The ketchup in Browns Tight End Gary Barnidge's B-spot platter — an extra platter requested expressly for said ketchup — has now assumed the precise dimensions of a Cracker Barrel pancake. He's continuing to squirt, though, and in the meantime he's asking me to pull no punches in my appraisal of Suicide Squad.
"Be honest," he says.
I shrug my shoulders and tell him I didn't care for it.
But that's not good enough for Big Play Barnidge. The man wants details. He wants analysis. He's a cinephile, after all, easily the Browns' most obsessive moviegoer. Every week during the season, he takes 10 lucky fans to the cineplex. It's a tradition he began during his final season with the Carolina Panthers and one he's eager to continue for a fifth straight year. The only reason we've met here at the Crocker Park B-Spot is because it's in the shadow of Regal Cinemas, Barnidge's home theater and the place you're most likely to find him outside of Berea, FirstEnergy Stadium, and his Westlake home. He's seeing Sausage Party in 45 minutes.
"Out of 10," he probes, "what would you give it?"
"Three?" I hazard. "Maybe three-and-a-half." (I really did not care for Suicide Squad.)
"I give it a five out of 10," Barnidge says matter-of-factly. "Look, the story was super weak. There was no development with the bad guys, the sister and the brother — I still don't know who that person is. And for talking that movie up for over a year, you would expect it not to be so poorly executed. Such a poor story. The action was good. Some of the comedy was good. But I felt like it was a Harley Quinn / Deadshot movie, not a Suicide Squad movie."
Pretty solid takeaways from an NFL player; even from a Renaissance Man like Gary Barnidge, a man on an eternal quest for personal growth. "I'm never satisfied," he says. "I'm always trying to better myself in some way or another."
Just recently, for instance, Barnidge bought a piano, having always wanted to play a musical instrument. Among other things, he's the co-founder of an international nonprofit, American Football Without Barriers, that hosts a camp abroad every year, hoping to encourage the popularity of American football overseas and nurturing foreign talent in the process. Barnidge is a traveler — three new locations per year is his stated goal — an art enthusiast, and a guardsman and guru of the horror film genre, his personal favorite. He also stands 6'5", weighs 240 pounds, and is one of the most sticky-fingered tight ends in professional football. In 2015, he was the Browns deadliest Red Zone weapon and he parlayed his success into a 3-year $12 million contract extension he signed with the team in December.
But Gary Barnidge does not want to talk about football.
"Out of ten," he says, dragging fries through his swamp of ketchup, "what would you give Jason Bourne?"
About football, though, briefly: Barnidge arrived in Cleveland from Carolina for the 2013 season. At the time, he was thought of foremost as a blocking tight end. And besides, the Browns had Jordan Cameron, the athletic stud from USC (who's also involved with Barnidge's AFWB Foundation), who was presumed to be riding the precipice of a career year. In each of Barnidge's first two workhorse seasons with the Browns, he collected just 13 receptions. He was an unknown and largely untested quantity as a receiver.
That all changed in 2015. Cameron had shorn his locks and set sail for South Beach — those electric teal unis too good to pass up — and Barnidge emerged over both the workaday Jim Dray and the newly acquired Rob Housler as the team's premiere receiver among the tight end corps. He became a fantasy favorite, anchoring many a team with his 1,043 receiving yards and eye-popping nine touchdowns. (I picked him up, like most people, after his gaudy week three performance against Oakland: six receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown.)
"Did you win your league?" Barnidge asks.
"Sadly no," I report. "Third place."
"Everybody who tells me they won, I tell them I want my three-percent fee."
Barnidge says he doesn't feel any pressure or additional burden to repeat his success from last year. Part of that has to do with his team-first attitude — "I don't really care about individual stats," he professes — but it also has to do with what he describes as the exciting young roster.
"We have so many talented weapons around us that I hope they all [put up big numbers]. Then we can spread it out and everybody gets that opportunity." Barnidge is barreling through an 'Old-School,' B-Spot's take on a fried bologna sandwich. "Then it makes it harder for the defense, too. I always just want to go in there and do what I'm supposed to do to help the team, do what I can, and that's all that matters. Everything else will fall into place. I'd take 5 catches and 10 wins and I'd be happy."
In addition to the roster being exciting, however, it remains undeniably inexperienced. As such, the wins Barnidge so desires may be hard to come by. Still, he speaks highly of the tenor of new Head Coach Hue Jackson's leadership.
"Hue's so fast-paced and so energetic," Barnidge says. "He wants things done and changed now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Now. And I think everybody's buying into that. As long as the guys buy in, everything's gonna be good and that's what we're looking for."
Barnidge is entering his eighth year in the league, and he knows that, as a veteran, he's looked up to on and off the field. In the locker room, he says he does what he can to ensure that his tight ends know routes inside and out. Off the field, he encourages players to interact with fans and give back to the community.
That's where the movies come in.
Lest there be any confusion, Gary Barnidge's favorite movie of all time is Forrest Gump. His favorite horror movie is The Night of the Living Dead, the original version, George Romero's seminal black-and-white zombie flick from 1968. But the movie that got him into movies, irrevocably, is The Goonies. He was a kid growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. And when he saw The Goonies, on VHS in 1993 — he remembers the year — Barnidge knew he was hooked for life.
"It was a movie that was an entertaining adventure," says Barnidge, "and as a kid, I was like, 'This is awesome; I get to go with these guys to find this gold.' To me, movies give me an escape. It gets me out of reality for that two-hour block, and I think Goonies got that started."
He estimates that in 1995, he started watching horror movies in a fanatical way. He fell in love with the genre, in particular the classic fare from the '80s — Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween.
"It's an just an escape," Barnidge reiterates, "and you don't get many of those in life."
When Barnidge talks about football, he does so with the recognition that he's a representative of the Cleveland Browns organization, and that he's talking to a reporter. He's heard all the questions before, and his answers, though by no means insincere, are clearly variations on familiar themes. (E.g. "It's not about the individual stats; it's about the team.") But when he talks about movies, he's off-script. Across the B-spot booth, crowned in a Red AFWB ballcap and presiding over his pre-movie meal, he's in his element.
He comes right out and says that he's been disappointed with the crop of blockbusters this summer, an opinion with which I enthusiastically agree. His top two films from 2016, for the record, are Deadpool and Hell or High Water.
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