During the Sept. 16 game against UCLA, those paying close attention to North Carolina Central University (NCCU) football players will see that their uniforms bear an additional patch.
The patch shows a painting of an upside-down football helmet filled with paintbrushes. Underneath are the words ‘NCCU Football 1956-60’ and the signature of its creator, Ernie Barnes.
Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr., was born in Durham in 1938 and attended then-named North Carolina College at Durham on a full athletics scholarship. He ran track and played both tackle and center on the football team.
“We talk about the culture here,” said head football coach Trei Oliver. “We want the players to know about the former players before them.”
As a student, Barnes developed his other passion, majoring in art.
“He attributed his art, his style and his training to North Carolina Central University,” said Luz Rodriguez, manager of Barnes’ estate. “He spent a lot of time in the [Fine] Arts building.”
In November 1959, Barnes was drafted by the Baltimore Colts football team, according to www.erniebarnes.com. Over the next few years, he played professional football for the Titans of New York, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. In 1965, he signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada. During an exhibition game he fractured his right foot, ending his football career.
Barnes then turned to painting. He impressed Sonny Werblin, then owner of the New York Jets, who hired him to paint sports. Barnes held his first solo exhibition in 1966 in New York City.
Over the decades his paintings appeared in galleries, album covers (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, B.B. King), at least one billboard, television shows (“Good Times,” “Columbo,” “The Hughleys,” “The Wayan Brothers”), movies (“Boyz n the Hood”) and art museums.
The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh recently bought one of Barnes’ paintings for its permanent collection, said Rodriguez, and another painting is on loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Throughout his life, Barnes returned to NCCU to speak to students, Rodriquez said, and he attributed his art, style and training to the university.
He was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from his alma mater in 1990 and received the University Award, the highest honor by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, in 1999.
Barnes died in April 2009 in Los Angeles.
While in Los Angeles, the NCCU football team will not only wear the Barnes patch but also see an exhibit of Barnes paintings hanging at SoFi Stadium where the Los Angeles Rams play.
“When I found out that NCCU was coming to play UCLA, I knew that Ernie Barnes had to be involved,” Rodriguez said. “[Los Angeles] is his adopted city. I wanted a patch not just for the team to wear but to commemorate Ernie’s school and city.”
Coach Oliver liked the idea.
“We want to honor someone who impressed, really, the whole world with his expertise,” Oliver said. “For us to go to California where some of [Barnes’] family still lives, it was a great time to do it.”
The gridiron battle between NCCU and UCLA kicks off at 5 p.m. EST/2 p.m. PDT at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The game will air on Pac-12 Network.
For more gameday information, visit nccueaglepride.