Giving back is an easy call for Barnes

Former Cowboys CB, known for disputed flag in Super Bowl XII, is equipment manager at community college

May 06, 2011|By Jerry Crowe, Tribune newspapers

SAN PABLO, Calif. — You wouldn't expect to find a Stanford graduate working in a place like this, handing out towels and washing uniforms as an equipment manager at a community college.

Nor is this a place you'd think to look for a former Dallas Cowboys cornerback who played in three Super Bowls.

Benny Barnes is both.

Yet here he sits at a desk, a steel cage standing between him and a nondescript locker room at Contra Costa College.

And he couldn't be happier.

The 60-year-old Barnes, perhaps best remembered for a critical pass-interference penalty against Lynn Swann in the 1979 Super Bowl, has been on the job for 15 years.

It's his way of giving back to an East Bay community that nourished and encouraged him as a youth before he moved on to bigger things, winning two Rose Bowls at Stanford and playing 11 seasons with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent.

"People say, 'Why don't you go to Stanford and coach?'" Barnes says. "And I say, 'Well, Stanford doesn't need me.'

"Here, there's a need."

In a previous job, Barnes was president and CEO of a small Texas company he formed with former Cowboys teammates Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Preston Pearson and Butch Johnson.

They owned fast-food franchises, promoted concerts and ran a janitorial service before cashing out about 20 years ago.

Returning to the Bay Area, Barnes went to work for a friend as a manager and marketer in another janitorial business but says he soon found himself drifting back to Contra Costa, where he played two seasons as a linebacker in the late 1960s.

Working as a volunteer assistant football coach, he says, "the more I was here, the more I wanted to be here full time."

In then-equipment manager J.D. Banks, a former Harlem Clowns basketball player, Barnes found an unlikely role model: a personable father figure whose words of advice to young athletes carried greater weight than his job title suggested.

"I used to sit here and watch him talk to kids," says Barnes, a father of four. "He'd close that door and they'd walk out of here with tears in their eyes, ready to straighten up.

"In this job, it's almost like you're a teacher-counselor. And you're not just dealing with school. You're dealing with life."

In 1996, when Banks retired, Barnes took over.

"He didn't need that job," athletic director John Wade says. "He's doing it out of the kindness of his heart and to be a good model . . . to show that you can come from humble beginnings and have a very successful career and life."

Barnes, who grew up in a gritty neighborhood not far from the campus, says he "always wanted to be like Chet Kincaid," referring to the lead character in "The Bill Cosby Show," a 1969-71 NBC sitcom in which the comedian played a physical education teacher in a Los Angeles high school. "He dealt with all these life-changing events … and I thought, 'I can do that. I can see myself comically messing with young people's minds.'"

He lets out a laugh.

Turning serious, he adds, "This job, more than coaching, puts you right in the center of everything."

And if nothing else, it gives Barnes a whole new audience with which to share his improbable journey.

Converted from linebacker to defensive back at Stanford, he remembers asking, "You mean I've got to backpedal?"

But Barnes made the adjustment, becoming a two-year starter and helping teams led by Jim Plunkett in 1970 and Don Bunce in 1971 to Rose Bowl victories.

Undrafted in 1972, Barnes signed with the Super Bowl champion Cowboys because he viewed it as a challenge and, anticipating his release during training camp, "the best summer job I could ever have."

Eleven years later, when he retired, he owned a Super Bowl ring and had played in eight NFC championship games.

All anybody ever wanted to ask him about, however, was the time he and Swann crossed paths in Super Bowl XII.

The Steelers were clinging to a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter as Swann and Barnes chased a Terry Bradshaw pass downfield in close step. Barnes, slightly in the lead, fell to the ground, whether slipping or merely stumbling.

Swann fell over the defender, stretching out vainly for the pass, and field judge Fred Swearingen threw his flag.

"You see a flag and you say, 'Yeah, on him,'" says Barnes, still peeved all these years later. "And (Swearingen's) saying, 'No, no, no. You tripped him.'"

After the game, a 35-31 Steelers victory, Barnes said he was so mad, "it was the closest I'll ever come to punching an official."

Barnes says the memory no longer haunts him, as it did for years, but he's no less convinced it was a bad call.

"I can look at it upside down, inside out, left to right, backward and forward," he says. "It should have been no call."

One call he's sure of: He wasn't a bad player.

"I sit back now and say, 'How did I do it?'" Barnes says of his career. "I wasn't overly talented and I wasn't fast, but I played 11 years on a good team. I must have been good."

It helped, of course, that he had people who believed in him.

In his current job, he's the one providing the support.

jcrowe@tribune.com

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