When Joe Barnes peers down from the coaches' booth at Memorial Stadium tomorrow night, he will see what might have been.
He will see Doug Flutie, the Calgary Stampeders' million-dollar quarterback, spraying passes like pebbles across the stadium floor. He will see the Canadian Football League's highest-profile player, its three-time Most Outstanding Player, the man who gained a Canadian fortune after he gained U.S. fame. Flutie is the million-dollar quarterback who is.
Barnes, an assistant coach with Baltimore's CFL team, is the million-dollar quarterback who was.
The year was 1985. The CFL was still all-Canadian then. Flutie was all-USFL with the New Jersey Generals. And Barnes was one of Canada's biggest names, a five-time Grey Cup participant, a two-time winner. At the top of his game, Barnes signed a $1.2 million, four-year contract with the Stampeders. He had struck the mother lode.
And just when it seemed he had everything in the world one man could want, he had nothing.
Eleven games into the 1985 season, Barnes was run out of Calgary in a trade. Less than a year later, he was run out of the CFL in a cost-cutting move by a team that would fold in training camp 1987 anyway.
In short order, Barnes' oil business collapsed, his real estate investments turned sour, his wife left him, his partner in a sports agency committed suicide, and the IRS closed in.
He went from that $1.2 million contract to mowing lawns and working in a convenience store in Dallas to put groceries on the table for his kids. He went from having it all to not knowing what wall would fall in next. The million-dollar contract? Barnes never saw half of it.
"I was losing everything," he said yesterday, "and saying, 'What's next?' "
Barnes hit rock bottom on one April day in 1989. That was the day his wife, Dianna, could take it no longer. It was the day he got a letter saying the bank would repossess his home. That week, he had just taken his children out of a private Christian school, had just turned in a car to the bank. The utilities people were threatening to cut off his electricity and phone. He found out an oil deal he was working on wouldn't go through.
"I fell down one day and started crying," Barnes said. "I said, 'Oh, Lord, what's happening?' I picked up my Bible and it opened to Jeremiah 29:11. It said 'I know the plans I have for you. My plans call for prosperity, not calamity.' "
For Barnes, who grew up a Southern Baptist, this riches-to-rags story ultimately became one of faith. His wife came back six months after she left -- they celebrated their 20th anniversary in June. He found a way to pay most of his creditors. He got a coaching job at a prep school in Dallas, then a job as ticket manager at North Texas, then a job with Don Matthews in Baltimore's CFL venture.
Somehow, he avoided bankruptcy. Today, he owes Texas banks less than $30,000 from a $200,000 loan. Above all, he is a survivor.
"Life is peaks and valleys," Barnes, 42, said. "Now I'm headed back up. What lesson did I learn in all that? God's in control. It doesn't matter what I do, what kind of qualities I have. He plans a purpose for all of us."
Barnes took a circuitous route to find his purpose. When he was released by the Montreal Alouettes in the summer of 1986 -- before they'd have had to pay his full salary of $230,000 -- he could not get a coaching job. Not in the CFL with Bob O'Billovich at Toronto, for whom he'd won a Grey Cup. Not at his alma mater of Texas Tech, where he beat Tennessee and was MVP of the Gator Bowl in the 1973 season.
But when Matthews was assembling his Baltimore staff, his agent, Gil Scott of Toronto, proposed Barnes' name. What made click was the presence of Steve Buratto, who was Barnes' coach in 1985 at Calgary and is the offensive coordinator in Baltimore. Barnes was hired in February to coach the quarterbacks and running backs.
"Steve knew Joe, and I had watched him from the other side of the field," Matthews said. "He's done a great job. He looks at it from a quarterback's point of view. He, Tracy [Ham] and John [Congemi] have built up a great rapport. His demeanor is perfect."
In Calgary, Buratto was around long enough to see Barnes struggle, but not long enough to see him traded. Buratto was fired after the team started 0-5. Even though there were murmurs about Barnes' big contract among his teammates, Buratto said it was not the root of the problem.
"That wasn't a problem until all the guys he was throwing the ball to started dropping it," Buratto said. Barnes spent 11 years in the CFL after a brief fling with the Chicago Bears. He played in Montreal, Saskatchewan, Toronto and Calgary. He was the MVP of the 1983 Grey Cup when he came off the Toronto Argonauts bench to beat the British Columbia Lions, 18-17, with a last-minute touchdown pass. That was a B.C. team coached by Matthews.
"I love it," Barnes said of his new job. "I'm around some great coaches in Don and Steve . . . I look at myself as a teacher. I hope to make a career out of it."
Nine years after he became a million-dollar quarterback, it's not too late.