Erich Barnes was a formidable foe of the St. Louis football Cardinals. He was an intimidating, savvy defensive back who played 14 seasons in the NFL. In seven games against the Cardinals, he intercepted six passes.
Two of Barnes’ most significant clashes with the Cardinals occurred in consecutive seasons (1966 and 1967) at St. Louis. The first illustrated his fiery intensity. The second showed his smarts.
An all-pro who totaled 45 interceptions with the Chicago Bears (1958-60), New York Giants (1961-64) and Cleveland Browns (1965-71), Barnes was 86 when he died on May 6, 2022.
Barnes played college football at Purdue and earned a bachelor’s degree. The Bears selected him in the fourth round of the 1958 NFL draft.
In January 1961, the Bears sent Barnes to the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Billy Wade. The Rams then flipped Barnes to the Giants for defensive back Lindon Crow, a former Chicago Cardinal who had threatened to retire unless the Giants traded him to a team near his California home.
“We gave up a class A player in Barnes,” Bears head coach George Halas told the Chicago Tribune, “but you must give up a class A player to get one in return.”
“Often matched against the league’s best wide receivers,” the New York Times noted, Barnes helped the Giants reach the NFL title game in three consecutive seasons (1961-63).
Bobby Mitchell of the Washington Redskins said of Barnes, “When a man can hold me down playing man-to-man defense, he’s doing a tremendous job.”
Barnes developed a reputation for making hard hits “with an exuberance that drew penalties or warnings,” the Associated Press reported. In a 1963 game against the Bears, he was assessed a penalty for roughing another tough guy, tight end Mike Ditka.
“Throughout Barnes’ career, his method of operation was simple: You come across the middle, you get busted in your chops,” the Akron Beacon Journal observed.
Barnes displayed an uncanny knack for arriving at the same time a pass reached a receiver, and then whacking the ball from the recipient’s arms with a motion similar to a butcher wielding a cleaver.
“He was very intense on the field,” Barnes’ teammate, Giants offensive lineman Roosevelt Brown, told the Akron newspaper. “Off the field, he was very laid back. That’s when you wanted to meet him. You didn’t want to meet up with him on the football field.”
Barnes had 18 interceptions in four seasons with the Giants.
Like the Bears four years earlier, the Giants were in desperate need of an experienced quarterback in August 1965, and Barnes had trade value. The Giants sent Barnes to the Browns for linebacker Mike Lucci, then swapped Lucci and guard Darrell Dess to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Earl Morrall.
On Dec. 17, 1966, the Browns and Cardinals played at Busch Memorial Stadium. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Browns ahead by 28, backup quarterback Jim Ninowski threw a sideline pass to pint-sized Walter “The Flea” Roberts. The pass was incomplete, but Cardinals rookie defensive back Bobby Williams followed Roberts out of bounds and knocked him toward the Browns’ bench.
Roberts got up and “wanted to fight,” Williams said to the Associated Press. “He jumped on me. Then Barnes came over. Then it seemed like the whole Browns team was around me.”
Barnes told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I guess I was the first one to reach Williams, and I gave him a shove.”
Barnes then kicked, or attempted to kick, Williams while he was down, witnesses told United Press International.
“I swung my foot, but I’m not even sure I touched him,” Barnes said to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It was more of a chastising gesture. I had no intention of hurting him.”
Emotions were raw. Some spectators left their seats, gathered on top of a dugout and shouted at the Browns players on the sidelines.
“Ushers were unable to control the unruly bunch,” the Jacksonville (Ill.) Daily Journal reported, “and policemen with nightsticks were rushed to the scene.”
Bruce Alford, a line judge on the officiating crew, feared the mob would storm the field. “I thought there might not be enough policemen when the trouble started,” Alford told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
During a timeout, a spectator broke loose, approached Barnes from behind and struck him in the back of the head, knocking him to the ground.
“The first thing I know, I’m flat on my back,” Barnes recalled to the Post-Dispatch, “and I see our other players pushing some fan away from me.”
The assailant was handcuffed by police and taken away. Game stats
Two plainclothes police officers were assigned to escort Barnes from the locker room to the team bus, according to the Post-Dispatch.
After reviewing film, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle fined Barnes $250 for making “a major contribution to an inflammatory sideline incident.”
A year later, when the Browns returned to Busch Memorial Stadium on Dec. 10, 1967, “Barnes was booed vociferously when he was introduced” before the game, the Dayton Daily News reported.
Unfazed, Barnes responded with an outstanding performance. “Can’t play this game to win popularity contests,” Barnes told the Dayton newspaper.
In the third quarter, with the Browns ahead, 10-9, Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith took a handoff from Jim Hart on an end-around play.
“We’d studied films of that play all week,” Barnes told the Post-Dispatch.
When Barnes saw Smith take the ball, it was his responsibility to leave the receiver he was covering, Bobby Joe Conrad, and advance toward Smith, but Barnes’ instincts told him something was amiss.
“I say to myself, ‘Why is Bobby Joe Conrad running by me so hard?’ ” Barnes told the Post-Dispatch. “Most pass receivers don’t really run unless they think they’re going to get the ball.
“I say, ‘Erich, ain’t no pass receiver going to run that hard on a fake.’ That’s how I guessed Jackie Smith might plan to throw on that end-around. So I stay with Conrad.”
Sure enough, Smith stopped, looked downfield and tossed a pass toward Conrad. It was the first pass Smith attempted in a NFL game. Barnes intercepted it and ran 40 yards to the Cardinals’ 21. A few minutes later, Lou Groza kicked a field goal for a 13-9 Browns lead.
Barnes’ pickoff and return “put the Cardinals in a hole for the entire third quarter,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “The play served to turn the game in Cleveland’s direction.”
Barnes came up big again on the last play of the game.
With the Browns ahead, 20-16, Hart connected with Smith on a pass to the Cleveland 18. Six seconds remained when Smith caught the ball. Barnes blocked Smith’s path to the sideline so that he couldn’t get out of bounds and stop the clock. Forced to run down the field, Smith was tackled by middle linebacker Dale Lindsey as time expired. Game stats