Gary Wayne Barbaro
Induction Year: 2000
By Bill Bumgarner
The initial phone call from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame to Gary Wayne Barbaro did little to stem the doubt.
"I'm a born skeptic," recalled Barbaro. "I thought, `Who's putting me on?'"
As it turned out, no one.
Barbaro's notice of induction into the Hall of Fame came following a January vote by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, when the three-time Pro Bowl selection from the Kansas City Chiefs was first notified of his entry into the state hall at Natchitoches. But some vestiges of his uncertainty still remained.
"I was sent a brochure that contained a list of the candidates who have not made it," said Barbaro. "I thought, `How did they choose me before them? Was it done alphabetically?'"
Barbaro played seven seasons for the woebegone Chiefs between 1976 and 1982. As a free safety, he intercepted 10 passes in 1980 and was voted team MVP on a 2-12 club. In 1977, Barbaro returned an interception against Seattle for 102 yards and he had a 70-yard scoring return in 1979. Four times, he averaged more than 20 yards per interception return for a season.
Numerous running backs and receivers regretted venturing into the territory occupied by a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder who performed for a team that never reached the playoffs during his career and usually managed no more than four victories per year.
"Kansas City had a lot of talent but the organization could never put it together," he said. "One year, our coach, Marv Levy, would call out players' names for the scout squad. He didn't even know that the guys had already been traded or cut. The record we had during those seasons was definitely a low light."
A football career of any magnitude seemed unlikely for Barbaro during his high school days at East Jefferson in Metairie. A trombone player in the band, he played one year of varsity football under East Jeff coach Frank Dalfares and secondary coach Willie Hof.
Hof, who would later become the head coach at Bonnabel and was elected Jefferson Parish President, recommended Barbaro to some acquaintances at the fledgling football program at Nicholls State in Thibodaux.
"Coach Hof knew Nicholls Coach Bill Clements, who was just starting the program," said Barbaro. "They were looking for bodies." Barbaro's body at the time measured 6-2 and 155 pounds.
Nonetheless, he received a scholarship to a program where he would admittedly bounce around.
As a freshman, Barbaro started in the secondary but was switched to quarterback for one game. He remained the starting quarterback only a few games deep into his sophomore season.
"I went to Coach Clements," he said, "and I told him I was horrible, that I was embarrassing myself and the program."
Barbaro spent the rest of his sophomore season at slotback before switching permanently to cornerback for his final two seasons. His quickness and 4.5 speed for 40 yards caught the eye of the Chiefs, who drafted him in the third round.
Once again, the help of an assistant coach shaped the course of his career.
"When I was taken, I had no clue about the draft. I had never even met anyone who had been drafted," said Barbaro, the first player from Nicholls ever selected by a professional football team. But the defensive backs coach at Kansas City was Tom Bettis. "He took me under his wing. After practice, he taught me everything I could possibly grasp. He was only with me for one and one-half years, but he was the probably the best coach I ever had."
"A free safety has to be able to break on the ball. That's where my quickness helped me," said Barbaro. "And you need to do your homework because some quarterbacks are good at looking you off and pump-faking you out of position."
After the strike season in 1982, the Chiefs and Barbaro, a strong union supporter, reached an impasse over a contract. So he played his final season of pro football with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, but a torn knee ligament ended his career shortly thereafter.
Today, Barbaro lives in Metairie with his wife Karen and two daughters, Angelle and Stacey, each of whom will be married this summer, with the dates sandwiched around the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Shreveport, June 24. Barbaro, 46, works as a manufacturer's representative in the food service equipment business, a position he has held for 15 years.
Although Kansas City managed mostly forgettable seasons, Barbaro performed against some of the NFL's elite. Here are some of his personal observations about some former opponents:
Best pure passer? Craig Morton of the Denver Broncos.
Best comeback quarterback? Kenny Stabler of the Oakland Raiders.
Best competitor? Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers.
Best athletic ability? Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Barbaro defended against the likes of Cliff Branch and Fred Bilitnikoff of Oakland, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann of Pittsburgh, and Steve Largent of Seattle.
Two plays and one player stand out most vividly today.
"My most memorable hit took place against Reggie Rucker of Cleveland," said Barbaro. "He ran an up, out, and up pattern and beat our cornerback. I timed my hit perfectly and I really tagged him. He bobbled the ball, but it bounced back up to him just as he hit the ground. I got up to argue with the official because he ruled it a reception. It looked to me like the official was walking away from me, so I said, ‘Don't move away from me.' He hadn't. He was standing right in front of me, but I was knocked so dingy, he looked like he was going away."
On another occasion, Barbaro smashed Charlie Joiner of San Diego with so much force that Joiner flipped 360 degrees, even though both feet were on the ground at the time of contact.
But Barbaro admits his luck against the NFL's all-time rushing leader, the late Walter Payton of Chicago, was not so memorable.
Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame | 500 Front Street | Natchitoches, LA 71497