There have been many excellent defensive backs in Cleveland Browns history.
Such players as Tommy James, Warren Lahr, Bernie Parrish, Clarence Scott, Hanford Dixon, and Frank Minnifield all were outstanding defensive players who spent all or nearly all of their NFL careers with Cleveland.
Another excellent defensive back for the Browns who had a different career path was Erich Barnes.
After seven successful seasons with the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. Barnes, at the age of 30, was traded to the Browns in 1965.
Over seven seasons with Cleveland, Barnes continued to excel, earning postseason honors and helping the Browns advance to three NFL championship games.
• 6 Pro Bowls
• 3x All-Pro (1x First-Team)
• Tied then-NFL record with a 102-yard Pick-6 for NYG in 1961
• Caught a 62-yard TD pass in 1961
• Played in 6 NFL Championship games pic.twitter.com/1knYRbTzDi
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) July 4, 2020
We take a look at the life of Erich Barnes – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Erich Theodore Barnes was born on July 4, 1935 in Elkhart, Indiana.
Elkhart is located in north central Indiana, about 110 miles east of Chicago and 150 miles north of Indianapolis.
While Barnes was growing up there, Elkhart had a population of approximately 32,000 to 35,000 people.
As a child, Barnes was a fan of the Cleveland Browns.
“[M]y team, as a kid, was the Cleveland Browns. My idols were Lenny Ford and Marion Motley. I used to come up (to Cleveland) on a train. My buddies and I would stand outside the gate and we walked in for a buck if we got a ticket. Then we would take the train back home. We would do that at least twice a year.”
Barnes attended Elkhart High School, graduating in 1954.
At Elkhart High School, Barnes was a three-year starter and letterman on the football, basketball, and track teams.
In football, Barnes was an All-State defensive back and All-Northern Indiana Conference back.
In basketball, at forward, Barnes helped Elkhart High School advance to the Indiana high school basketball “Final Four” in 1954.
He also was named to the All-Sectional team.
In track, Barnes anchored the state mile relay championship team.
He also was second in the state final 880-yard run.
Barnes received a scholarship to attend Purdue University, and he headed to West Lafayette, Indiana to join the Boilermakers for college.
At Purdue, Barnes was a three-year starter and letterwinner in football, playing from 1955 to 1957.
He was a versatile player for the Boilermakers. He played right halfback, left end, and cornerback.
On November 12, 1955, in a 46-8 Purdue win over Northwestern, Barnes caught a 95-yard pass from Purdue (and future Cleveland Browns and Pro Football Hall of Fame) quarterback Len Dawson.
It remains one of the longest pass receptions in Boilermakers history.
In 1955, Purdue posted a 5-3-1 record.
Barnes rushed for 217 yards on 52 rushing attempts, and caught 12 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, in 1956.
The Boilermakers had a 3-4-2 record in 1956.
One of their victories was a 28-14 defeat of Notre Dame (then ranked 18th in the nation by the Associated Press) on October 13, 1956.
In 1957, Barnes rushed for 16 yards on two rushing attempts and caught two passes for 52 yards.
Purdue had a 5-4 record in 1957, including a 20-13 win over Michigan State (then ranked first in the nation by the Associated Press) on October 19, 1957.
Over his career at Purdue, Barnes rushed for 257 yards on 62 rushing attempts, caught 20 passes for 319 yards, returned seven kickoffs for 136 yards, and returned two punts for 28 yards.
In addition, on defense, Barnes intercepted five passes, which he returned for 86 yards.
After graduating Purdue in 1958, Barnes headed to the NFL to continue his football career.
The Pro Football Years
The Chicago Bears drafted Barnes in the fourth round of the 1958 draft; he was the 42nd overall pick.
As a rookie in 1958, Barnes played in all 12, and started eight, regular season games at right defensive back.
“I learned my whole style of play from the Bears. That’s where I attain all my talent from.”
On October 19, 1958, in a 31-10 Bears win over the Los Angeles Rams, Barnes returned a blocked field goal for 41 yards and his first NFL regular season touchdown.
Barnes intercepted Los Angeles quarterback Billy Wade and returned the interception for a 20-yard touchdown, in a 41-35 Bears loss to the Rams on November 2, 1958.
For the 1958 regular season, Barnes intercepted four passes, which he returned for 90 yards.
The Bears had an 8-4 record in 1958.
Barnes’ play contributed to Chicago leading the NFL in the 1958 regular season in both fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,066) and fewest passing yards allowed (1,769).
In 1959, Barnes started all 12 regular season games at right defensive back.
He intercepted five passes, which he returned for 67 yards, and recovered two fumbles, in the 1959 regular season.
Barnes received his first Pro Bowl invitation in 1959.
He also was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press and first team All-Conference by the Sporting News in 1959.
Chicago posted another 8-4 record in 1959.
Barnes started all 12 regular season games at left safety in 1960.
In 1960, Barnes was named first team All-Conference by the Sporting News.
Chicago fell to a 5-6-1 record in 1960 (including a 42-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns on December 11, 1960).
Barnes’ play helped the Bears lead the NFL in the 1960 regular season in fewest passing yards allowed (1,388).
On January 28, 1961, Barnes was traded by the Bears to the New York Giants in a three-team trade involving the Bears, Giants, and Los Angeles Rams.
While Barnes was on a new team, his level of play remained outstanding.
In 1961 with New York, Barnes started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback.
On October 15, 1961, Barnes had two interceptions, one of which he returned for a 102-yard touchdown, in a 31-10 Giants victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Barnes, on offense, caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from future Pro Football Hall of Fame Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle, in a 38-21 Giants win over the Philadelphia Eagles on November 12, 1961.
In a 37-21 Giants defeat of the Cleveland Browns on November 26, 1961, Barnes intercepted a pass and returned it for a 35-yard touchdown.
Barnes intercepted seven passes, which he returned for 195 yards (leading the NFL), and recovered one fumble, which he returned for nine yards, in the 1961 regular season.
He also caught two passes for 74 yards in the 1961 regular season.
For his play in 1961, Barnes was named first team All-Pro by the NFL.
Barnes received his second Pro Bowl invitation in 1961.
He also was named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, and United Press International, and first team All-Conference by the Sporting News, in 1961.
With a 10-3-1 record (the tie was a 7-7 tie with the Cleveland Browns on December 17, 1961), the Giants won the NFL East Division title in 1961.
Barnes helped New York lead the NFL in the 1961 regular season in fewest points allowed (220).
Barnes started the 1961 NFL championship game for the Giants at left cornerback, but the Giants were defeated by the Green Bay Packers 37-0 on December 31, 1961.
In 1962, Barnes again started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback.
He intercepted six passes, which he returned for 61 yards, in the 1962 regular season.
Barnes received his third Pro Bowl invitation in 1962.
He also was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press and United Press International, and first team All-Conference by the Sporting News, in 1962.
A December 3, 1962 article in Sports Illustrated, by then lead football writer Tex Maule, described Barnes as “the marvelously quick and agile defensive back for the Giants.”
The Giants, with a 12-2 record (including a 17-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns on September 16, 1962, and a 17-13 win over the Browns on December 9, 1962), again won the NFL East Division title in 1962.
In the 1962 NFL championship game, on December 30, 1962, Barnes made a key play, when he blocked a punt which was recovered in the end zone for a New York touchdown.
However, the Giants (with Barnes starting the game at left cornerback) lost to the Green Bay Packers 16-7.
Barnes again started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback in 1963.
He intercepted three passes and also recovered four fumbles, which he returned for 39 yards, in the 1963 regular season.
Barnes received his fourth Pro Bowl invitation in 1963.
The Giants won their third consecutive NFL East Division title, with an 11-3 record (including a 35-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns on October 13, 1963, and a 33-6 win over Cleveland on October 27, 1963), in 1963.
Barnes started the 1963 NFL championship game and recovered a fumble, but New York lost to the Chicago Bears 14-10 on December 29, 1963.
In 1964, for the fourth consecutive year, Barnes started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback.
On September 20, 1964, Barnes intercepted Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ed Brown and returned the interception for a 26-yard touchdown, in a 27-24 Giants loss to Pittsburgh.
Barnes scored a second touchdown against Pittsburgh in 1964, when, playing on special teams, he recovered a fumble in the end zone, in a 44-17 New York loss to the Steelers on November 22, 1964.
For the 1964 regular season, Barnes intercepted two passes, which he returned for 26 yards, and recovered two fumbles.
Barnes received his fifth Pro Bowl invitation in six seasons in 1964.
He also was named first team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association and second team All-Pro by the New York Daily News in 1964.
All-Pro and Pro Bowl St. Louis Cardinals wide receiver Bobby Joe Conrad said about Barnes:
“Erich, you’ve got . . . great speed and all the ability to go with it. You’re as good as they come – the best.”
New York fell to a 2-10-2 record in 1964.
Two of the Giants losses were to the Cleveland Browns – 42-20 on October 25, 1964, and 52-20 on December 12, 1964.
On August 29, 1965, Barnes was traded for a second time.
New York traded Barnes to the Cleveland Browns for linebacker Mike Lucci and a draft pick.
At the age of 30, Barnes was pleased to join the Browns (who were the defending NFL champion from 1964).
“I was very happy to play for my boyhood idol team. I knew most of the guys. It was a lot of fun.”
In his first season with Cleveland in 1965, Barnes (who then played at a height of six feet and two inches and weight of 201 pounds) played in all 14, and started six, regular season games at right cornerback. Barnes shared much of the playing time at right cornerback with Walter Beach.
On September 26, 1965, Barnes intercepted a pass (his first regular season interception with the Browns) and returned it for 35 yards, in a 49-13 Cleveland loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Cleveland won the NFL East Division title in 1965 with an 11-3 record.
Barnes contributed to Cleveland’s defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1965 fifth in defensive interceptions (24).
The Browns advanced to play in the 1965 championship game against the Green Bay Packers on January 2, 1966.
Barnes played in, but did not start, the game, as Cleveland lost to Green Bay 23-12.
In 1966, Barnes started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback.
On September 11, 1966, in the opening game of the regular season, Barnes intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and returned the interception for 54 yards.
The Browns forced six Washington turnovers and defeated Washington 38-14.
Barnes intercepted a pass and returned it for 32 yards, in a Cleveland 41-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 8, 1966.
The Browns held Pittsburgh to 22 rushing yards and forced six Steelers turnovers.
For the 1966 regular season, Barnes had four interceptions, which he returned for 128 yards.
He was named first team All-Conference by the Sporting News in 1966.
In describing his playing style, Barnes said:
“I was sort of like a dictator and intimidator. . . . I kept the receivers off guard. I never let them get into a rhythm. I always wanted the receiver to go where I wanted him to go. . . . I was a big, fast defensive back. I was world-class sprinter and could run with all those guys. And I was a hitter. . . . You knew the guys you could intimidate. And when I say intimidate, I was a little bigger and if I could manhandle those smaller receivers, I would. . . . The key to it was when the guy caught the ball, you had to let him know he was going to get hit and give him a few more things to think about.”
As a “hitter”, Barnes was sometimes called a “dirty” player. However, for Barnes, such labels were not important.
“When I was with the Giants and I would come into Cleveland, they used to call me dirty. When I went to Cleveland, the Giants would call me dirty and Cleveland would call me aggressive. It all depends on where you were playing. . . . (Bears coach) George Halas used to say that the greatest compliment you can pay a defensive back is that he’s a hitter. I got kick out of people putting tags on me. That’s better than saying you’re no hitter at all.”
The Browns had a 9-5 record in 1966, but failed to make the playoffs.
Barnes helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1966 fifth in fewest points allowed (259), first in recovered turnovers (49), fourth in recovered fumbles (19), and first in defensive interceptions (30).
Barnes played in, and started, 13 regular season games at left cornerback in 1967.
On October 15, 1967, Barnes intercepted St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart and returned the interception for seven yards, in a 20-16 Browns win over the Cardinals.
St. Louis committed five turnovers.
Barnes had another interception against St. Louis, which he returned for 40 yards, in another 20-16 Cleveland victory over the Cardinals on December 10, 1967.
In the 1967 regular season, Barnes intercepted four passes, which he returned for 47 yards, and recovered one fumble.
With a 9-5 record, Cleveland won the NFL Century Division title in 1967.
Barnes contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1967 tied for fifth in recovered fumbles (14) and fourth in sacks (41).
Cleveland met the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 playoffs on December 24, 1967.
Barnes started the game at left cornerback, but Dallas defeated the Browns 52-14.
In 1968, Barnes started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback.
Barnes had an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which he returned for 22 yards, in a 45-24 Cleveland win over Pittsburgh on November 17, 1968.
Cleveland forced seven Steelers turnovers.
On December 8, 1968, in a 24-21 Browns victory over the Washington Redskins, Barnes intercepted a Sonny Jurgensen pass and returned it for a 40-yard touchdown (Barnes’ first regular season touchdown with Cleveland).
Barnes intercepted three passes, which he returned for 64 yards, and recovered one fumble, in the 1968 regular season.
In 1968, Barnes received his sixth Pro Bowl invitation.
In addition, he was named first team All-Conference by the Sporting News in 1968.
With a 10-4 record, the Browns again won the NFL Century Division title in 1968.
Barnes helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1968 first in recovered turnovers (46) and first in defensive interceptions (32).
On December 21, 1968, Cleveland advanced to a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Barnes started the game and intercepted a pass, which he returned for two yards.
The Browns forced four Cowboys turnovers and avenged their 1967 playoff loss to Dallas, defeating the Cowboys 31-20.
The following week, on December 29, 1968, Cleveland played the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL championship game.
Barnes started the game and recovered a fumble (which he returned for nine yards), but the Browns lost to the Colts 34-0.
In 1969, Barnes again started all 14 regular season games at left cornerback.
Barnes intercepted a Pittsburgh Steelers pass and returned it for a 55-yard touchdown, in a 42-31 Cleveland win over Pittsburgh on October 18, 1969.
The Steelers committed eight turnovers.
Cleveland, with a 10-3-1 record, won the NFL Century Division title for the third consecutive year in 1969.
With Barnes’ play, the Browns ranked in the NFL regular season in 1969 tied for fourth in recovered turnovers (41), second in recovered fumbles (22), and fifth in sacks (37).
On December 28, 1969, for the third consecutive year, the Browns met the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs.
Barnes started the game at left cornerback, as Cleveland defeated Dallas 38-14.
Cleveland advanced to the 1969 NFL championship game against the Minnesota Vikings on January 4, 1970.
Barnes again started the game at left cornerback, but the Browns lost to the Vikings 27-7.
Barnes started 14 regular season games at left cornerback for the third consecutive year in 1970.
On October 3, 1970, Barnes scored his final NFL regular season touchdown when he intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and returned the interception for a 38-yard touchdown.
Forcing four Steelers turnovers, Cleveland defeated Pittsburgh 15-7.
Barnes had his final NFL regular season interception when he intercepted Denver Broncos quarterback Alan Pastrana and returned the interception for 22 yards, in a 27-13 Browns win over Denver on December 20, 1970. Cleveland forced four Broncos turnovers.
In the 1970 regular season, Barnes intercepted five passes, which he returned for 85 yards, and recovered one fumble.
Cleveland had a 7-7 record in 1970.
Barnes played in and started two regular season games in 1971.
The Browns won the AFC Central Division title in 1971, with a 9-5 record.
Barnes contributed to Cleveland ranking in the NFL regular season in 1971 fourth in fewest passing yards allowed (1,967).
Cleveland (without Barnes playing in the game) lost in the divisional round of the 1971 playoffs to the Baltimore Colts 20-3 on December 26, 1971.
Barnes retired from the NFL before playing in 1972.
The Years After the NFL
Barnes was married to Violet.
He had three daughters, Charissa, Djuna, and Tessa.
After his retirement from the NFL, Barnes settled in the New York City area.
He worked as a corporate special events planner.
“I like to do a lot of volunteer work. I play in a lot of tennis and golf outings.”
Barnes was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 2009, Barnes was inducted into the Purdue Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.
Barnes was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2018.
There are four key elements to Barnes’ NFL career.
First, Barnes was durable.
Before his last season, Barnes missed playing in only one game over 13 NFL seasons.
Second, Barnes was excellent at intercepting passes and then returning them for long returns and even touchdowns.
He intercepted at least one pass in 12 of his 14 seasons.
His 45 total regular season interceptions rank tied for 57th in NFL history, his 853 total regular season interception return yards rank 19th in NFL history, and his seven total regular season interception return touchdowns (which do not count the three other touchdowns that Barnes scored on a blocked field goal, a pass, and a special teams fumble recovery) rank tied for 12th in NFL history.
Solely counting his seven years playing for the Cleveland Browns, Barnes ranks 16th in Browns career regular season interceptions (18), sixth in Browns career regular season interception return yards (414), and tied for third in Browns career regular season interception return touchdowns (3).
Barnes also recovered 12 regular season fumbles during his NFL career (three with Cleveland),
Third, Barnes regularly received postseason honors.
He was invited to the Pro Bowl in six seasons and was named to various All-Pro and/or All-Conference teams in seven seasons.
Fourth, Barnes was a winner.
His teams only had two losing seasons, made the playoffs in eight seasons, and advanced to six NFL championship games.
Erich Barnes was one of my Dad’s favorite #Browns. He played with the @Browns for 7 years from 1965-71. He totaled 45 interceptions and returned 7 for touchdowns in his NFL career. 6X Pro Bowler. HOF worthy stats. pic.twitter.com/cQWIc1zPC6
— Mark Slaughter (@mslaughter63) April 30, 2019
Browns fans may not agree on many issues with Bears fans and Giants fans.
However, there will be general agreement on one issue – Erich Barnes was one of the best cornerbacks to ever play for Chicago, New York, and Cleveland.