He was one of 20 black students chosen to integrate an all-white middle school in Wilson, N.C., because if young Ronnie Barnes, so good and bright and tough on the inside, couldn’t weather the storm and inspire change, who could?
He was an intern in 1976 when Hall of Famer Harry Carson was drafted by the Giants. Sixteen months ago, he was recognized for a lifetime of achievement at the Fritz Pollard Foundation’s Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Salute to Excellence Awards, and it was only fitting it was Carson, the foundation’s executive director, who introduced him.
He cared for Wellington Mara at the end of the Hall of Fame Giants owner’s life, stayed by his bedside as if he were his son, has cared for football Giants from the time Mara made him the NFL’s first African-American head trainer in 1980 until now.
Ronnie Barnes, senior vice president of medical services/head athletic trainer, is revered and respected at 1925 Giants Drive and across the National Football League, and he has been revered and respected by Giants across the decades, from Carson to Lawrence Taylor to Bill Parcells to Tom Coughlin to Eli Manning.
With Manning retired, Ronnie Barnes, 68 years young, stands alone as The Pride of the Giants.
In his role for the New York Football Giants, Barnes is the one quarterbacking them through this pandemic. He is the one across the decades who has stood as an unwavering, towering symbol of fairness, compassion and integrity.
“I was one of the few students chosen to integrate our public school system,” Barnes told The Post. “It was referred to as the Freedom of Choice program. There was some attrition with my classmates from Charles I. Coon Junior High School and even more as we advanced to Fike High School.”
Young Ronnie Barnes never blinked.
“My parents and teachers told us it would not be easy, but that it would be an opportunity for a better education,” he said. “Funding at that time was not equal among the black and white schools. Resources were thin at the black schools, and I was aware of that even at my young age.
“My sixth-grade teacher took me and several other students to a meeting where they explained the Freedom of Choice program. They told us that because of our grades and state testing, we stood the best chance to succeed in this new program.
“Throughout the experience, I felt a tremendous responsibility to represent my race and my family in a positive light.”
And before long, he had a dream.
“I made friends with white students and became involved in every club and other extracurricular activities, including sports,” Barnes said. “I was introduced to athletic training in junior high school by Gus Andrews, a football coach. They sent me to summer camps to learn how to tape ankles and render first-aid care to athletes. I knew right away I wanted to go off to college to become a professional athletic trainer.
“On the first day at Coon Junior High School, the principal said, ‘It’s nice to see so many bright, shiny faces,’ and laughter erupted. That was probably one of my first and few uneasy moments. The administration and faculty were welcoming. I never had a single issue with the principals and teachers. I give them tremendous credit for embracing integration.”
Barnes, 20 years after Jackie Robinson endured a personal hell when he made his MLB debut in Brooklyn in 1947 as the sport’s first African-American, turned the other cheek to the racists.
“The only outlier was at the high school, where there were a few white students who resented us being there, but overall, besides some name-calling in the halls, it was not an unbearable experience,” Barnes said. “I really don’t recall any fights or conflicts. My parents did a great job in encouraging me to ignore the remarks and to realize that I was there for an education. My parents told me in later years they had feared for my safety.
“The worst thing that ever happened was we took a bus that we did not usually ride to the downtown area. A girl stood up on her chair and threw spitballs and called me and my friends names all the way to downtown.
“She said we should die.
“Needless to say, we got off the bus early and walked the rest of the way.
“In high school, we had a drama teacher who wore a full confederate uniform, including the hat, and strutted the halls daily, and that was unnerving.”
Barnes would become the first certified athletic trainer to graduate East Carolina’s sports medicine program before earning a master’s degree at Michigan State, where he was the head trainer and an assistant professor. Most of his Freedom of Choice classmates advanced to top universities.
“A few of the black students did not have the patience and tolerance, and they left the school or did not come back the next year,” Barnes said. “I understood why some of my classmates didn’t want to stay. I was there for one thing — a good education, and I received it. I worked my way through because I didn’t care what anybody said or thought. I was focused on the academics and the opportunity.
“It’s human nature to allow the negative and mean-spirited language to distract. Nobody wants to be where they don’t feel completely welcome. But I wasn’t going to let that distract me. And the truth is there were quite a few of my white classmates who were supportive. Several are my friends to this day.
“We made it our school.”
Young Ronnie Barnes in 1968 befriended a man named Dr. A. Tyson Jennette, who would become his mentor and lifelong friend, and was an orthopedic surgeon for 55 years before retiring last year. Jennette was the Fike High School team physician and Barnes was a student trainer.
“He taught me medicine at a very early age,” Barnes said. “He has been a real inspiration for me. He practiced medicine in a small town but went back to Duke University Medical Center every week for grand rounds. He taught me the important lesson, that you must continue to learn every day in medicine. We roomed together the night before one of our high school championship football games. We joked that might be the first time a black person and a white person had ever shared a hotel room.
“I cannot say enough about his incredible belief and trust in me. My parents have passed away. I have the same love and affection for him and his wife Peggy as I had for Ann and Wellington Mara.”
The feeling has always been mutual.
“He was like a sponge,” Jennette recalled. “He wanted to learn everything.”
Jennette understood perfectly why young Ronnie Barnes was selected to be part of the beginnings of historic change.
“I think it was because of his personality and his determination,” Jennette said. “He’s the son of a minister, and he was a perfect kind of guy to begin integration. He didn’t tell me it was easy for him, but everybody liked him, and he was accepted, and I think that was pretty nice for a troubled time back then.”
Today’s protests make Barnes hopeful that together we can yet make this our country:
“What is happening across our country is inspiring,” Barnes said. “I have lived through a couple of important moments. This is another extremely important moment in our nation’s history. We all have an opportunity to create real change. Having gone through segregation and integration and witnessed those changes, I have hope that this generation of all races will help us make positive changes to our society.
“I have traveled to 70 countries. There are racial disparities all over the world. I have confidence that we can work through this as a nation.”
Barnes also has confidence the NFL can work through COVID-19.
“Coronavirus is a dangerous and often deadly virus,” he said. “I believe through education and safeguards we can have a football season. It is a challenge since the spread of the virus is not over. The great people of New Jersey and New York have done an outstanding job of adhering to the protocols that the scientific and medical community outlined. That is why we have been able to get back to this point. We have to continue to be vigilant. We all will continue to discuss what is the smartest, best next step.
“I started working on a plan for this virus the week after I came back from the [early-March draft] combine. We assembled key employees and educated them on the approaching novel coronavirus. We taught them how epidemics can spread into pandemics. We went to work right away to protect our players and employees. They did find it daunting that I took their temperatures at the meeting with a temporal scanner. We are still working to make a safe environment for our players and staff.”
Members of the organization will notice 6-foot social distancing markers on the sidewalk outside Quest Diagnostics Training Center. Inside the sanitized facility, there will be signs urging those who feel sick to stay home, there will be masks and mask instructions and gloves and arrows on the floor.
Ronnie Barnes’ work never ends.
“I’ve got the utmost confidence in Ronnie Barnes in all the decisions we make as a team,” Joe Judge told The Post. “He works hand in hand with us as coaches, he has the players’ interests at heart, and he’s been here through a long history of the organization and knows a lot of the progression of the years and how they piece together. He’s been a great resource for me.”
The Giants are in good hands.
“I have no doubts that the Giants will go above and beyond all protocol to keep everyone in the Giants facility safe,” Eli Manning told The Post, “from the players, to the coaches to every administrator. Every employee that comes through the building will be in good hands.
“And I know that because I’m sure that Ronnie Barnes will be making a lot of the decisions to keep that place and keep the people safe, and no one cares more about people and their well-being than Ronnie.
“I know that firsthand from how helpful he was to me over my career, and also to my wife, my kids, my parents, my mother- and father-in-law — anybody who was going through any sort of medical issues — Ronnie was the first person that I talked to about it, and he went above and beyond what a trainer should do to make sure that they were getting the best treatment in the best hands.
“So I know that the Giants will handle this pandemic as smoothly as possible.”
Barnes won’t be wearing No. 10 … no Giant will again. But the franchise is counting on him being every bit as clutch as Eli Manning.
Once Giants, Only Giants.