When I caught up with him Thursday night via FaceTime, Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge was attending an Egyptian wedding in Cairo, perhaps the most unlikely venue for an interview in my 26 years of covering the NFL.
For the fourth off-season in a row, Barnidge—fresh off his breakout Pro Bowl season in 2015—is part of a group of NFL players that is touring internationally as part of the organization called American Football Without Barriers. AFWB is a non-profit Barnidge co-founded that helps teach the game at a series of camps and offers humanitarian assistance to children in countries abroad.
After already tackling China, Brazil and Turkey the past three years, Egypt is the site of this year’s tour, in part because fellow AFWB co-founder Ahmed Awadallah, Barnidge’s ex-college roommate at Louisville, was born and raised in Egypt. In fact it was Awadallah’s sister who was getting married Thursday in a happy confluence of events that fit nicely into the schedule.
Along with Jets offensive tackle Breno Giacomini—the third co-founder of the organization and a former Louisville teammate of Barnidge’s—a total of 12 NFL players have made this year’s journey, including the recently retired Marshawn Lynch, Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams, Browns safety Johnson Bademosi, Texans offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron and former Buccaneers and Saints fullback Erik Lorig.
Lynch, Williams and Cameron are all veterans of past tours, and who can forget Lynch’s turn on Turkish television last off-season, when he used that unusual platform to question the play-calling of Seattle head coach Pete Carroll in the recently completed Super Bowl against New England? (Lynch, of course, was not alone in that line of thinking.)
It’s day five of the week-long trip, and it seemed like a good time for a mid-journey update from Barnidge, who cherishes his annual chance to help grow the game from a grassroots international level:
Don Banks: So you put on two football camps today and you still had time for a wedding?
Gary Barnidge: Yes, and an Egyptian wedding goes to like 4 in the morning, so it’s been a long, long day. But I didn’t get up until 8:45 (a.m.).
DB: What have you done since you arrived on Sunday?
GB: Monday was the day we went to the Pyramids. Tuesday was just sight-seeing and tourist stuff. Then on Wednesday we had an orphanage visit, we did the coach’s clinic and we visited a cancer hospital and a school. Today (Thursday) was the camps, and tomorrow are more camps, and then Saturday is an all-star game.
DB: O.K., we saw the pictures. But the world wants to know about Marshawn Lynch riding a camel. Enlighten us, please?
GB: It was something that you would never expect, but what an awesome experience. He really enjoyed it. I think everybody enjoyed it. Everybody got on a camel besides DeAngelo, which everyone was giving him a hard time about. But it was a lot of fun. A lot of guys didn’t understand you’ve got to hold on [with] the way they stand up, but it was awesome. I had a great time. We rode to the Pyramids on a camel, so it was a great experience.
DB: I just have to know if Marshawn’s camel is O.K.? He didn’t go Beast Mode on the beast, did he?
GB: Yes, the camel’s fine. If anything it would have been Breno’s camel, because he’s the biggest guy on the trip. His camel might have been struggling.
DB: So DeAngelo Williams wanted no part of it because of the height of the camel or was he just afraid of the animal itself?
GB: He just isn’t a fan of riding horses or camels. He took a little buggy cart to the Pyramids.
DB: I know you wanted to go to Egypt a few years back on this tour and it didn’t work out. Now it’s year four of your organization. Has this trip lived up to everything you expected and hoped for?
GB: It definitely has. It’s been a great experience so far. The thing with this trip, nobody would have expected so much love for the sport here. The first day we opened up registration we had 1,000 people registered. Nobody would predict that, but that’s a huge showing and people are loving it and they wanted to experience this. And that’s what we want to do, we want to help build this sport from the ground level and show that it’s being played and watched internationally, and we want to teach the right way to play the game.
DB: What was attendance like at today’s two camps?
GB: We had about 130 at the first camp, which was a basic camp. We do more just agility stuff, more like Play 60-style stuff. And then at the second camp we had over 200 in the advanced camp, and that’s where they’re in pads and we’re teaching the proper way to hit and all that. It was awesome.
DB: See any athletes who intrigued you today?
GB: There were definitely some in there tonight, and then tomorrow is when we’re really going to pick players from the camps and they’re actually going to play an all-star game on Saturday. So that’s when we’re really going to get to see everything come together.
DB: What city are you in for the wedding?
GB: Cairo, everything’s in Cairo, the whole week.
DB: Is this your first taste of Egypt?
GB: No, I actually came here last year on vacation. So this is my second time, and seeing the Pyramids last time was awesome. But then seeing everybody’s faces when they saw the Pyramids was amazing, because I had seen it before, but seeing the awe in their eyes was a great experience. It’s something they might not ever get to do again.
DB: They say you can’t get any idea of their size and scale until you stand next to one. True?
GB: I don’t think you can. I don’t think you can really understand, because we really don’t have an understanding of how they built them. We have ideas, but nobody really knows. So just standing next to that and knowing we really have no true conclusive proof or evidence of how they built it, that’s just mind-boggling. I think that’s the huge part of seeing them, just standing next to them and learning about them.
DB: So you know you’ve kind of given the football world the first glimpse of Marshawn, post-retirement. Is he any different in retirement than he was as an active player?
GB: He’s the same person no matter what, whether he’s playing, whether he’s not playing, off-season or not. He’s the same guy all the time, and that’s what’s awesome about him. He never changes for anybody or anything. He’s just himself.
DB: Doesn’t sound like you’re sleeping much tonight. What does tomorrow’s schedule look like?
GB: Oh, we’ll be fine. That’s part of it when you come to camp, you know it’s going to be long days, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s all for the kids and the kids really enjoy it, it’s awesome. So we have two more camps tomorrow, and then we’ll have a big dinner with all the guys.
DB: So NFL free agency starts next Wednesday. You have any soon-to-be free agents on the tour, getting updates from their agent?
GB: We have one, Johnson Bademosi, my teammate on the Browns.
DB: So he might come back from the trip and have his phone ringing pretty soon?
GB: Yes, he definitely will have some phone calls to deal with.
DB: How much are you trying to stay on top of the NFL world while you’re over there?
GB: We don’t really follow it, because we’re here to help other people, we’re here to help kids and help the sport here. We don’t really pay attention to that stuff. I’m sure some guys might be into it, but we’re not really worried right now because we really can’t be, there’s nothing we can do about anything. We want to do what we’re doing here and we’re focusing on that.
DB: The Pyramid day with the camels got all the coverage back home, but give me another moment or event you’ve really enjoyed on this trip.
GB: I would say some of our guys playing four-square with the kids at the school we visited. That was awesome, and then visiting the hospital was too. We went to a hospital where everything’s free, nobody pays for anything at this hospital. It’s a cancer hospital and everything is taken care of at the hospital. There’s no money that comes out of pocket. They help so many kids, and that’s just a huge thing you don’t get to see a lot of. These kids don’t get the opportunity to see much, so we gave them gifts, and just spent time with them.
DB: So score one for socialized medicine?
GB: Yep. For sure.
DB: I saw a picture of Marshawn playing four-square with the school kids. Has he played before?
GB: I believe he has, because he’s pretty good at it.