April 27, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
When he was still a shed and not yet a house while growing up in Enterprise, Ala., T.J. Barnes would – when not gazing at celestial stars – occasionally look at an NFL star and fancy himself following in the footsteps of big John Henderson.
The super-sized former Georgia Tech nose tackle saw in Henderson, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ erstwhile big (6-feet-7, 340-plus pounds) defensive tackle, a future version of himself.
Barnes wasn’t drafted in the final three rounds of Saturday’s NFL draft, so he missed that glory, but soon after the draft ended he received a fax and quickly signed a free agent contract with the Jags. He even Tweeted these photos Saturday evening.
Cornerback Rod Sweeting, one of Barnes’ teammates on the Tech defense, reached an agreement after the draft with the Saints, and running back Orwin Smith said he has been invited to the Bucs’ rookie mini-camp. Although offensive lineman Omoregie Uzzi declined an interview he was believed to be in conversation with several NFL teams.
Barnes (6-7, 345) is a big dreamer. Back ‘Bama way, he’s been known to lay under the night skies at his family’s rural property, look upward and ponder. Now, he’s looking south. Thursday, he’ll head to Jacksonville for a rookie mini-camp with the Jags. There, he will begin chasing his dream in earnest.
“John Henderson was my idol growing up, one of the first people that I started watching,” Barnes said Saturday evening. “He started with the Jaguars, so I was like I’m going to start with the Jaguars.”
Henderson was extra large, and made a habit of mucking up the middle while playing defensive tackle for the Jags from 2002-’09 and the Oakland Raiders in 2010-’11.
The former All-American from the University of Tennessee was a two-time Pro Bowl player in the NFL and Barnes figured from afar that he had a pretty good gig.
So as the seventh round of the NFL draft was winding down Saturday, and big Barnes was pondering the chance that he would go unselected, he reviewed his options.
NFL teams don’t always wait until the draft ends to begin the free agent signing frenzy. They set the table ahead of time, and long before the final pick Saturday afternoon Barnes knew he would have opportunities with the Jags, Steelers, Chiefs, Cowboys.
He’d already spoken with representatives from all those teams, and they each indicated interest in the event Barnes went undrafted.
A form of fate led him to choose Jacksonville. “Around the sixth and seventh round, I knew what the whole deal was,” Barnes said.
Barnes, Smith, Sweeting and other undrafted former Tech players have plenty of role models, actually.
Smith’s favorite player is Houston Texans running back Arian Foster – who went undrafted out of the University of Tennessee in 2009 only to lead the NFL in rushing in 2010 and go to the past three Pro Bowls. He has 4,521 career rushing yards.
Foster is far from the only undrafted player to make it big in the NFL.
Quarterbacks Warren Moon, Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo, and Kurt Warner all went unpicked. Nobody chose linebackers James Harrison or London Fletcher, either. Wide receivers Wayne Chrebet, Wes Welker and Victor Cruz all slipped through the draft, and so did Hall of Fame cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lanes.
Cliff Harris was a six-time Pro Bowl safety for the Dallas Cowboys in the ’70s, but he was undrafted out of Ouachita Baptist University. The Cowboys, in fact, discovered him playing semi-pro football after college.
So Barnes, who will need six more semester hours after he finishes school this spring to earn a degree in business management, is shooting for the stars . . . with a template.
“I’ve got to go in and fight for a spot,” he said. “I plan to visit my family before I go, and then get to work. They have a new coaching staff down there.”
Good luck to T.J. and all the former Georgia Tech players who find a spot trying out for NFL teams. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.<>/a>
Editor’s note: Thanks to T.J. and Orwin Smith who, on a busy night, took time to talk with writer Matt Winkeljohn.