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

Gary Barnidge, far right, 
with some fellow moviegoers.
Gary Barnidge, far right, with some fellow moviegoers. Photo courtesy of Gary Barnidge, Instagram

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.

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:

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

Or this:

(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."

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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