Carolina Panthers running back/return specialist Kenjon Barner had no plans to be at the White House on Tuesday, even before Donald Trump disinvited the reigning Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Barner’s decision to skip out was tied to both his political beliefs and good, old-fashioned American capitalism.
The Panthers have an OTA practice on Tuesday, and Barner didn’t want to forfeit the $25,000 workout bonus that’s part of his veteran-minimum, $790,000 contract.
Talking to a reporter Friday at Cam Newton’s charity kickball tournament, Barner said that amount was “enough that I don’t want to go.”
It ended up being a moot point after Trump canceled the Eagles’ trip. The White House had received word that only a small Eagles contingent planned to attend.
While Panthers receiver Torrey Smith ripped Trump on Twitter on Monday night, Barner was more measured while discussing the issue last week.
“At the end of the day whether or not I agree with what he’s doing ... I don’t,” he said. “I don’t agree with a lot of it, but that’s neither here nor there.”
Barner was much more expansive when talking about his return to the Panthers, the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 2013 and traded to Philadelphia a year later. Barner spent the past four years in Philadelphia and was the Eagles’ top punt returner during their Super Bowl season.
The Panthers brought Barner back on a one-year deal in May, a day after change-of-pace running back Fozzy Whittaker was placed on injured reserve after tearing his ACL.
“It’s funny how this business goes, man,” Barner said. “You never know where you’ll end up.”
When Barner became a free agent in March, he told his agent, Frank Bauer, not to contact him until there were substantial talks with a team. When Bauer called to tell Barner he’d heard from Panthers general manger Marty Hurney, Barner was fired up.
“I was excited because I’ve never stopped coming back to Charlotte. I’ve always had my base of friends still here. So even the four years that I was gone, I was in and out of Charlotte,” Barner said during a break at Newton’s kickball event.
“So for me to be able to come back here to the organization that took a chance on me, that opened the door for me to come to the league, that was huge for me. I don’t know how many guys get the opportunity to go back and play for the team that drafted them.”
No hard feelings
Barner told the Observer at the Super Bowl he had no hard feelings toward former GM Dave Gettleman or anyone in the Panthers organization.
While some ex-Panthers have criticized Gettleman’s bedside manner when they were released or traded, Barner said he respected the way Gettleman handled things when then-Eagles coach Chip Kelly called about dealing for the running back he’d coached at Oregon.
Barner appreciated the way Gettleman and Panthers coach Ron Rivera sought his opinion before going through with the trade. (Carolina received a conditional draft pick that was voided after Barner went on IR before the 2014 season.)
“I know for a fact after talking to guys who’ve been in the league a lot longer than I have, the way they handled that, the way they approached me about it, GMs and coaches don’t do that,” Barner said at the Super Bowl.
The Panthers’ running back room looks a lot different than when Barner was last here.
Gone are DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart, another former Oregon back who remains close with Barner.
They’ve been replaced by second-year scatback Christian McCaffrey, recently acquired C.J. Anderson and Cameron Artis-Payne.
A built-in advantage?
Barner’s return skills could give him an edge for a roster spot, although he says his versatility as a back shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
“My best bet is wherever they want me to fit in at. That’s kind of always been my MO,” Barner said. “I’m a team guy. So whatever it is, whether it’s returning, whether it’s blocking for returners, whatever it may – running the ball, catching the ball – I’m able to do it.”
Rivera said Barner’s skill set is attractive in terms of roster-building, but made it clear he’s not going to be handed the job of returner.
“A guy that can return kicks and make things happen, he’s valuable. So we’ll see. That’s what Damiere Byrd did for us last year. Damiere’s someone who deserves those opportunities, as well,” Rivera said. “So we have a group of guys that are all competing for that spot.”
While the White House was never an option for Barner, he plans to be in Philadelphia next week for the Eagles’ Super Bowl ring ceremony.
Even if he has to dash to the airport after the Panthers’ minicamp ends, Barner says that’s one event he wasn’t going to miss.
“Absolutely not,” he said.