Michigan State Game Program Features: Barry Gardner A Dash to Greatness, by Scott Hammer
Oct. 16, 2008
With dozens of head coaches, general managers and team scouts looming over your every move, the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis is unquestionably one of the most pressure-packed environments in sports. One less-than-stellar time in the 40-yard dash or sub-par performance in the bench press can mean the difference in millions of dollars for draft picks. Players routinely abstain from drills at the combine in favor of a private session in front of their own trainers.
Such was the case in Indianapolis at the 1999 combine. One by one, linebackers' names were called to step up to the line and be timed in the 40 and one-by-one, every player declined to risk it.
Every player, that is, until they called the name, "Barry Gardner." Gardner, a veritable tackling machine at linebacker for Northwestern from 1995-1998, jumped up and began preparing for the drill.
"Every coach and general manager in the place stood up and clapped for me when I did that," Gardner recalled. "I still have coaches remember me and say, `we called everyone's name and you were the only one who ran it.' That's one of my favorite memories from my career."
It's the perfect illustration of Gardner's approach to being successful in life, a mentality that was instilled in him at a young age by his parents, Jerry and Brenda Gardner: find out what everybody else is doing to get by, then do a little more to separate yourself from the rest. Gardner has kept that in mind through all he has accomplished, including walking on to Northwestern's football team, excelling on special teams through a seven-year NFL career and simultaneously managing no less than three businesses in his post-football career.
Growing up in Harvey, Ill., Gardner saw firsthand the importance of commitment and having a tireless work ethic. Gardner's grandmother played a significant part in raising Barry and his sister while Jerry and Brenda worked multiple jobs to provide for their family.
"That's one of the things I thank God for every day: having role models like my parents, who were great examples of dedication and pushing yourself to be your best," Gardner said.
Gardner thrived academically and athletically at Thorndale High School, graduating No. 10 in a class of nearly 700 students, and began considering colleges such as Stanford, LSU, Tennessee State and Morehouse. But after he received a letter of acceptance to Northwestern, he realized that his final decision wouldn't be as difficult as he expected it to be.
"Everyone around me, to a person, told me I need to go to Northwestern no matter where else I get acceptance letters from," he said. "It was kind of a no-brainer after that."
After talking it over with his parents, Gardner decided he would try to earn a walk-on spot with NU's football team.
"I've always been a competitor so I knew that if I was going to try to do something like this, I would do it all out," Gardner said. "When I got there, I wasn't even paying attention to what the other guys around me were doing because I was focused on the goal I had in mind."
Once on the team, however, Gardner started to take notice of how special his teammates were, especially his fellow linebackers.
"It was a great experience because you go from being what you think is an intelligent guy to being just one on a team full of guys who are intelligent," Gardner said. "At the end of the day, everyone on the field is athletic but if you have guys that are athletic and intelligent the way Don Holmes, Keith Lozowski and Pat Fitzgerald were, the sky is the limit."
Following his redshirt year, Gardner burst on the scene in his first collegiate game at Notre Dame in 1995. During a critical juncture of a game the Wildcats eventually won, 17-15, Gardner was on punt coverage when Northwestern was kicking, backed up to its own end zone.
"Notre Dame decided to let me run down the field unblocked and let the returner just try to beat me," Gardner said. "He caught it and it was just me all alone facing him. He made a move but I made the tackle and our defense stopped their next drive. I just had the mentality that I was here to do a job and I was going to do it."
That one-on-one stop against the Irish was the first of 468 tackles in Gardner's prolific career in Evanston, which still ranks third on Northwestern's all-time career tackles list. He racked up 20 or more tackles in a game six times and earned consecutive first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1997 and 1998.
"Barry just had an incredible knack for getting to the ball whether it was on special teams or at linebacker," said Joe Branch, one of Gardner's closest friends since his first week of freshman year and a four-year basketball letterwinner at Northwestern. "He was a great locker room guy because he transcended all groups on the team and was such a leader out on the field."
As has been his habit, Gardner continually did enough to stand out among his peers and drew the attention of NFL scouts. After his memorable performance at the combine, Gardner was drafted 35th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles and made a home there for four seasons, playing in every game during his tenure while starting 18 games. In 2000, Gardner finished third on the club with a career-best 95 tackles as the starting weakside linebacker.
From there, he spent the next three seasons with the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets before signing with the New England Patriots prior to the 2006 season. However, Gardner's life took a drastic turn during a preseason game against the Giants when Gardner suffered a career-ending injury. While covering a kickoff, Gardner shattered his fibula and tore all the ligaments in his ankle.
"Doctors told me to be prepared for the possibility that I may not play again," Gardner said. "So I thought to myself, `Hey, everything happens for a reason, I have a great education from Northwestern and it's time to put it to use.'"
"I remember the night he called me and said he broke his leg, and you just don't know how to react," said Branch, who is now a senior manager for global marketing partnerships with the NBA in New York. "He loves the game and the lifestyle that goes with it, being in a locker room where everyone has one common goal to win. But he's handled the transition really well."
So well, in fact, that one might think Gardner has spent the past eight years crafting his business strategies rather than training for the weekly grind of the NFL. But in less than two years since his injury--"I had plenty of time to think after I got hurt," he pointed out--Gardner has put more on his plate than an offensive lineman at the buffet line. A resident of Chandler, Ariz., Gardner owns a property rental company that operates in the highly desirable waterfront area of Clearwater, Fla., where his clients can enjoy the use of their oversized yachts.
But that's just the beginning for Gardner.
He and Branch, friends who used to ride to class together on the handlebars of a bike they dubbed the Beach Cruiser, are in the developmental stages of a sports and entertainment marketing firm called NU Vision, named for their alma mater.
"We are still defining what it's going to cover but we'll likely work with everything from brand strategy to event promotion and really anything we can get our hands on," Branch said.
On top of that, Gardner is opening an upscale barbershop in Arizona called Competition, which will operate with a true teamwork mentality uncharacteristic of most barbershops. Gardner, whose father was a barber for many years, envisions a setting where employees will be responsible for bringing in clients and plans to offer friendly incentives for those who generate the most revenue.
Gardner also aims to generate strong ties with the community, with plans to create scholarship funds for aspiring barbers and beauticians, provide free haircuts to area kids with good grades and invite athletes to come to Competition to speak to groups of youngsters.
"It's been a love of mine to bring people together for an exchange of ideas and bring some more positive role models to the community," Gardner said. "I think this is a great way to do that.
"I really want to create a kind of empire with my businesses where they are all feeding off each other, whether NU Vision helps bring speakers to Competition or the property rentals are a vehicle for the other two or whatever it is," he said. "It's fun and it's challenging and I really enjoy being in a position to give back to kids."
"(Gardner's injury) just gave him an opportunity to think like an entrepreneur, which he's always been good at," Branch said. "He has a great story to share with kids which is that you can always find a way to take care of business when you have a job to do. That's what B.G. is all about."
Gardner, a 2004 inductee into Northwestern's Hall of Fame, will be taking time out of his busy schedule to return to Evanston to celebrate his 10-year reunion homecoming weekend with Branch and the rest of their friends.
"It was such an amazing honor to be recognized by a prestigious university like Northwestern," Gardner said. "I'm really looking forward to getting back there to see everybody because we had a great run."
Just as that memorable 40-yard sprint propelled him to years of success in the NFL, it's clear that Gardner's four-year run at Northwestern was the ideal training for a marathon-like journey to the top of the business world.