were dating.
Her brother, Brandon Barber, played football at UCA with John, who was an all-American punter.
Brittany was an all-state volleyball player in high school.
“I grew up in a very sports-minded family,” she said.
Because they had mutual friends, John helped her move into her apartment five doors down from his when she came to UCA, but no sparks flew at first.
The couple became best friends, they said, and talked every day.
“We didn’t even hug the first full year,” John said.
“He was very respectful of me,” Brittany said. “We’d developed a really good foundation of friendship.”
After a summer apart, things changed, including John’s looks.
“He came back from the summer, and he’d shaved his head. I said, ‘Oh, he’s kinda cute,’” Brittany said, laughing and smiling at her husband across their living room.
Plus, she missed him.
“I think I realized the feelings I had for him were more than friendship,” she said.
The couple started dating in September 2003 and were engaged in May 2006.
They were living in Texas at the time. He had graduated from UCA and was a TV producer for the prison ministry, and she had transferred to the University of Texas at Arlington.
They’d just had their first big fight, she said, about how she didn’t feel ready for marriage.
“We were having second thoughts,” she said.
He knew she was the one, though, and decided to pop the question.
John went to great lengths to make the proposal perfect and memorable.
It was memorable.
He started at 5 a.m. and drove to Texarkana to pick up her grandmother and cousin for a surprise post-engagement party he’d planned.
John told Brittany he had a day planned for them.
“We’d been not in a great place,” Brittany said of their relationship. “He told me, ‘I don’t want cellphones; I just want it to be us.”
John even picked out the clothes for Brittany to wear for the day.
“I had several events planned — a day spa; we each got a massage,” he said. She loved it; he said the hot-stone massage burned his back.
They had dinner at a nice restaurant, where she devoured her steak, and he ate half a hamburger, “because I was so nervous,” he said.
He took her to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. It was a beautiful day in May.
John said he had scouted the location the day before.
“There were roses everywhere, everywhere,” he said, spreading his arms.
He had his best friend hiding in the bushes with a video camera.
A couple of hours before John and Brittany arrived, the gardener came. He pruned every single rose bush, despite John’s friend pleading for him to wait.
“It went from white, pink and red to solid green and brown,” John said.
Brittany said she didn’t know the difference.
John had asked one of her friends to line the walkway to a gazebo with lit candles.
“I’m not very observant,” Brittany said. “I didn’t notice until I got to the end of the walkway, and I said, ‘Who lit these candles?’”
He took her to a gazebo and placed her strategically under a boom microphone, which was hanging from a now-bare rose vine, so the moment would be recorded.
“I got on one knee and broke the ring out upside down and had to flip it,” he said, imitating opening the box.
“I said ‘yes’ in a very high-pitched squeaky voice,” Brittany said. “I think I said, ‘Are you serious?’ a lot.”
John took her back to her parents’ house for the surprise engagement party.
The couple were married Dec. 30 in Mesquite, Texas, in front of 375 guests.
“It was beautiful, pretty much flawless,” Brittany said.
It was 60 degrees in Texas that day, but the decorations made it look like a winter wonderland, John said.
“It was a fairy-tale wedding,” he said.
John, who is a part-time professional photographer, said capturing those memories was important. They hired three photographers.
A large photo on the wall of their living room shows John holding the wedding bouquet triumphantly in the air like he might raise a football after a victory.
They honeymooned at a newly opened resort in Tulum, Mexico.
The couple moved to Conway after their honeymoon, and Brittany went back to UCA to finish her undergraduate degree in business administration.
John continued to work for the prison ministry from their home in Conway, and he traveled a lot.
“The first three months we were married, he was probably gone a month,” Brittany said.
John led a few groups at New Life Church in Conway, including one on having a successful marriage.
He decided to take the message of marriage to prisons, as strange as it might sound, he said.
Although people in prison aren’t with their spouses, it’s that fact that puts a strain on a marriage or relationship, he said.
Brittany sometimes accompanied him to speak, even to the men’s prisons.
“I grew up with this,” she said. “My family’s been doing it 28 years. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
The first time she went with her father to a prison, she was 12, and it was a men’s unit, she said.
“It doesn’t make me nervous. I know how to handle it, how to carry myself.’”
“Mainly for us, it was to give them hope and give them God’s promise,” John said.
After the couple talk about marriage during a service, Brittany said, they hear stories about the inmates calling their significant others and apologizing.
“Almost immediately their relationship is renewed,” John said.
“These are my points and sermon: When a man’s out of place, the woman becomes displaced, the child becomes misplaced, because God was ultimately replaced,” John said.
“I tell them, you’re either a product of being out of place, or you’re producing it. It’s kind of hard-hitting. One hundred percent of the guys identify with it,” he said.
Brittany said she talks to the women about how to show respect and love to their husbands — allowing the man to be the head of the household.
“It doesn’t mean you have to be stifled and have no opinion,” she said.
The Newberrys have a new challenge in their marriage now that they’re coaching volleyball together.
“We are together 24/7,” she said.
Brittany got a job as the assistant volleyball coach at Conway Christian and was head coach for two years after that.
John enjoyed coming to watch, and they joined Fatchmo Volley, a club Junior Olympic volleyball program in Conway, to play together.
They started coaching teams in the club, owned by David McFatrich, UCA’s head volleyball coach.
John, whose background was purely football, said he learned a lot from his wife and McFatrich.
“All theories of volleyball I compiled from football, which do not correlate,” he said.
“I started arguing with her about volleyball, and she quit answering my questions.”
“We have a competitive marriage,” she said.
“She passes better; I have better hands,” he said. “I serve a nasty serve.”
Brittany said there is a lot more to volleyball than hitting a ball over a net, including strategy and choreography.
The Newberrys and McFatrich became close.
“We became best friends through volleyball and through faith,” John said.
When he was hired as the full-time assistant UCA volleyball coach in 2012, he worked one more assignment for her father’s ministry.
Brittany was working as a volunteer assistant coach at UCA to learn more to teach her high school students.
She started working on her master’s degree in teaching and became a graduate assistant in 2012 for the UCA volleyball team and had to leave Conway Christian.
“That was very hard, but it was the right decision,” she said. When she graduates in May with a Master of Arts in teaching, she’ll be a full-time assistant with John.
An even bigger decision was for John to leave the prison ministry after 7 1/2 years.
The first people they consulted about the UCA job offer were the women they’d gotten to know through the years, women on death row in the Texas women’s unit.
“We had already planned on going; that was on the prison-ministry agenda, for the family to visit the death-row inmates,” he said.
They sat with the women at a table, ate breakfast and talked.
“It was really neat because they prayed for us and prayed my parents would be ready to receive the news,” Brittany said.
“That was a hard conversation with my family,” she said.
“Her dad said, “I love you, but I hate your guts right now,” John said, laughing at the memory.
The couple still occasionally minister in prisons, he said.
They’re happy with their decision to coach together, but it’s a lot of togetherness.
“We went from not seeing each other … to being together 24/7,” Brittany said.
When people ask how they do it, John said he tells them, “We don’t recommend it for everyone, but it works for us.”
They try not to bring home disagreements they have at work.
When they argue, Brittany said, it’s important to use “correct words.”
“And correct tone,” he added.
John said to see examples of great marriages, they look to their parents.
“But that marriage is theirs,” he said. “We’ve pulled together strengths from both marriages that work into ours. The rest of it has come from applying … the word of God, and that really is the truth of us.
“We were friends first, and we’re still best friends.”
And, he keeps his head shaved.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.