Sports Stars Making a Social Impact: Gary Barnidge of the Cleveland Browns is helping disadvantaged children around the world reach higher levels of education and to live healthier lifestyles

With Edward Sylvan

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Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. Growing up I was always told I was only good because I was tall, I wasn’t good because I actually had skill so I just used all that as motivation that I’m going to prove these people wrong. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they’re not right. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot do something because you can do it if you work hard enough.

As a part of my series about sports stars who are making a social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing former NFL tight end and co-founder of American Football Without Barriers, Gary Barnidge. Gary spent nine seasons in the NFL (2008–16), including five with the Carolina Panthers and four with the Cleveland Browns. A Pro Bowl selection in 2015, Barnidge finished his NFL career with 178 catches for 2,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. In 2013, Barnidge, Breno Giacomini and Ahmed Awadallah founded American Football Without Barriers (AFWB), a program that has sought to spread the game of football around the world using sports as a tool to help disadvantaged children reach higher levels of education and to live healthier and more-active lifestyles. AFWB offers free football camps and clinics, leadership development and mentoring to disadvantaged youth around the world. Currently in its sixth year in operation, Barnidge, Giacomini and Awadallah have seen AFWB share the game of football in China (2013), Brazil (2014), Turkey (2015), Egypt (2016), Finland (2017) and Portugal (2018). In February 2019, AFWB will visit Germany for its seventh-annual camp.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?

Growing up I played baseball my whole life. That was my sport of choice. And then I decided to play football in sixth grade and I didn’t feel like it was for me. I didn’t have that much fun playing so I stopped and picked up basketball when I got into seventh grade, so I was playing basketball and baseball. I ended up playing football again in eighth grade because the coaches asked me to play and I did, but I knew I wanted to focus on basketball and baseball for high school. Then when I got to high school, I didn’t play football my freshman year and I missed it, so when the coaches asked me again I decided to come out and play my sophomore year. I went back to play football and during the spring session prior to my sophomore year, I got a letter from (the University of) Louisville after only playing in the spring game and that became a turning point. I started to think that if I wanted to go to college and have a really good chance, football might be the choice if I’m already getting recruited going into my sophomore year and I hadn’t really done much on film, I only had a half a game basically. So that’s when it all clicked for me. I knew I wanted to play professional in some sport and I knew I probably wouldn’t go to college if I didn’t do it from a sport because we really didn’t have the money to get to it so I used that as a driving force to work toward everything I could do to get to college and then once I got to college, I earned my degree and toward the end of my junior year and start of my senior year I started to realize I might have a chance for the NFL and you just work even harder. I got drafted in the fifth round by the Carolina Panthers and it was a dream come true. It was literally a dream come true because it was always my dream to play professional in some sport, whether it was basketball, baseball or football. That was just the determination of making sure I could achieve my dreams.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

To me, the most touching story I had outside of giving kids my cleats after football games in Cleveland, I actually did a movie giveaway for fans where I would take 10 fans to the movies every Thursday during the season. Well, one of the fans who came and won, he was in the military and he had just gotten back from active duty and he actually gave me his Cleveland Browns flag that he wore under his vest every time he went out on duty. The fact that I was able to touch him enough for him to want to give me that flag was just a truly astounding moment for me because I’d never had somebody look up to me that much. That was just an amazing experience.

What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. Growing up I was always told I was only good because I was tall, I wasn’t good because I actually had skill so I just used all that as motivation that I’m going to prove these people wrong. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they’re not right. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot do something because you can do it if you work hard enough.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

I would say my grandpa. I’m actually named after him and he was the one who always taught me that. He always told me, ‘don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something and work hard at everything you do and strive for greatness.’ To me, he’s one of the most influential people in my life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now? Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

AFWB (American Football Without Barriers) has an interesting origin to it. Me, Breno Giacomini, who won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks and played with multiple teams, and our buddy Ahmed Awadallah, who’s an engineer for Yum Food Brands, we were having dinner and talking one night and Ahmed said he wanted to do a football camp in Egypt because that’s where he’s from. So we talked about it and I love Egypt. I love the history of it so right that second I was onboard and said let’s do it. We started planning to do a football camp in Egypt and then the revolution broke out so we had to postpone the camp and while we postponed it, I started to think, why don’t we just do this every year and not just do a one-off camp because that was the original goal, we were just going to do one camp and be done. We decided to do it every year and bring it to a new country every year to give kids an opportunity to play a sport that we love. Breno and Ahmed loved the idea. Growing up, me and Breno didn’t have this opportunity. We didn’t have a bunch of football camps to go to growing up that players were putting on where we could go to and learn from. It was more if you were in high school, a college might put one on and your high school might bring you there but there wasn’t players putting on free camps and stuff like that for kids to go and get better at the sport and have a chance to interact with the players so that was something we wanted to change. We wanted to definitely do that, but we took it a step further by doing it internationally, so we go to a different country every year. We visit schools, orphanages, hospitals and spend time with kids and give them an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise. You don’t see football going overseas like you see do basketball and baseball, visiting kids and spending time with them so we’re trying to do that with football. We want to give these kids an opportunity to learn from the best and learn the sport that they love to watch and get an opportunity to play it because they don’t get to play it that often. People would be surprised how big football is in other countries.

What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?

We like to go to countries that aren’t super-established with football. We want them to have some type of football so we can help grow the sport there. We don’t want it to be where there’s nothing there and nothing comes from our visit. We want it to be where if they have an established aspect (of football) then we can help it grow. When we went to China (our first year in 2013), they only had six or seven teams. Since we left more than six years ago, they now have something like 15–16 teams. We feel like we truly helped that grow. We just went to Portugal last year and since we’ve left, Portugal’s talking about building their own football facility just for American football and I feel like we had a hand in that, just the fact that we came there and helped these kids and it’s awesome.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

We had another great story from Portugal. There were kids who had been displaced by a devastating wildfire and we did a football camp just for these kids and they emailed us a couple of days after and they had already decided they wanted to start their own flag football league because they loved it that much. Being able to have that much impact on people is just amazing because there’s so much negative out there in the world that sometimes people need an opportunity to get their mind off things and learn new traits that football can teach you and to help build the social and teamwork aspect that’s involved in it.

What are your 3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Football is a year-round thing. It’s not something you can do once in a while. You can’t not work out, not eat right. You have to take care of your body because your body is what allows you to play football. You have to take care of yourself by working out, eating right and being in shape.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One thing that’s true and dear to my heart is stopping animal cruelty. I love animals, I have two dogs, and it kills me, it burns me up inside when you see those commercials of the animals that have been abused and just left at shelters and places like that. That kills me. Just being able to do something for that where people are held accountable for it because the law doesn’t see animals as human. I think being able to help those animals or foster dogs and other animals is important because there are too many that aren’t taken care of.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

Never allow someone to tell you that you can’t do something because that’s something I clearly try to live by. Too many people nowadays try and tell you that you can’t do this, can’t do that, but use that as motivation to try and prove everybody wrong.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Mine would be my favorite actor Johnny Depp just because of the way he’s able to transform himself into a completely different person in his roles is just amazing to me how he can completely transform himself into another person. He’s really the only person I’d ever want to say hello to or take a picture with.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring

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