The streets of San Francisco's trendy SoMa district were alive with revelers, and one of them, a 22-year-old rowdy named Pat Barnes, was putting up his dukes in the middle of Folsom Street. This was no place for a street fight, nor was it an opportune time: The NFL draft was 12 days away, and Barnes, a standout quarterback for Cal last season, was recovering from a broken right wrist. Yet when older brother John initiated a round of playful boxing, Pat couldn't resist.
A few hours and several beers later, at the nearby Up & down Club, the Barnes brothers were contemplating fisticuffs again—only this time it appeared serious. They were arguing with two other patrons, one of whom sidled up to Pat and explained why everyone present should "just chill." The younger and soon-to-be-richer Barnes stared back blankly. "Dude," he finally said, "you've got the worst breath I've ever smelled." Some fast talking by John helped avert a brawl, after which Pat offered an explanation: "I was just going to pop him with my left hand."
It is this sort of reckless behavior that has caused some people—including his mother—to wonder whether Barnes is ready for the NFL. Even Pat would have preferred to spend another year on campus. In an era when so many players are leaving school early (34 underclassmen have declared for this weekend's draft), Barnes, twice robbed of a redshirt season by coaching decisions, petitioned the NCAA to grant him an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA denied the request, meaning Barnes will take his large personality to a league that this season will penalize players for removing their helmets in celebration.
Is the No Fun League ready for Pat Barnes? This is an oversized kid who wrote several college papers his freshman year with 12-packs of beer beside his computer; who showed up tired for some games after late-night arguments with his girlfriend; who once took in a homeless man as a temporary roommate; and who tormented his parents, Colleen and John, with phone pranks in which he claimed to have crashed his car or landed in jail. "Pat has always been a little kid in a big body," Colleen says of her 6'4", 215-pound son. "An extra year of college would really benefit him because he's basically somewhat immature. He has grown up a lot the past two years, but maturation takes time."
A fifth year at Cal would also have allowed Barnes to earn his degree in American studies—he plans to finish up in the spring of '98—and probably would have made him a mid-to high first-round pick in next year's draft. Now, after a senior year in which he threw for a Pac-10-record 31 touchdowns against eight interceptions while leading Cal to a 6-5 record and an Aloha Bowl appearance, he has joined Virginia Tech's Jim Druckenmiller and Arizona State's Jake Plummer as the most highly regarded quarterbacks in the draft (chart, next page). "He got to this point because he worked harder than anybody else," says new San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, who was Barnes's coach at Cal last season.
One reason Barnes is an attractive prospect is that the qualities that sometimes make his mother cringe often translate well in the huddle and in the locker room. The lineage of fun-loving quarterbacks stretches from Bobby Layne to Joe Namath to Jim Kelly to the current king of merry pranksters, the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre, a two-time league MVP. "Pat's personality is similar to Brett's," says Mariucci, Favre's mentor during his stint as the Packers' quarterbacks coach from 1992 to '95. Both players exude an aura of supreme confidence without a trace of vanity. "I would love to party with Brett Favre just one time," says Barnes, who plans to spend draft day on the golf course.
Barnes is high on the draft list of at least four teams: the 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers. While Druckenmiller has the best arm of the three top-echelon quarterbacks and Plummer is the most mobile, Barnes is gifted in both areas. "He's a winner," says St. Louis Rams scout Dave Razzano, "and you can tell by the way he gets the ball in the end zone when his team is inside the 20. He makes quick decisions, has pinpoint accuracy, moves well and has a strong arm with a quick delivery." Former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, now a personnel consultant for the team, says Barnes is "the prototype of the NFL quarterback."
One question mark is the broken scaphoid (a bone at the top of his throwing wrist) Barnes sustained in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 18. Although he played in only the second quarter, Barnes was named the game's MVP for throwing three touchdown passes, the last of which came after he broke the bone. The fracture was not detected until more than a week after the game, and Barnes, who underwent surgery on Feb. 4, is not expected to be 100% until June. Nevertheless, the injury hasn't kept him from doing passing drills for NFL teams. "I don't think the wrist will matter," says Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard. "The issue for me is his maturity. He has to improve his consistency and decision-making, but he's moving in that direction."
Barnes's first two years at Cal, under coach Keith Gilbertson, were essentially wasted. Gilbertson intended to redshirt Barnes, one of the nation's stop quarterback prospects at Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo, Calif., but the plan was aborted in his freshman and sophomore seasons because of injuries to starter Dave Barr and backup Kerry McGonigal, and because of McGonigal's ineffective play when he was healthy. Barnes started four games and threw 130 passes in those two years combined. One Cal source says Gilbertson told his assistants during Barnes's freshman season, "I'm not saving Pat Barnes for the next coach." Gilbertson, now a Seattle Seahawks' defensive assistant, says he made the comment in jest and often made similar jokes about other players.
In fairness, it should be said that Barnes never questioned Gilbertson's moves, nor did he help matters as a freshman when his debut was delayed for one game because of a late-night incident in the gift shop of a Berkeley hotel. Two nights before he was scheduled to start against Washington State, an admittedly drunken Barnes stuffed a pack of bubble gum into his pocket—jokingly, he says—and when police officers entered the hotel to investigate another incident, he and some friends panicked and opened a locked door that led outside and lied. Barnes was stopped at gunpoint by an officer and arrested. After being taken to the Berkeley jail, he called his mother, who immediately realized this wasn't one of her son's pranks. "It was the middle of the night, and I could hear in his voice that he was serious," Colleen says. "So I started yelling at him." Barnes eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge.