Gary Barbaro is now the 43rd member of the Chiefs Hall of Fame, but it’s probably fair to say he appreciates the honor as few before him have.
Barbaro, a three-time Pro Bowl safety during seven seasons for the Chiefs spanning the late 1970s and early 1980s, hasn’t played for 30 years. He also comes from an often-overlooked era of Chiefs football tucked away between their Super Bowl victory and the franchise revival led by Marty Schottenheimer.
But Barbaro received this year’s honor, announced Saturday by chairman Clark Hunt. And he’s not going to give it back, though he jokingly acknowledged wondering whether Hunt was playing a prank on him.
“I keep waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Gotcha!’ “ Barbaro said. “It’s too late to take it back now because I’ve told too many people. It’s mine. It’s truly an honor. I’m pleased to be thought of in the same breath as the Emmitt Thomases, the Willie Laniers, Deron Cherry, who I played with, Lloyd Burress. We had some fantastic talent in our secondary and a lot of what success I had is directly attributable to those people.”
Hunt’s choice is not only a victory of sorts for Barbaro, the Chiefs’ third-round draft pick in 1976, but his Chiefs era. Kansas City made the playoffs just once, in 1986 as a wild-card entrant, between 1971 and 1990.
“We were following the Super Bowl years,” said Barbaro, who lives near New Orleans and works in the food service industry. “The rebuilding process seemed like it took forever. Right toward the end of my career, the ‘80 and ‘81 seasons we were starting to build and put some things together and make a pretty good run at it. Unfortunately the strike of ’82 just kind of dismantled everything we had put together.”
Some of Barbaro’s former teammates, including Art Still, Joe Delaney and Gary Spani, have already been selected for the Chiefs Hall of Fame. But Barbaro thought perhaps his chance to join them had passed.
“I had hoped it hadn’t but I wasn’t sure,” Barbaro said. “I’ve never been one to take anything for granted. I put everything all out on the field and I was hopeful. But you never know.
“Clark called me and I was driving at the time. I don’t know how I stayed on the road when he told me. It’s quite an honor.”
The Chiefs, as it turned out, hadn’t forgotten about Barbaro. He was their rookie of the year in 1976, when he learned from defensive backs coach Tom Bettis.
“He was the guy who took me under his wing and taught me how to read quarterbacks, read offensive linemen and worked me hard after practice,” Barbaro said. “He knew how to push me.
“Apparently he saw things in me that I didn’t even know existed. Then he brought those things out.”
Barbaro went on to become the Chiefs most valuable player in 1979. His 39 interceptions are fourth in team history and his 102-yard touchdown against Seattle in 1977 is the longest interception return in club history.
“Gary had a remarkable playing career,” Hunt said. “He was a leader and a ball hawk who posted impressive numbers in his seven seasons with the Chiefs that classify him as one of the finest defensive backs in Chiefs history.”
Barbaro also lives on in a famous highlight clip of Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton bowling over at least a half dozen defenders in a long run during a game against the Chiefs.
“I’m number four,” Barbaro said. “He just ran right over me.”