“I probably would have laughed at you. It didn’t seem possible, everything didn’t seem obtainable at that time.” Barnes said.
After going undrafted in 2013, coming out of Georgia Tech, he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars but was released during final cuts. Barnes was then forced to watch the start of the season from a close friend’s couch--as well as spend his nights there.
But all of these setbacks did not deter Barnes, he continued to work hard, hoping to land a spot on a team’s practice squad or active roster. His hard work paid off when he was signed to the Jets’ practice squad after their Monday night win over the Atlanta Falcons during week five of last year.
Barnes’ journey continued as he remained on the practice squad through the end of the season. Going into the offseason, Barnes knew he had to do something extra to impress the coaches and earn a spot on the final 53-man roster. So Barnes’ upped the intensity of his workouts and arrived to this years training camp 20 pounds lighter.
“I think they took it and [it showed] how committed I was to the whole process” said Barnes, “They didn’t think I was going to come back and lose 20 to 25 pounds. I just made it a big thing on me to just do something that is going to stand out a little bit.”
Barnes’ career arch is one that Jets fans have seen before. Nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison. Like Barnes, Harrison was an unheralded undrafted rookie with a need to lose a few pounds. “Snacks” has now emerged as one of the best run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL. With so many parallels in their road to the NFL it would make sense that Barnes would seek out Harrison for advice, and that is exactly what happened.
“He (Harrison) had a big mentorship role on me,” Barnes said, “Because even on (the) practice squad last year, that’s the one thing I did. In the meeting room, all I did was watch him, watch his mistakes, watch everything he got right and try to emulate him in some type of way.”
Barnes’ said Harrison’s mentorship role played an important part in his offseason weight loss and said Harrison helped him further understand the Jets’ defensive system.
“When we came back during the offseason, he just took me under his wing and just showed me some things to do and what not to do and how to stand out in the system” said Barnes.
Jets coaches not only took notice of Barnes’ slimmer physique when training camp began, but Barnes began impressing them with his play on the field.
“He’s a guy that if we’re giving out game balls, we would’ve gave one to him for sure in that game.” said Head Coach Rex Ryan of Barnes after their first preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts.
As camp progressed and Barnes’ play improved, the possibility of him making the roster increased. With his goal earning a roster spot within reach, Barnes’ hard work never wearied, something that Ryan took notice of it.
“The thing I always liked about T.J. was that here was a huge man but he played hard and big guys like that, that play hard are hard to find and they’re going to be around a long time.” Ryan said during a conference call with Jetsinsider.com and a few other select Jets fan blogs last week.
Even with perhaps the best defensive line in the NFL and holes at other positions like cornerback, General Manager John Idzik and Ryan believed that Barnes’ talent, production and potential warranted a spot.
“There’s no way, (we would have released him)” said Ryan during the conference call. “If we would have put him out he would have been picked up. Probably 31 other teams would have claimed him. So he’s really progressed that far,” Ryan said.
What a difference a year makes. Last year Barnes was sleeping on a friend’s couch and this past Sunday he made his NFL debut playing five series. So what does Barnes have to say about his journey?
“It’s amazing because this time last year I was sleeping on the couch in my good friend(‘s) apartment and now I made the 53(-man) roster. And it shows that hard work and dedication and giving it your all, you know really does turn out to be a blessing.”