Gary Barnidge driven to help make American football global

Three weeks ago, Gary Barnidge went up for a jump ball and miraculously caught it between his legs at the goal line -- a play that has epitomized the type of season he's having.

Prior to his 2015 campaign, the Cleveland Browns tight end had never eclipsed 13 receptions in a season. Just eight games in, the 30-year-old already has 40 catches for 567 yards -- 325 more than his previous season high -- and six touchdown catches. And he'll have a chance to continue racking up the stats when the Browns visit the Bengals this week on "Thursday Night Football." But there's one thing in this career year that isn't different: Barnidge's commitment to providing others with an outlet to reach their own goals.

Barnidge has used his platform to help children around the world on his own dime through American Football Without Barriers, a nonprofit organization he co-founded in 2011 with his Louisville teammates Breno Giacomini (now an offensive tackle for the New York Jets) and Ahmed Awadallah.

The organization's mission is to develop American football around the world, and it hosts yearly camps to support football clubs and leagues in those countries. Initially, Barnidge and his co-founders planned to hold their first camp in Egypt. But when revolution took hold in that country, those plans were interrupted. The inaugural camp was held in Shanghai, China in 2013. Camps in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Istanbul, Turkey, followed in 2014 and 2015.

"It's been an amazing experience, and it's some way to give back," Barnidge said in a phone interview last week. "We want to break trends that don't happen in football. Colleges recruit internationally for basketball and baseball, but not football. We're trying to break that trend and give kids an opportunity that we have."

Soon after AFWB was founded, Barnidge brought his then-Carolina teammates -- DeAngelo Williams and Thomas Keiser -- into the fold, to participate and teach in the international camps. Since then, many other players from around the league, including Marshawn Lynch, Steve Smith Sr. and Golden Tate, have joined in the effort.

Barnidge said they chose to hold camps in countries that have some knowledge of the sport. "Some of these people might only get to see the sport on TV or YouTube," he said. "We get to go there, interact with them and teach them the proper way to play."

AFWB partners with local organizations, which bring established teams to the camp sites. And wherever AFWB has been, according to Barnidge, the football community has felt the impact.

In China, kids flew to Shanghai from Hong Kong and Beijing to participate. According to Barnidge, there are 36 teams currently playing football in Brazil and 30 in Turkey, where more than 600 athletes participated in the camp.

One of the most eye-opening experiences for Barnidge came in the most recent camp, in Istanbul.

"We put the girls with the boys together at the same camp," Barnidge said. "One of the campers gave us the nickname 'Barrier Breakers,' because girls and boys don't ever compete against each other. But we wanted to do something to show them that women are just as capable as men.

"The women played flag football and they were killing it. ... We're working on having a girls camp everywhere we go from now on."

AFWB -- which holds one international camp and one domestic camp each year -- offers camps free of charge to athletes. In the past, the organization has helped bring kids to the United States to take part in football camps -- those visits primarily helped the athletes meet and be scouted by collegiate coaches.

"We brought two kids from China to DeAngelo Williams' camp in Memphis one summer, and one of the kids was offered a Division II scholarship on the spot," Barnidge said, adding the athlete declined the scholarship opportunity in order to study at Stanford instead. "I think that's huge, that we were able to do that after our first year of hosting an international camp. We showed what we are capable of doing, and that was a huge thing for me to see."

Barnidge said they want to host one camp on every continent before doubling up. The 2016 camp location will be announced in December.

But that's not all Barnidge has done to give back.

In Cleveland, Barnidge partners with Samaritan's Feet, a nonprofit organization aimed at giving shoes to children around the globe. Barnidge started this partnership in Carolina with Smith, who still raises awareness and support for Samaritan's Feet in Baltimore. Barnidge -- with the help of the organization -- brings 10 kids to every Cleveland Browns home game, where one child is picked to come on the field and receive Barnidge's shoes after the game. He approaches the gesture with his own spin by buying an additional pair of shoes that the child can actually wear.

Barnidge also works with Samaritan's Feet during his international trips with AFWB, donating clothes and shoes to orphanages all around the world. "We try to do as much as we can while we're there," he said.

As if Barnidge isn't busy enough during the season, he always sets time aside for movie night. Every Wednesday during the season, the aspiring movie critic asks a trivia question on Twitter. The first 10 people to reply with the correct answer get to accompany Barnidge, whose favorite movie is "Forrest Gump," and several of his teammates to the movies on Thursday evenings.

"I wanted to do something different that others haven't done and give back to our fans for supporting us," said Barnidge, who gives movie reviews on his website "Fans come see you at camps but don't get any interaction. At the movie, we meet 30 minutes early, so they can ask any questions they want."

At the end of the day, Barnidge said it's about making people smile and giving them an experience they'll remember.

But it seems he's doing much more than just that.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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