An Ex-Pro Football Lineman, Ernie Barnes Comes Out of the Trenches to Score as An Olympic Artist

updated 07/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sixteen artists were being considered by the Olympics' cultural affairs department to create fine-art posters for the Summer Games when New York Congressman (and former Buffalo Bills quarterback) Jack Kemp suggested to Olympics chief Peter Ueberroth that there was a glaring omission. Kemp was referring to Ernie Barnes, 45, a painter and former teammate on the San Diego Chargers. After Ueberroth took a look at Barnes' artwork, he told him, "There's no doubt you are a big oversight." Shortly afterward, a new category was created for Barnes: Sports Artist of the 1984 Olympic Games.

To collectors of his work, including Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Reynolds and Ethel Kennedy, Barnes' appointment comes as no surprise. Nor should it to fans of TV's Good Times. Barnes was the inspiration for the artwork of J.J., played by Jimmie ("Dy-no-mite") Walker, and did all of his paintings.

Professional football and art may seem worlds apart, but Barnes insists that his sports background infuses his work with a special vitality. "Without athletics," says Barnes, an offensive guard with the Chargers and Denver Broncos from 1960 to 1965, "I don't think my work would have the guts and fluidity it does."

Barnes, the son of a Durham, N.C. tobacco company shipping clerk and a maid, always liked to draw, but as a fat (175 pounds) 14-year-old he avoided sports. "I went out for football in the eighth grade," he says, "and quit. It was my first experience knowing what the body felt like playing sports—and it was tired." But when he reached the ninth grade, a bodybuilding instructor advised Barnes' parents to put him on a diet and get him weights. Barnes began to shape up. In fact, he went on to become captain of the football team and state champion in the shot put and discus. "When I graduated," he says, "I had 26 athletic scholarships."

At North Carolina Central University in Durham, Barnes managed to combine his interests, majoring in art and playing center, guard and tackle on the varsity team. Professional football followed. "I was a jock 100 percent," says Barnes. But by 1966 he found "the motivation to continue playing was gone." Barnes decided to paint full time.

In a bid to combine football and art, he approached Barron Hilton, then the Chargers' owner, with the novel proposal of becoming official artist of the American Football League. The overture resulted in a $1,000 commission from Hilton (Barnes' colorful paintings now sell for up to $30,000) and a meeting with prominent New York critics. One pronounced him "the most expressive painter since George Bellows," noted for depicting prizefighters. With that seal of approval, New York Jets part-owner Sonny Werblin put Barnes under contract to paint for a year.

Today Barnes lives in a rambling, 12-room blue stucco house in Studio City, Calif. His garage is his studio. "As soon as a painting is complete, it's pretty much sold," he says. Twice married and divorced (his five children range in age from 12 to 26), he is engaged to Bernadine Gradney, 35, a former physical education teacher, and is enjoying the best of times. "Since ancient days sports has been an inspiration for artists," he says. "Sports mirrors life perfectly. You get knocked down, you have to come back—harder."

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