Moment of Glory: Fantasy football legend Gary Barnidge disappeared from NFL right after his breakout

Yahoo Sports

Not every NFL player gets to play 20 years like Tom Brady. Most won’t play five seasons. But for a select few, they’ll have one season, game or play that is truly historic. This offseason, we’ll highlight those special NFL performances in our “Moment of Glory” series.

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)

If you meet Gary Barnidge, you will not be the first person to tell him he carried you to your fantasy football championship five years ago.

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“Basically, anytime I do an interview or anyone finds out who I am,” Barnidge said. “I’ve yet to see a percentage of the winnings, though.”

Barnidge had one of the most shocking out-of-nowhere seasons in NFL history. Heading into the 2015 season, Barnidge had already been in the NFL for seven seasons. He was 30 years old. He had 44 catches, 603 yards and three touchdowns for his career. Then with the Cleveland Browns, Barnidge put up 79 catches, 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. And yes, he won fantasy football titles for many people. In standard leagues, Barnidge was the second-highest scoring tight end behind Rob Gronkowski that season. At the beginning of the season, very few football fans knew his name. He ended it at the Pro Bowl.

And almost as quickly as he appeared on the scene, put up a huge season and signed a nice contract extension, he faded away.

Gary Barnidge on an exclusive list

The list of tight ends who have put up a 1,000-yard season is remarkable because it contains very few players who aren’t household names.

There have been only 48 1,000-yard seasons by a tight end in NFL history according to Pro Football Reference. The list is a who’s who of tight ends in history — Gronkowski, Shannon Sharpe, Kellen Winslow, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Ozzie Newsome, among other legends — and then Barnidge and only a few other players who had just one special season.

In 2008, Barnidge was a fifth-round pick by the Carolina Panthers out of Louisville. He was like most late-round picks who struggle to get a chance to play. In those first seven seasons, which included one he missed due to a broken ankle, he had only 80 passes thrown his way.

“I had never been given an opportunity to start before that,” Barnidge said of his 2015 season. “I think I had that ability but didn’t get the chance. But that’s the NFL.”

Barnidge was fast, but “with me they said I ran weird.” His running style wasn’t athletic, and in the competitive NFL, it doesn’t take much to get passed over.

“If you’re not a high draft pick, you’re not given an opportunity up front,” Barnidge said. “And even then, you might not pass the optics test from scouts and coaches.”

That all flipped in 2015. He had a ridiculous touchdown catch between his legs against the Baltimore Ravens early in the season, and that put him on the map. He continued to play well all season as a huge part of the Browns’ offense. The Browns signed him to a three-year, $12.3 million extension late in the season.

Then Barnidge’s fairy tale story got ruined by the business side of the NFL.

Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge had a Pro Bowl season in 2015. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge had a Pro Bowl season in 2015. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Barnidge cut by Browns a year after Pro Bowl

If you just look at the stats, Barnidge slipped to a 55-612-2 line in 2016 and you’d consider that a disappointment. But he’ll argue there was more to it than just stats.

“People can say I had a disappointing year or I was a one-hit wonder, but if you go back and watch the season after, I had eight quarterbacks, a new offensive coordinator, a new head coach and a new offense,” Barnidge said. “Combine all that and I was still able to put up 650 yards. That’s impressive.”

The 2016 Browns were a mess. Barnidge says he can’t even name all of the quarterbacks who threw passes to him (it was actually just six: Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III, Kevin Hogan, Charlie Whitehurst and quarterback-turned receiver Terrelle Pryor). The team went 1-15. Barnidge argues that it was the circumstance, not his talent, that led to the decline in numbers.

Barnidge was surprisingly cut after the season, which he said was a shock to everyone, including his tight ends coach, who wasn’t even informed. It still sticks with him that he was cut right before a team function in which players were to visit kids. He wondered why the team couldn’t have waited until after the weekend visit.

“It soured me,” Barnidge said.

Barnidge was 31 years old, one year removed from a Pro Bowl season and had an understandably down season in 2016. Instead of having a hot market for his services, he had a lot of offers that he found disrespectful.

Barnidge walks away

Because of the guaranteed money left on his contract extension, Barnidge said he had $800,000 coming in 2017 whether he played or not. He’d visit teams and they’d offer him what he considered less-than-fair deals, often citing his age or stats from 2016.

“I knew I was worth more than that,” Barnidge said. “It didn’t make sense. Everyone was using my age as a reason. To me, it was a very disrespectful thing.”

Barnidge could have played. But he told teams he wouldn’t play for less than he felt he was worth, and stuck by it.

“It challenged their power, and I don’t think they liked that,” Barnidge said. “I said I’m not playing for less than this, and I wasn’t going to play for less than that. I think that turned teams off. They were trying to call my bluff, and I was dead serious.

“That’s when I saw the business side of the NFL. That is a reason I didn’t want to play anymore. We’re just a number to them.”

And just like that Barnidge’s NFL days were over, right after he’d finally become a recognizable name to fans, especially the ones who still thank him for that 2015 season.

Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge didn't play after the 2016 season. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge didn't play after the 2016 season. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Barnidge helps kids through AFWB

It would have been understandable if Barnidge had distanced himself from football after how it ended. But instead, he teaches the game to kids.

He co-founded American Football Without Borders (AFWB) with former NFL offensive lineman Breno Giacomini. It’s a nonprofit organization that holds football camps and does charity work around the world. He’s proud of bringing camps to markets in the United States and abroad that might not otherwise have the opportunity.

The chance to work with kids brings Barnidge back to the days that he remembers best when it comes to football.

“I miss the game,” Barnidge said. “I don’t miss everything else that went along with it.

“My favorite time playing was in high school. I was happy just playing football with my friends.”

Barnidge doesn’t have regrets. He could have kept playing, and maybe he could have replicated his 2015 season with another NFL team and played a few more years. Having that one big year, in which he was one of the best tight ends in football, helped him walk away without any regrets.

“It showed everyone, I was able to do this when I had the opportunity, and what I did the next year, too,” Barnidge said. “The talent was there. The question was why did it take me so many years to get that opportunity?”

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