It’s Good to be Big Gary

A football ambassador, a companion of WWE Divas, a part-time film critic, and an afterthought for his first seven NFL seasons, Browns tight end Gary Barnidge has emerged as the 2015 season’s most unlikely breakout star
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BEREA, Ohio — “I would describe his running style as clunky,” center Alex Mack says.

“Stiff,” adds left tackle Joe Thomas.

“Totally stiff!” quarterback Josh McCown agrees.

And that is how three cornerstones of the Cleveland Browns describe Gary Barnidge, the dynamic pass-catching threat who is keeping their offense afloat.

NFL lore is filled with tales of late bloomers, especially at tight end. Most are physical freaks who needed time to learn the nuances of the position; think ex-hoopster Antonio Gates, who didn’t play college football, or raw projects like Vernon Davis and Martellus Bennett, both of whom needed multiple seasons before they could harness their otherworldly size/athleticism combinations. Barnidge is in his own sub-category: a player teams never knew how to use because he didn’t look the part.

Barnidge is having a breakout year at age 30. In his previous seven seasons he never teetered on the edge of a roster, but rather, was miscast, and perhaps underestimated because his body looks and moves like a 6-6, 250-pound cardboard box.

“Maybe Gary has been a surprise because people didn’t see the value in him,” McCown says. “Jordan Cameron and Antonio Gates—people are always looking for those guys, the flashier tight ends. You like Gary’s height and speed but say, ‘Eh, he’s probably not good at running routes.’ Thing is, he just knows how to get open. And make plays.”

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This ball was trapped between Barnidge's thighs, then his heels before he grabbed it for the catch of the year so far.

This ball was trapped between Barnidge's thighs, then his heels before he grabbed it for the catch of the year so far.

Barnidge’s 40 catches through Week 8 are not only tied for most among tight ends (with Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce)—they nearly equal the 44 he caught over his first seven seasons combined. His six touchdowns are double his previous career total. Perhaps you’ve seen the highlights. Early in the fourth quarter of a Week 5 overtime win at Baltimore, he and safety Will Hill battled for a jump ball. Hill knocked it down as the pair crashed to the ground at the goal line. That’s when Barnidge made like Suzanne Somers, clenching the ball between his thighs, then briefly with his heels before finally reaching down and securing it with his hands for what is, to this point, the catch of the year.

“The tag he’s gotten his whole career is, well he’s just a stiff, blocking tight end,” says Thomas. “Gary is actually a really good athlete. He just doesn't look like it.”

Adds McCown: “When you watch film, you realize he really understands leverage and space.”

When Barnidge runs, his body lumbers. His burly frame accentuates his thick neck, which has such a limited range of motion that Thomas refers to him as the “anti-Owl.”

“I like to come behind him and scare him,” Thomas says, “Because he literally can’t turn his head. He has to turn his whole body.”

Barnidge’s opportunity has come as the Browns (2-6 entering Thursday night’s visit to the unbeaten Bengals) reassess a broken roster built around busted drafts. Star receiver Josh Gordon is suspended for the season. Offseason splash Dwayne Bowe has been so disappointing that he’s barely seen the field, and fellow free-agent signee Brian Hartline has been quiet. Rob Housler, the presumptive starter at tight end when signed from Arizona, has been buried on the depth chart. Speedsters Travis Bejnamin and Taylor Gabriel, diminutive slot guy Andrew Hawkins and rookie running back Duke Johnson have been the focus of first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s passing game. Needing a big man over the middle, McCown has made Barnidge his go-to target.

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Barnidge, a Middleburg, Fla. native and Louisville product, was a 2008 fifth-round draft pick of the Panthers. For five years he was used predominantly as a blocker, sometimes as a receiver, but never consistently. He never played in more than 28% of the offensive snaps with Carolina, and once he realized he was Greg Olsen had a long-term grip on the starting job, he signed with Cleveland in 2013.

The easiest narrative is to assume that when Cameron left Cleveland for Miami in free agency this offseason, Barnidge got his big break. However, over the last three seasons Barnidge had proven to be sure-handed. Entering 2015, no NFL tight end had caught more consecutive passes without a drop (32), according to Pro Football Focus.

“Outside sources have always either labeled me as a blocking tight end or a receiving tight end, it almost changed every season” Barnidge says. “Like they didn’t know what to make of me. I think that’s led to what I am now: a guy who can do anything on the field, and is really hard to game-plan for.”

McCown first threw to Barnidge in 2008 when both were members of the Panthers. For four plays every practice, Carolina allowed the second-team offense to play all-out against the first-team defense. McCown says he connected with Barnidge better than with any of his other targets. Barnidge always ran well (4.61 at the combine) and had been a dependable receiver in college (he caught 53 passes as a senior at Louisville).

Over the past few years, though, he has refined his game. He learned to exploit his size mismatches, where he can make contact with a defender but still keep an outside shoulder free. That was best displayed in the third quarter of a near-upset of Denver in Week 6. Running a corner route in the red zone with linebacker Danny Trevathan hanging on to his right arm, Barnidge warded off the defender and snagged McCown’s floater in the back right corner of the end zone.

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Barnidge with one of his movie trivia winners.

Barnidge with one of his movie trivia winners.

Though he was hardly a household name until recently, Barnidge has been one of the NFL’s most multifaceted characters.

He drives a large green pick-up truck with BIG GARY vanity plates. He’s the first in his family to graduate college and aspires to become a professional movie critic (he already runs his own movie review website). He drinks Coca-Cola almost exclusively, has been on two reality show-engineered dates with WWE Divas (Rosa Mendes and Summer Rae, if you’re curious), and he writes music but doesn’t want to sing it.

He also organizes football camps in China, Turkey and Brazil for nearly 2,500 kids. After practices and on most off-days this season, Barnidge has been working on American Football Without Barriers (AFWB), which last month earned 501(c)3 non-profit status.

Barnidge created the charity in 2011 with two college friends—Breno Giacomini, who now plays for the Jets, and Ahmed Awadallah, who now lives in Turkey. Their goal was to introduce the sport they love overseas. “Basketball and baseball both recruit internationally, but in football they really don’t,” Barnidge says. “We just want to give kids an opportunity to play a sport they like.”

The first year, they hosted a camp in China for 400 kids. Barnidge was so impressed by one defensive lineman, he brought him over to a camp in the States, where he got an offer from a Division III program on the spot. (The player chose to go to Stanford for academics.)

“We’d love, one day, to have hundreds of students like that,” Barnidge says. They had 800 campers in Brazil in 2014 and 1,200 in Turkey last year. Each trip occurs just after the Super Bowl, and Barnidge and Giacomini include NFL teammates and acquaintances (including Marshawn Lynch, who last year made a post-Super Bowl trip to Istanbul).

Marshawn Lynch, here teaching the finer points of quarterbacking (seriously) in Turkey, has been a supporter of Barnidge's AFWB group.

Marshawn Lynch, here teaching the finer points of quarterbacking (seriously) in Turkey, has been a supporter of Barnidge's AFWB group.

Barnidge’s passion for growing football is rivaled only by his love of cinema. Since 2012, he has made a different kind of film study part of his weekly ritual.

After tweeting a movie-related trivia question (last week: “What connection does the movie Halloween & Pyscho (1960) have in relation to the actors/actresses?”), Barnidge invites the first 10 correct responders to a Thursday night meet-up.

“I left and thought Gary just seemed so… cool,” says 16-year-old Declan Ange, a Week 7 winner. “Like if you didn't know any better, you’d have no idea he was a star NFL tight end.”

Barnidge is the proud owner of more than 2,000 films. He created his review website, Movie Game Plan, during his rookie year in Carolina, and has recently revamped the project in hopes of continuing in a more serious capacity when he retires from football. He brings notebooks to movies and jots down thoughts, but doesn’t read many other critics—he likes to form opinions himself. He has already recruited Mack and Thomas to write guest reviews, though both are a bit nervous. “Don’t worry,” Barnidge told them. “It can be as short as 10 words.”

It would take much longer than that to assess the latest plot twist in Barnidge’s career. And the ending is far from written.

As for the connection between “Halloween” and “Psycho”: