Deacon Legend Bill Barnes Reflects on Career

Nov. 4, 2009

by Bill F. Hensley

Bill Hensley was Wake Forest's first sports information director. He has also served as a member of Wake Forest's Hall of Fame selection committee.

Athletes like Bill Barnes don't come along very often. And when they do, they make a tremendous impact, become a legend, and establish an era that is named for them.

As a football star, Barnes could run with the ball, throw it, catch it, and kick it. He could also block defensive lineman, return punts and kickoffs, tackle, and intercept passes. If they had asked him, he would have sold programs outside the arena before the game.

But football wasn't his only sport. He was equally good at baseball, a talent that Wake Forest didn't overlook when he was playing both sports from 1953-57. A third baseman and a power hitter, he was a key player when the Deacons won the national collegiate baseball championship in 1955.

Barnes established an enviable record at Wake Forest and as a professional football player in the NFL. Even though it has been over fifty years since the gifted athlete ran an off-tackle slant or hit a game winning home run, fans still like to recall the heroic deeds of the small town boy from rural Landis, NC.

The football record shows that he made All-America as a senior, All-Atlantic Coast Conference twice, was the ACC's Athlete of the year, and was the conference's first player to gain over 1,000 yards during a season. He led the conference in rushing, kickoff returns, punt returns, total yardage and touchdowns. He also had two interceptions and was the nation's second leading rusher in 1956 with a six-yard average for 168 carries. Barnes was a second round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In baseball, he made All-ACC three straight years and led the league in stolen bases.

His bases-loaded triple against Western Michigan in the college world series and a subsequent steal of home put the Deacons ahead for good. In the ninth inning with two men on base, he made a diving catch of a hot grounder and threw out the runner to end the game and give Wake Forest the title.

As a professional, Barnes, now 74, led the Eagles in rushing in 1957, 1958 and 1959 and made All-Pro those three years. When they won the national championship game in 1960 (before the Super Bowl was established), his nine-yard run and 13-yard pass reception were key plays on the winning drive, giving Philadelphia a 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

The 5-foot-10, 192 pound running back was traded to the Washington Redskins, where he played for two seasons, and led the team in rushing in 1962. He finished his career with a one-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings. During his nine-year career he rushed for 3,421 yards and for 29 touchdowns. He caught 153 passes for 1,786 yards and nine TDs.

After his playing days were over, he served as an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints for two years and the Atlanta Falcons for three years under Norm Van Brocklin.

"I had a good career in college and in the NFL," he said, "and have a lot of wonderful memories of those days. But the things I cherish the most are the life-long friendships I have established with teammates. Many of us stay in touch and get together as often as we can so we can rehash a lot of wins and some heart-breaking losses."

His greatest thrill, he recalls, were the national baseball championship and the world football title. "Those were dreams come true," he said proudly. And there were disappointments, too, like being left off the ACC's 50-year dream team, a serious omission that Deacons fans still don't understand and won't accept.

It was evident from his high school days that Barnes was an unusually talented athlete. At Landis, he was all-state in football, basketball and baseball and led the football team to an undefeated season in 1953 and the Kannapolis American Legion baseball team to the state tile the previous year.

His decision to attend Wake Forest was one of his wisest, he proclaims. "It was a small school that gave me a chance," he explained, "and I could never forget my good times there and the many friends I made. The football and baseball coaching staffs were great and helped me prepare for life as a professional."

The many talents of the hard-running, hard-hitting Barnes didn't go unnoticed as he was elected to the halls of fame at Wake Forest, Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania, as well as the North Carolina Sports Hall. He was named Rowan County's Athlete of the Century and an ACC "legend," and received the Order of the long Leaf Pine from NC Governor Jim Hunt.

"Life has been good to me," he commented, "so I hope I have contributed something in return."

Known by his teammates and fans as a loyal, dedicated athlete who didn't like to lose, Barnes was confident and cocky, often brash and brazen, outspoken but never out-hustled. He played hard, utilizing his speed, intelligence and bodily skills to the utmost. In brief, he was a winner.

He was also known as a colorful, complex character who never met an argument he didn't like. He is personable and friendly, but can be out-spoken and opinionated.

As one teammate said, "he could walk the walk and talk the talk, and I liked that."

During his career he answered to a variety of names: Bill, Billy, Wild Bill, Bullett Bill and finally,Billy Ray, which he doesn't really like. "I didn't care what people called me," he smiled, "just as long as they asked me to join them and sip a cool one."

A divorced father of twin daughters, he lives with his 92-year-old mother, Lillian, in the house in which both were born. He dotes on his girls, Lani and Billi, who were known as the "Silver Twins" when they were majorettes at Purdue University, and two grandsons, Coty and Will. "They are the joys of my life," he said proudly."

In his leisure, Barnes enjoys playing golf and reading and attending Wake Forest sports events and NFL alumni outings. Over the past decade, he has become close to Roman Gabriel and Claude (Hoot) Gibson, former NC State legends, and the late Dr. Eddie Sutton, a Carolina star who died last year.

"It's amazing how friendly former bitter rivals can become," he laughed. "In college I thought they were all jerks and now they are my close friends. See what athletics can do?"

In typical Barnes fashion, he brought down the house at a Landis luncheon. When asked what his number one career sports thrill had been, he replied "beating China Grove in anything."

And he meant it. Tough competitors don't concede.

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