2009 ACC Football Legends: Billy Ray Barnes, Wake Forest
Oct. 27, 2009
Billy Ray Barnes’ arrival at Wake Forest coincided with the birth of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and he wasted little time in setting a high standard for all who followed.
Barnes is one of this year's Dr Pepper Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship Game Legends who will be honored at this year's ACC Football Championship Game weekend. The Legends will appear at the ACC Coaches and Awards Luncheon at noon on Friday, Dec. 4, and will be honored at the "ACC Night of Legends" held at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay on Friday evening. They will also be recognized during ceremonies at Raymond James Stadium for the 5th Annual Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship, which kicks off at 8 p.m., Dec. 5 on ESPN.
Barnes, the ACC’s first 1,000-yard rusher, enrolled at Wake in the fall of 1953, the first year of the conference’s existence. Though NCAA rules then prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity team, Barnes looked forward to what lay ahead.
“They were a part of the ACC when I got there, so that’s all I ever knew,” Barnes said. “I knew Wake Forest and the other schools had (earlier) belonged to the Southern Conference, but to me it was always ACC.”
Barnes was destined to be one of the ACC’s first star athletes, but Wake Forest wasn’t his original destination. A three-sport star at Landis (N.C.) High School, roughly 30 miles northeast of Charlotte, he originally accepted a baseball scholarship to NC State.
“Football to me was work,” Barnes said, “though on game days there was nothing like it.”
Barnes realized football remained in his blood in July of 1953, when he took part in the North Carolina East-West All-Star Football Game at Greensboro.
“I decided, ‘Heck, I can’t quit football,’ ”Barnes recalled. “I met a buddy of mine, Jim Horne, at the East-West game. He was from Shelby (N.C.), and he was going to Wake Forest.”
But Barnes originally looked to Duke as a potential football destination. He had been a bit of a Blue Devil fan growing up, and the Blue Devils had offered him a football scholarship the previous fall. Barnes had turned down the offer at the time because it did not include a chance to play baseball as well.
“My high school coach, Dan Hamrick, who is still the best coach I ever had – and that’s college, pro and everything else – called Duke back,” Barnes said. “This was about two weeks before freshmen were supposed to show up at college, and they had given all the scholarships out. They said, ‘We’ll see what we can do, and we’ll call you back.’ ”
In the meantime, Hamrick placed a call to Wake Forest.
“They said, ‘Come on down,’ and that was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Barnes said. “I’ve still got many friends from my time there.”
Barnes attended Wake Forest during a time of transition. Located near Raleigh in the town of Wake Forest, N.C., the university had already announced plans to re-locate to Winston-Salem, a little over 100 miles west toward the center of the state.
The move came in the summer of 1955, just prior to Barnes’ senior year. Though Winston-Salem was closer to Landis and Barnes enjoyed his best season as a college football player there, he still looks back with mixed emotions.
“Winston-Salem was a nice place, but you have to understand: Even to this day, to the folks that went to the old Wake Forest, there’s not another place like it. I don’t know whether it was the atmosphere around the little town or what it was, but there was nothing like the old school.”
Once Barnes began playing varsity football at Wake Forest, there was literally no getting him off the field. He started on both the offensive and defensive units, punted one season, and played a key role in kick coverage.
“Any time I suited up, I wanted to win,” Barnes said. “If I walked onto the field, you were going to get everything I had. I was going to give 110 percent whether I was playing football, baseball or basketball. I didn’t care who I was playing – William & Mary or Duke … it didn’t make any difference to me.”
Barnes led Wake Forest in rushing, receiving and kick returns while earning All-ACC honors as a junior in 1955. The season ended with a disappointing 14-0 loss to nationally ranked and ACC co-champion Duke, but the game remains perhaps Barnes’ most memorable as a college player.
“(Duke coach) Bill Murray came into our locker room and told me it was the best game he’d ever seen anyone play,” Barnes said. “I was a heck of a lot better on defense that day than I was on offense. We played them a hell of a game. We didn’t have Nick Consoles, our starting quarterback; he was injured. But that was quite something, for the other coach to come in and tell you something like that.”
Barnes wasted little time winning over the new fan base after the move to Winston-Salem.
“Probably the greatest game I ever had – outside of Landis High School, anyway – was the first game of my senior year when we played at William & Mary,” Barnes said. “The first play, I went 75 yards for a touchdown. Then I returned a punt 70-something yards for a touchdown. Then I went 69 yards or something for another touchdown. I punted for a 40-something yard average and kicked a couple of extra points.
“And that was all in the first half. I carried the ball nine times for 170-some yards. I carried one time in the second half for 35 yards, and they called it back.”
Barnes earned All-America honors and was named ACC Player of the Year after rushing for 1,010 yards and averaging an even six yards per carry.
“I was proud that year for Wake Forest,” Barnes said. “We went 2-5-3 that year, but we weren’t expected to do anything. We only had 15 or 20 players every year, it seemed like, that played. We were competitive but it seemed like in the third and fourth quarter, things sort of happened.”
Barnes’ says his greatest sports moment – including a pro career that saw him play in three Pro Bowls and win an NFL Championship with the Philadelphia Eagles – came on the baseball field. A three-year starter and college career .313 hitter, Barnes helped lead the Demon Deacons to the 1955 College World Series championship. That team remains the only one in ACC history to claim a CWS title.
“They inducted the whole Eagles team that won the (1960) NFL championship into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame,” Barnes said. “Some reporters said, ‘I guess that was the biggest thrill you ever had.’ I told them, ‘Afraid not – not even close. My biggest thrill was winning the College World Series with Wake Forest.’
“They looked at me kind of funny, but that’s the way I felt.”
The NFL has changed since Barnes’ days as a player, as evidenced by his recollection of an exhibition game between Philadelphia and the Washington Redskins in the late 1950s.
“Can you guess where we played that game?” he asked. “The infield of the Bristol (Tenn.) Race Track. The players today would never play that game. They wouldn’t even suit up. The infield had holes in it, it was up and down. The track goes straight up on one side, so you had people in one area of the stands that couldn’t see. The lighting was bad. We dressed in bathrooms that were down there at one end of the field, and at halftime we all just kind of stood around outside and talked. It was the darndest thing.”
Barnes retired from the NFL in 1966 and spent nine years as an assistant coach at the professional level. He later went into the construction business in the Atlanta area, a successful career until the recession of the early 1990s intervened.
Barnes returned home to Landis and since 1991 has lived in the century-old house where he was born and raised.
“I had a house that was paid for – my grandfather built it,” Barnes said. “It’s still a great house. It’s not falling down. I was born in this house, and my mother (Lillian), who turns 92 later this month (Oct. 29) was born here, too.”
In more recent years, Barnes has spent much of his spare time with his grandchildren, Coty and Will. And being back home means being closer to Wake Forest and BB&T Field, a stadium built after his playing days, but one in which the “Billy Ray Barnes Sports Lounge” is a prominent part of Bridger Field House.
“It was named in my honor because of my friends,” Barnes said. “They were the ones who donated the money to help build that place. To still have so many that remember you and to do something nice like that … that means a lot.”