Many Jacksonville Jaguars fans know Bryan Barker as the All-Pro punter who often pinned opposing teams back inside their own 20-yard-line during the Jags’ first six seasons. But even those who are well-versed in the team’s history may not realize that Barker, who had a prolific career with six teams over sixteen seasons, was born just a few blocks away from his current home in Atlantic Beach.
After leaving Jacksonville in 2001, Barker kept his home by the beach and moved back to Jacksonville full-time after retiring in 2006 at the age of 42. I caught up with the oldest original Jacksonville Jaguar on his post-playing career, his work with the Jaguars’ organization and their alumni, what it was like to play for Tom Coughlin, his close relationship with Doug Pederson, why he decided to stay in Jax, and why lineman shouldn’t mess around with special teamers.
On Bryan’s Jacksonville roots
Justin: I didn’t know until reading your Wikipedia page that you were originally born in Jacksonville. Tell me about that.
Bryan: Wikipedia … you can never trust what they say. But yes, my dad was in the Navy for four years here. My mom lived in Neptune Beach on First Street, and my sister and I were born here. My mom’s house looks exactly the same as when she lived there. It’s probably one of a few in the neighborhood that hasn’t been rebuilt.
After my dad finished four years of service, he went to Harvard and then moved to the East Bay for a job in San Francisco. So yeah, I was born in Jacksonville. I left when I was two and grew up in the East Bay of California. I didn’t return to Jacksonville until I was 31 when I was a punter for the Jaguars.
On the longevity of his career
Justin: Out of the six teams you played for, what was your favorite place to play?
Bryan: This is a great question, and it’s an easy answer for me. They were all my favorite. Each one of the teams I played for have unique components. Kansas City gave me my first chance. I was there after a long dry spell of winning, and we went to the playoffs four straight years, with the last one in the AFC Championship with Joe Montana. Arrowhead Stadium and the fans are fantastic.
Philadelphia was just one year, but it was a unique opportunity to play in a city I had never been to with fans who are a little different. It was a crazy year. I have a lot of stories about that one year.
Then I came down to Jacksonville as the inaugural punter. What a unique experience to be part of a city and a franchise that had never had an NFL team. I was somewhat of a celebrity having young kids at the time. Most of the guys didn’t have kids back then. And in ’95, we were the best punt team in the NFL.
I was in Washington during 9/11 which was very strange. But to see the city and the people come around and support what was going on was pretty cool.
I was in Green Bay for a year ... who would’ve thought I’d be punting footballs at age 40, especially at Lambeau Field. I had a good year. We went to the playoffs, and it was a cool experience to play with Brett Favre and the gang.
My last year in St. Louis. I finally got a chance to play for a dome team. If I got to play in a dome my whole career, I probably would’ve played 25 years.
It took me four years to get in the league. I call it a 20-year journey, even though I played 16 seasons.
On retirement and his post-playing career
Justin: You had a long career in the NFL, but age 42 is still very young for the average person to retire from a career. As somebody who just turned 38, I have four more years to figure out how to get to the point you were at and spend the rest of my days waving in the ships with my gold.
First off, how were you able to have the success you had and stay in the league for as long as you did? And second, what was it like to be retired at a relatively young age?
Bryan: I took very good care of myself. And I played as long as I did because I could outlast and outkick anybody. Every week somebody is trying to take your job, anybody who competed against me would have to kick as much as me or feel like they had to. It may not have made the special teams’ coaches happy because it looked like I was wearing myself out, but it actually made me better. Endurance and being able to recover from that and do it day after day was key.
In my final few years as a free agent, I worked on an internship in the offseason that enabled me to jump right into business after I was done kicking footballs. It was highly competitive. It was relationship-based which I obviously had a good network being an athlete. It’s about having a good team which I had in football and now business. And it was all about winning. It was pretty much what my athletic career was about.
I started with a small entrepreneurial employee benefits brokerage out of Atlanta and partnered with them to build an office in Jacksonville. We grew the Jacksonville office pretty quickly and sold the entire company for a good win. Most of us stayed after the sale. I stayed with them for five years.
Myself, along with several of the same folks from our previous company, started a second generation of what we had. It’s going well and growing quickly.
On advising former and current players after they leave the game
Justin: To your point about athletes not being able to sit down and do nothing, do you ever talk to current or recently retired players about how to have success after you’re playing? I know you were the founder and director of the JAG Ambassadors.
Bryan: Most players don’t miss playing the sport. It’s a brutal sport. What most athletes miss across the board is the locker room. When your career is over, your code doesn’t work at the stadium. The biggest void for any athlete is that you're instantly without your friends in the locker room.
The NFL Legends Community came about after an embarrassing number of players committed suicide, including Junior Seau. Once the Legends Community formed, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the initial Legends meetings in Chicago.
Prior to that, I founded the JAG Ambassadors. I went to former Jacksonville Jaguars owners Wayne and Delores Weaver and asked them for access to the players. They asked me what I needed, and I said there were three goals for the program:
Number one, support the team at game day and in the community. Number two, it’s invaluable for former players to be able to go into the stadium, walk around the field, sign autographs, visit suites, and thank the fans for supporting them. We wanted to keep that connection to the team, the fans, and the locker room. The third goal was to provide great opportunities for players to network with local business owners.
I remember Kansas City had an ambassador program when I entered the league that was invaluable. That experience left an important impression on me.
The last year I ran the program, we had over 400 appearances in the community, 15 or more players at every home game, and visited suite holders and fans all over the stadium including the 400 level.
When the NFL Legends community formed, they looked at what we had done in Jacksonville as a model.
On Tom Coughlin and Doug Pederson
Justin: Before talking with you, I was trying to figure out how to ask about Tom Coughlin in a way that’s not usually asked. We all know Tom’s personality and coaching style, but I guess, how would you compare him to Doug Pederson? They clearly have different styles, but what makes them similar?
Bryan: So, in full disclosure, I know Doug really well. We were teammates in Green Bay. Doug was the holder for Ryan Longwell. Doug broke his collarbone, and I became the holder for Ryan. We had four walk-off game-winning kicks that season.
The two of us have been friends for a while, and I was so excited he was hired here. He played the position. We have a young quarterback who should be a superstar. He played for winning organizations. He won as a player. He won as an assistant and head coach. He loves engaging with the former players and co-mingling with the current players which I think is fantastic, especially with social media.
Tom was a fantastic coach for the time he was here and exactly what the organization needed. You can’t really argue with that based on the success we had. We went to two AFC Championship games. He then goes away, wins a couple Super Bowls, and in his first year back, we should’ve been in the Super Bowl again.
I help Tom out with his charity events every year. He holds a golf event at TPC regularly. In golf, if I hit a shot on the 17th hole at TPC and it’s close, he’ll usually say, ‘That’s a great shot.’ And then I’ll say, ‘Do you remember when I used to kick the ball out of bounds at the 4, and I’d come off the field and you’d take your headset off, and say, ‘I want it at the 1, Barker! I want it at the 1!’” That’s who he is. He’s always pushing for complete excellence.
I will agree Doug and Tom have different styles, but both did and do whatever it takes to win. And they both wanted the players to play their absolute best. They won’t settle for mediocrity.
On Punter Logan Cooke and the locker room dynamic
Justin: What do you see with Logan Cooke? He’s so consistent and seems to have a lot of Bryan Barker-like traits to him as a punter.
Bryan: Logan has been so great. He’s consistent, has a great head on his shoulders, a family guy, and he goes out every Sunday and performs.
As far as today’s punter, I would challenge anyone to find another position in the NFL that, statistically speaking, has improved more than the punting position. I led the NFL one year, and nobody at that point had netted more than 40 yards. Now, if you’re not netting 40 yards, you’re not in the league. It’s crazy the statistics these guys are putting up now. It’s so far beyond what we were doing.
Justin: So, I’m curious, what’s the dynamic between special teams players and the rest of the team in the locker room?
Bryan: There are so many jokes in movies about the lonesome kicker or whatever. As long as you’re performing, you’re one of the guys. When I played, Hollis and I ran our butts off. We worked out hard. We kicked a lot. And we performed. Ultimately, as long as you’re dropping kicks inside the 10 and making your field goals, then the whole team watches the film on Monday and can see the impact of everyone’s role.
It doesn’t matter what position you are, if you’re not getting the job done it’s not all fun and games. And yeah, there’s always the dynamic of the big guys picking on the little guys. But at the same time, the little guys have their own way of getting back.
In my era, they’d laugh at us, but you didn’t want to pick on us because we had a lot of free time. So, when you’re out doing what you’re doing, you may find your car keys wrapped up in cast material and frozen in the freezer. Hollis and some of the guys would definitely vouch for that one. We were pranksters.
Justin: Oh, this is definitely going in the article.
On his favorite memories and deciding to call Jacksonville home
Justin: Do you have any favorite memories of your time as a player in Jacksonville?
Bryan: Football-wise, our second year. We started off 1-4, and Tom brought the veterans in to talk about what was wrong. He didn’t like what we said. He pretty much shot down what we suggested. But from that point forward, indirectly, he made a lot of changes, and we went on a run and almost got to the Super Bowl. We were off to the races from there. I love the fact that he took a chance and listened to us.
Justin: Are there any former players from that era who you still hang out with or are close to?
Bryan: Oh yeah. Don Davey has an office next to me. Kyle Brady is a neighbor in Atlantic Beach. I see Hollis all the time.
We have a great network. Some guys I don’t see as much these days. We’re all getting older. My oldest son is 31 now, and we’re all in different stages of life.
Justin: So, I gotta ask, if you were to put the cleats on one more time, how far do you think you could punt a football right now?
Bryan: I used to kick a lot to the kids at Fletcher. That was my offseason place to kick. Hopefully, the kids understood it could break your fingers – which only happened once.
But it’s not about ability. It’s about flexibility. I could probably stand on the 50-yard line, and I could probably kick the ball, and it’d die inside the 10. I couldn’t tell you how high it would go. I couldn’t tell you how pretty it would be. But I could probably finesse the ball inside the 10.
Editor’s note: Bryan is tied for the record for most punts in a game inside the 20. So, yeah, I believe him.
Justin: My last question and thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Why did you decide to hang around Jacksonville and make it home after your NFL career was over?
Bryan: Florida is free America. I love the climate, beaches, boating, golfing, the cost of living, and no state income taxes. Ultimately, I’m tied to this place because I was born here, and I was one of the original players. I love interacting with the team and being part of that history.