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Where are they now? RB Billy Ray Barnes

Halfback Billy Ray Barnes
Halfback Billy Ray Barnes

Connecting with the ol' one-two punch will generally do well in a fight. Add two more swings and you may have a knockout. The Eagles did just that when they recorded a TKO in 1957 by choosing running backs Clarence Peaks and Billy Ray Barnes, wide receiver Tommy McDonald, and quarterback Sonny Jurgensen in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft.

Barnes, an All-American halfback at Wake Forest, was the first of the young quartet to shine for Philadelphia. The time that he needed to adjust to the pros took roughly about as long as it took to unpack his suitcase after arriving at the team's Training Camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

"You smell a lot of chocolate, but we loved it up there," Barnes says. "My roommate was (veteran defensive back) Tom Brookshier, so I don't even remember being a rookie too damn much. Brookshier had already played and then went in the service and came back."

Rushing for a team-leading 529 yards as a rookie, he also led the team in receiving and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl for the first of three consecutive years.

As a team, the Eagles weren't exactly Pro Bowl caliber. A four-win season in 1957 was followed by a 2-9-1 record in 1958, Buck Shaw's first season as the head coach. That was also the year Philadelphia acquired veteran quarterback Norm Van Brocklin from the Los Angeles Rams. The additions of Shaw and Van Brocklin would help the Eagles win the NFL Championship in 1960, beating Green Bay in the title game, 17-13. It marked Hall of Fame Head Coach Vince Lombardi's sole playoff defeat.

"Everybody sort of got together and I think that's the way we ended up winning a championship. We didn't start out very good, but we liked each other and we just played hard. We got Van Brocklin in '58 and he was going to be our savior, and then we lost more games than we did in '57. But he brought it all together," Barnes says.

"Van Brocklin was just like a CEO in a bank. I mean, he ran the show. He was the most knowledgeable individual in football that I'd ever been around. On the football field, he was like another coach out there. He was a field general and if you made a mistake, you didn't want to come back to the huddle, because you sure as hell heard about it. But if he made a mistake, you could get on him too. He made us all think that nobody could beat us.

"And our defense, you don't hear a whole lot about the defense. I forgot exactly what they allowed in scoring that year, but I think they intercepted something like 25, 27 passes (30). They gave up yardage, but from the 20 to 20 they'd bend a little bit, but they played damn good defense all year. And I've never really seen that, even back then, published that our defense played that well.

"We gave Green Bay several chances in the championship (game) and they held them to 13 points. So we just jelled. The camaraderie of the team ... Hell, we partied together, played together. Ran pretty hard and played hard."

A hard-running halfback for five years in Philadelphia, Barnes led the team in rushing his first three seasons. He totaled 2,391 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns and added eight more scores on 120 receptions. But finding the end zone and helping the Eagles win the NFL Championship are only a couple of the memories he has from his playing days.

"The fondest memory of everything up there is the fans," says Barnes, who went on to play for two seasons each with Washington and Minnesota. "I played there for five years, but I lived there year-round for about eight years. The people were just great to me in Philadelphia."

In 1969, a few years after he hung up his helmet, Barnes returned to the NFL as the wide receivers coach with the New Orleans Saints. Two seasons later, he joined Van Brocklin in Atlanta where the former quarterback was the head coach of the Falcons. In 1975, his seven-year coaching career concluded back in New Orleans as the special teams coach.

"After the '75 season. I got out of football and made some money. They didn't overpay us back then," Barnes laughed. "I was a homebuilder and built about 350 houses in Atlanta, Georgia. Then '88 to '91 came along and I don't know if you remember, but the house building wasn't very good. I lost a bundle of money, so I decided to quit. And I ain't hit a lick since then."

Well, except on the golf course. Making his home in Landis, North Carolina, Barnes hits the links five days a week.

"I don't keep score that much, but there ain't too many 86-year-old men that can hit it as far as I hit it though," Barnes laughed. "I've got a buddy, and we tee off every morning at 8 o'clock. I don't play on weekends. There's too many people."

With his driver, putter, and sand wedge sitting idle on Sundays in the fall, Barnes has time to watch NFL games on television. Does he see pretty much the same game from when he played?

"They may throw the ball a little more than we threw it. But, of course, we threw the ball with Van Brocklin," Barnes says. "And they look like they're a little bigger at times. Besides that, I can't tell that much difference. It's football."

Barnes is the father of two daughters: Lani Barnes Baxter, an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte; and Billi Akins, the Chief of Staff of Administrative Operations for the Henry County (Georgia) Sheriff's Office. He also has two grandsons.

What's the best thing about being Billy Ray Barnes today?

"Well, I don't have to work," he laughed. "Eighty-six years old, you don't worry about a whole lot of things anymore. My mother lived to be 102, and I hope to break her record. Life is life, and I just hope we stay here a long time.

"And I was born and raised in the house I'm sitting in right now. Life has been great for Billy Barnes. I have no gripes about anything that's really happened in my life.

"Most of the things, I've been very lucky in life. I've had cancer twice. That wasn't very good, but I beat both of those. Like I said, life's been good to Billy Barnes."

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