COLLEGE PARK, Ga. – Ronnie Barnes has been hurdling barriers and establishing precedents throughout his 43 years with the Giants, so it was entirely appropriate he did it again Thursday night when he received one of the most significant awards of his career.
Barnes, the Giants' senior vice president of medical services, was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation's Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.'s Salute to Excellence Awards at a hotel just outside Atlanta, the site of Super Bowl LIII.
The foundation promotes diversity and minority hiring throughout the NFL, a cause Barnes has long fervently supported.
"It is a real pleasure to be here and to accept this award," Barnes told a gathering that included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Giants president John Mara, and many coaches and executives, including former Giants general manager Jerry Reese.
Fittingly, Barnes was introduced by Harry Carson, the foundation's executive director, who is his earlier life was a Hall of Fame linebacker who played his entire 13-year career with the Giants. Carson and Barnes both joined the organization in 1976 and have remained friends for 43 years. It was Carson who championed the decision to honor Barnes, one that was unique in the foundation's 16-year history.
"Ronnie is very deserving of the award," Carson said. "So many young people look at professional sports, they see the players, and they want to be a player. Well, everybody is not going to be a player. Many young people who may not necessarily be ballplayers can take a cue from Ronnie Barnes. He's close to the game, he has represented not only himself but also the medical staff of every pro franchise in such a way he's been a shining example of excellence. We often recognize general managers, teams, coaches, coordinators and so forth. But we've never honored someone from the medical professionals like a trainer or a Ronnie Barnes. So I'm glad to see him recognized by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, because he has done a very good job being an example of diversity, working with so many young people who have come into and through the Giant organization. He has worked with males and females, so it's about gender diversity as well as racial diversity. I think he is truly deserving of being recognized this evening."
Before he called Barnes to the podium to receive his plaque, Carson said, "Many of you in this room have probably never heard of the name Ronnie Barnes. But I have to tell you, if you are an athlete, the person you want to trust is the trainer. Ronnie has been a medical professional working with the New York Giants organization for over 43 years. He has been stellar in what he has done. You can read his bio, but I will break it down to this: he is one of the most respected medical professionals in all of professional sports."
Barnes came to the Giants as an athletic training intern. In 1980, he became a fulltime employee and the following year was named head trainer. The only other non-playing African Americans in the organization at the time were assistant coach Romeo Crennell and scout Rosie Brown, a Hall of Fame tackle who played 13 years for the Giants. Barnes was the only African American athletic trainer in the NFL, and he made sure to acknowledge the man who promoted him.
"I'd like to thank Wellington Mara, our late owner," Barnes said. "He appointed me as the head athletic trainer in 1980 and it was almost 23 years before there was another person of color who was tapped to lead a medical department in our league. For him to have the vision to do that, I am really thrilled and touched by him and by his family."
Barnes quickly made it his mission to open doors to the athletic training field for those to whom they were previously closed.
"I came to the NFL on an internship program," Barnes said. "I got involved with a sub-committee appointed by commissioner (Pete) Rozelle. It was myself and John Wooten (the alliance's co-founder and chairman, who was feted at the dinner because he is retiring) and others where we wanted to address how to attract more minorities in the NFL, not only in coaching, but in athletic training. Commissioner Rozelle wanted to know how we could do that. We created a $1,000 scholarship awarded to all 28 teams - and it went to 32 teams, if I'm correct - to employ summer interns to be introduced to athletic trainers around the country. Our organization, the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society, accepted that challenge and that scholarship still exists today. Each student gets $2,000 dollars each for the summer as well as being paid by their specific team, they get scholarships and that incentivizes the teams to look for minority candidates. That includes women. I take great pride in the fact that many of the African Americans who are in the NFL – some head athletic trainers, some assistant athletic trainers – came through the internship program which Pete Rozelle and I created."
Barnes has also been at the forefront in pushing to make football safer for those who play the game.
"When we started to have committees based on health and safety, I was always the first to raise my hand," he said. "I thought I had an idea about how we could make the game safer, how we could deliver universal health care to all of our players. That players got treated the same in New York as they did in L.A., as they did in Arizona or in Buffalo. Some standardization, not only of credentials for athletic trainers and physicians, but for just the quality of care. I've always been interested in raising the bar. I thought that it was very important that professional athletes received the kind of care in the athletic training room that they would expect in a doctor's office, or that they would receive in a physical therapy office. So I always worked hard to create that and worked with the league to try to continue to raise those standards. I'm happy to say that I'm extremely impressed at where we are now."
Barnes was elected to the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame in 1999. He served an unprecedented seven-year term as president of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society and has received a long list of awards.
But what is far more important to him are his relationships in the Giants family. He has been a friend, mentor and confidant to hundreds of players, coaches and anyone else who has sought his counsel. Barnes is as concerned with the health and welfare of Harry Carson as he is with Saquon Barkley.
"Clearly players, both active and those who are former Giants, are my family and I enjoy helping them," Barnes said. "They'll call up and ask for a doctor's appointment or advice on medical issues. But that's a hallmark of being a medical professional. Always being a healer, being a helper and I've always tried to do that throughout my life."
Barnes will turn 67 on Feb. 15. But he has no intention of reducing his workload.
"It may be 43 years, but it seems like I only arrived yesterday," Barnes said. "I measure my success by the level of care that we're able to offer our players and the number of consultants that we have and the number of physicians that we trained. We have a fellowship program where we're training orthopedic surgeons and primary care physicians how to be team physicians, and that number is close to 60. Throughout the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys' team physician, the Buffalo Bills' team physician, the Chicago Bears' team physician, and college and university physicians who are responsible for the care of athletes, I can go on and on.
"But if you ask me about being here at the Giants, I think that obviously I've had a charmed life. I owe everything to the Giants in terms of my success primarily because they offered me an opportunity to be involved in any continuing education effort that I wanted to, to be able to teach and expand the medical program here, and I'm thrilled. I just know that at some point it will come to an end, and that it will be time for me to step down. I think I'm building a foundation and a program that will go on after I leave."
The Giants hope that won't happen for a long, long time.