Former Buckeye C.J. Barnett thrilled to return to program in role helping players off the field
C.J. Barnett would have been happy to remain a Columbus police officer.
Then, about three weeks ago, the former Ohio State safety got a phone call from Ryan Stamper, OSU’s assistant athletic director for player development.
Stamper told Barnett that he had decided to return to his hometown and join Urban Meyer with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, adding that he and football operations director Brian Voltolini thought Barnett would be ideal as his successor. After a meeting with coach Ryan Day, Barnett was hired.
Stamper and Barnett have followed similar paths. Both were captains under Meyer —Stamper at Florida and Barnett at Ohio State, in 2013. Both became police officers after not making it in the NFL.
Barnett, a criminology major, already was interested in becoming a police officer when Stamper arrived along with Meyer in 2012. In his last two years as a Buckeye, Barnett developed a bond with Stamper.
“He was a grown man the day we walked in there,” Stamper said, “so that's why I feel like we connected, because he was really mature.”
Barnett and Stamper stayed in contact through the years. Last summer, amid protests following George Floyd’s killing, Stamper invited Barnett to speak to the team on a Zoom call as part of the Real Life Wednesdays program to give a police perspective.
Now Barnett will be running Real Life Wednesdays and much more as director of player personnel.
“I’m super-excited,” Barnett said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m very thankful.”
Barnett, 29, believes he is still young enough to be able to identify with current athletes but has gained enough life experience to be able to guide them.
“My life has been a roller coaster,” Barnett said. “I’ve had things I wanted to do, and things change and interests change and life changes. I do think my experience thus far is a really good fit for these guys, because I’ve had my share of successes and I’ve had my share of failures.
“I can help them and come to them with, ‘Hey, I’ve done this,’ but I’m also not too removed from it. I can identify with them, and they can identify with me.”
Barnett was nearly a 4.0 student in high school in suburban Dayton — the one B he got still rankles him — and earned Academic all-Big Ten honors as a three-year starter at safety for the Buckeyes.
On the surface, he seemed to glide through college. But Barnett said he struggled at times with anxiety and depression, something not even Stamper knew.
Barnett described it as “just feeling alone and not really feeling like you have anybody. Kind of like having a cloud, just a dark cloud around you and weighing you down.”
Barnett knows that promoting mental health has been a personal project for Day and how important it is in a program that can be a crucible for players.
“Coach Day is doing a great job with that, and that’s so awesome to see. These guys are under tremendous pressure. They have very, very high expectations for themselves and from everyone else,” Barnett said.
“It’s hard, and everybody doesn’t come from the best background or have the best support system. The more people they have that they can confide in and talk to helps groom them for success, not just in football but in life.”
In a statement announcing Barnett’s hiring, Day described him as “the perfect fit” for the player development job.
“We’ll miss Ryan Stamper, as he helped our program become the standard when it comes to helping players prepare for life and success off the field. C.J. is going to come in and build onto that standard and enhance it,” Day said, adding that Barnett's job as a police officer makes him “exactly the kind of person our players can learn and grow from. We’re thrilled that he’s back with our program.”
The Real Life Wednesday program has expanded greatly since Barnett played. Back then, it consisted mostly of assisting players find post-football careers. Now it encompasses almost every aspect of non-football life.
Barnett believes his police background will help. He worked on the Near East Side, one of the more violent parts of the city.
But he said he saw more good people than bad, and Barnett took pride in helping someone having a hard day or having serious issues.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said. “I enjoyed being a police officer. I would still be one if not for this great opportunity.”
Stamper is confident Barnett will build on the foundation he helped set.
“I just think he gets it. In that position, you need a guy that gets it,” Stamper said. “A lot of former players feel like, ‘Oh, I can come in and be in player development.’ But that position isn’t a glamorous job.
“You’ve got to have the pulse of the team and know what’s going on and tell coach Day (about issues) and get players to trust him. That’s how critical it is.”
Barnett knows there will be an adjustment period but is excited about what he can bring.
“I clearly have aspirations to be at the level of Stamp and maybe even exceed it, though I don’t know how you exceed it because he did so much and did such a great job," he said.
“I think one unique thing I can bring is just my experiences and being a former Buckeye player. As these freshmen come in, I'm able to kind of show them the ropes, let them know about the tradition, what it means to be a Buckeye. Stamp was a great college football player and a leader, but he played for the Gators. I was a Buckeye, so I get to add that element to it.”