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Browns Tight End Gary Barnidge is a Pro Bowler, but Mainly Wants to Talk About Movies and Art 

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One of the lesser-known ways Barnidge has come to certify his horror-film fandom is through commissioned works of art. Though he was never an artist as a kid, art is something he says he's come to appreciate as an adult. He's converted the basement of his current home outside Jacksonville, where he lives in the offseason, into a home movie theater. He's decorated it with artwork based on characters from horror movies, all original commissions that he dreamed up.

"For example," says Barnidge, pleased to explain, "I wanted a picture of Candyman" (The Hellish central villain in the 1992 Virginia Madsen vehicle Candyman). "I thought to myself: Candyman is known for candy, and he always has bees around him." He snaps his fingers. "Okay, I got it. I'll have Pooh Bear sitting down, digging in his honey comb, and Candyman behind him with his hook and the bees everywhere."

He's constantly checking out the work of new artists online, both in Cleveland and across the country. When he stumbles on someone whose work he likes, he'll buy a piece or two of original art and then inquire about commissions.

"I say, here's my idea, but you'll get free rein. You do what you do." Barnidge estimates that he's commissioned work from 10 artists.

Recently, from a local artist, Barnidge commissioned a painting that depicted a roster of horror villains in the boxes of the Mortal Kombat character-select screen.

"I like that one because you have to think about who would beat who, and how they'd do it," Barnidge says. "It brings up a conversation."

The piece he's currently waiting on is a mixed-media "3D-esque" painting of Pennywise the Clown (from the 1990 miniseries IT, based on the Stephen King novel) arm-wrestling one of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space (from the 1988 horror-comedy Killer Klowns from Outer Space) while the other two Killer Klowns stand behind watching.

"It's funny, but it's also characters I love," says Barnidge.

Barnidge loves Pennywise the Clown so much that he dressed up as the villain for Halloween last year. During Joe Thomas's annual Halloween party at his home, Barnidge says he freaked out his teammates with the costume.

"Joe's got these two columns in his house," Barnidge says, "and I stood between the columns with my mask, holding my balloons. They guys thought it was fake, thought it was like a statue. They'd be like, 'this is new,' and when they'd come up I'd jump and scare them."

Every Wednesday this season, as in seasons past, Gary Barnidge will Tweet a trivia question to his followers. It'll look something like this:

tweet1.jpg

(Answer: The J.R. Faison Junior High School in Wadesboro, NC)

Or this:

tweet2.jpg

(Answer: They lived on the same street. The Griswold home in Christmas Vacation {1989} is next door to Sgt. Murtaugh's {Danny Glover} family home in the Lethal Weapon movies.)

Barnidge congratulates the first 10 correct respondents and invites them to Crocker Park for a movie that he selects. Naturally, he pays.

"I get to pick the movies," says Barnidge. "I'll base it off the month. October is more horror. November is more family-oriented, because of Thanksgiving. December might be Christmas movies."

And it's not like these weekly excursions are the only times Barnidge goes to the movies. He says that despite the busy NFL season, he usually manages to go twice a week, and watches more at home. His personal collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays is the stuff of locker-room legend. He watches TV too, of course. (He's currently catching up on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, if you were curious.)

But one of the most important elements of the weekly outings for Barnidge is that it gives players a regular opportunity to interact with fans. Barnidge invites his teammates, and often, a handful will tag along.

"Some of the guys have really bought into it," he says. "I tell them, get there 30 minutes early. I say, I want you to talk with people, interact with them. This is just one way we can give back. The fans come out and support us every week and without the fans, we wouldn't be anything. This is just one way of repaying that."

***

Hip to Barnidge's popularity, one of the local Hollywood publicity companies reached out to Barnidge and now occasionally lets him "host" an advance screening with an increased number of tickets to distribute. His social media presence is dominated by movie posters and invitations to these special events. Last Christmas, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, Barnidge rented out an entire auditorium at Crocker Park and opened it up to fans, first-come, first-serve. He plans to do the same this year.

And there, Big Play Barnidge will walk among the fans in the aisles, making small-talk about their favorite flicks, a benign king among his subjects, a superhero among mere mortals—

"I just wanted to say," says a younger guy in khakis and a button-down, who has tentatively approached our B-spot booth. "Go Browns."

"Thanks, I appreciate that," says Barnidge.

If the tight end's weekly movie outings seem superheroic to Cleveland fans, his efforts with his nonprofit American Football Without Barriers should seem doubly so. It's Barriers, not Borders, Barnidge stresses, because their work isn't exclusively international and because they like the idea of "breaking the mold." Along with co-founder Breno Giacomini, who plays for the New York Jets, Barnidge hosts football camps in the United States and abroad targeted at low-income, at-risk youth. The AFWB camps are 100 percent free and are open to both boys and girls.

"We want these kids to enjoy the sport and love it like we do," he says, "give them the opportunities that we had. Especially internationally, these kids don't get that opportunity. We're trying to give them another outlet and teaching teamwork and camaraderie. That's what it's all about."

In addition to the camps, when Barnidge travels he cherishes the opportunity to experience foreign cultures. When AFWB hosted a camp in China, he visited the Great Wall. When they went to Brazil, he saw Christ the Redeemer. When they were in Egypt last year, he ventured off to see the Pyramids and the tomb of King Tut. Next year, Barnidge says, they've narrowed down their options to either Japan or Finland, and the cultural opportunities in both locations excite him.

"We want to mix it up," Barnidge says, "do as many continents as possible."

Barnidge intends to continue his nonprofit work after he retires, ramping up the international outreach to three camps per year and expanding to seven in the U.S.

Barnidge says he approaches traveling with the Browns for away games in the same way he approaches international travel. "You just have to dive in," he says. And he says he approached Cleveland, where he'd never been before he arrived on the roster, the same way.

"You definitely have to see what Cleveland has to offer," he says. "I've been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I've done all the museums downtown. I've been to the Christmas Story house. I've done Cedar Point. I've been to the Flats. I've seen what Cleveland has to offer. And it's awesome."

But what about the fans?

"The fans are very diehard," he says. "And that's what you want as a player. You don't want it when you're not doing well, because that's when everybody starts coming at you, but it's all in good fun. Obviously, this is a hardworking, tight-knit community, and it's awesome, but it is eye-opening just to see how die-hard they are."

Asked, then, if he thought the ESPN documentary Believeland captured the spirit of Cleveland's tortured sports history, Barnidge shakes his head.

"I haven't seen it yet," he admits. "But it's on my Netflix to-do list."

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