Rodrigo Barnes scared people. The Rice linebacker/defensive end scared offensive players and coaches and off the field, he scared the status quo. Peter Golenbock wrote "college officials saw Rodrigo Barnes the way white America saw Malcolm X, [h]e was big and black and wasn't afraid of them. They, however, were certainly afraid of him."
Barnes arrived at Rice in 1968 from Carver high school, a segregated school in Waco, as one of the first three African American football players and just a dozen or so African American students on campus. Barnes starred on Rice's freshman team before earning Sophomore Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1969. An explosive athlete, Barnes moved from defensive end to linebacker so that Rice could take advantage of his sideline to sideline coverage.
In the meantime Barnes and other students helped form the Black Student Union at Rice, a group committed to the enrollment of students of color and the hiring of faculty and staff of color. He helped organize protests to gain those ends, including threatening to boycott or sit out games.
In 1970 Barnes sat out due to academic issues. The SWC had a reprieve, but Barnes was back in 1971 and out to prove that he was the best linebacker in the country. He also believed that the NFL and its money was just around the corner. "Where I play [in the pros] is strictly up to the money. The more honors I get the higher I'll go in the draft and the higher I go in the draft, the more money I'll get" Barnes said ahead of the 1971 season.
His athleticism and size made him an attractive athlete and a rarity at Rice. He could dominate games with his speeds and more importantly his intelligence. Barnes was quarterbacking Rice's defense by the time he was a sophomore.
Barnes worked on his draft stock with excellent play; he was named the SWC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against Houston and a week later turned in a twelve tackle performance against powerhouse USC. Even hobbled with a knee injury, Barnes wreaked havoc on Texas' offense. Barnes intercepted two passes against Texas Tech, returning one 87 yards, the second set up Rice's game-winning field goal.
Writers named him the Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
Heading into his senior season at Rice, the mercurial Barnes let it be known that he was betting on himself. "I'm the best linebacker I've ever seen," Barnes said during the preseason junket. He added that his goal was to finish his collegiate career, play five seasons in the NFL and hang it up. "I can't say I love football. Football is hard work. Anyone who says they like hard work...well, there's gotta be something wrong."
Barnes started off 1972 with a sixteen tackle performance against Houston and added fifteen against LSU but suffered a kidney injury against the Tigers that cost him most of his senior season.
A disappointing senior season and concerns about Barnes' work ethic and activism dropped him to the seventh round in the 1973 NFL draft where the Cowboys selected him. He and iconic coach Tom Landry were oil and water, and after the '74 season, the Cowboys released the promising linebacker. Barnes bumped around the league, finally landing on the Oakland Raiders' 1977 Super Bowl Champion team.
A trailblazer in many ways, Rice inducted Barnes into its Hall of Fame in 2011. He currently works in school administration in the Dallas area.