Bleary-eyed from 16 hours on a Greyhound bus, he strolled into the stadium operating on fumes. He’d barely slept in two days. The trip he was alleged to hitch from Charlotte to Indianapolis canceled at the final minute, and for a few nervy hours, Antonio Barnes began to have his doubts. The journey he’d waited 40 years for appeared prefer it wasn’t going to occur.

However as he moved by the concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium an hour earlier than the Colts confronted the Raiders, it began to sink in. His tempo quickened. His eyes widened. His voice picked up.

“I got chills right now,” he mentioned. “Chills.”

Barnes, 57, is a lifer, a Colts fan since the Baltimore days. He wore No. 25 on his pee wee soccer staff as a result of that’s the quantity Nesby Glasgow wore on Sundays. He was a expertise in his personal proper, too: one in all his previous coaches nicknamed him “Bird” due to his velocity with the ball.

Again then, he’d catch the metropolis bus to Memorial Stadium, purchase a bleacher ticket for $5 and watch Glasgow and Bert Jones, Curtis Dickey and Glenn Doughty. When he didn’t have any cash, he’d discover a gap in the fence and sneak in. After the game was over, he’d weasel his manner onto the subject and attempt to meet the gamers. “They were tall as trees,” he remembers.

He remembers the final game he went to: Sept. 25, 1983, an extra time win over the Bears. Six months later the Colts would ditch Baltimore in the center of the evening, a sucker-punch some in the metropolis by no means acquired over. However Barnes couldn’t stop them. When his whole household turned Ravens followers, he refused. “The Colts are all I know,” he says.

For years, when he couldn’t watch the video games, he’d attempt the radio. And when that didn’t work, he’d observe the scroll at the backside of a display screen.

“There were so many nights I’d just sit there in my cell, picturing what it’d be like to go to another game,” he says. “But you’re left with that thought that keeps running through your mind: I’m never getting out.”

It’s exhausting to dream if you’re serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit homicide.

It began with a handoff, a low-level vendor named Mickey Poole telling him to tuck a Ziploc filled with heroin into his pocket and conceal behind the Murphy towers. This was how younger drug runners have been groomed in Baltimore in the late Nineteen Seventies. This was Barnes’ manner in.

He was 12.

Again then he idolized the Mickey Pooles of the world, the older children who drove the shiny vehicles, wore the flashy jewellery, had the ladies on their arms and made any working stiff punching a clock from 9 to five seem like a idiot. They owned the streets. Barnes needed to personal them, too.

“In our world,” says his nephew Demon Brown, “the only successful people we saw were selling drugs and carrying guns.”

So each time Mickey would sign for a vial or two, Barnes would hurry over from his hiding spot with that Ziploc bag, out of breath as a result of he’d been operating so exhausting. They’d promote a whole package deal in a day. Barnes would stroll residence with $50. “I could buy anything I wanted,” he remembers.

Inside a few years he was promoting the dope himself — marijuana at first, then valium, finally cocaine and heroin. Enterprise was booming round the towers, which the locals known as the “murder homes.” Generally, he’d promote 30 luggage in a day. He was 14, pulling in $500 a day.

“A dealer of death,” he calls himself now.

He discovered to push away guilt. The way in which he noticed it, he was in too deep, “immune,” he says, “to what I was seeing every day.” The medication. The decay. The murders. He was 9 when a pal fell out of a Tenth-floor window, dying immediately. He was 11 when his older brother, Reggie, was locked up; 15 when his delivery father died of an overdose.

However he had a loving mom, a hardworking stepfather, a household that didn’t need for something when so many round them did. His stepfather drove a crane at a metal firm and made a good wage. His mom cooked dinner each evening.

“We had a black-and-white television, and nobody we knew had one of those,” Barnes says. “Us kids wanted bikes for Christmas? We got bikes. We wanted ice skates? We got ice skates.”

Mary Barnes was no idiot. She heard the whispers. She observed her son wasn’t residence. Lastly, she confronted him. “You were raised better than this,” she scolded. “There will be consequences to what you’re doing.”

Antonio denied all of it. “Lied right to her face,” he says now, nonetheless ashamed.

He was climbing the ranks, working with a high-up hustler named Butch Peacock. Anytime the plainclothes police — “Knockers” — would roll up, Butch would shout, “Bird, grab the bag and go!” and Barnes would pay attention, as a result of he relished that feeling, of being wanted, of being trusted, of being a part of it.

One Saturday, whereas Barnes was enjoying shortstop in a little league game, the Tits closed in. His teammates begged him to remain. He ignored them. He darted off the diamond in the center of an inning, grabbed the duffel bag and disappeared into the towers whereas the cops chased. He climbed 10 flights of stairs and almost handed out earlier than a neighbor let him slip into an condominium.

Inside that duffel bag that day: a half-dozen weapons, hundreds in money and 200 caps of cocaine. Later that evening, Butch handed him a totally different bag. It had $4,000 in it. “This is all yours,” he advised him.

Barnes rose from runner to vendor to mid-level participant. He stop soccer. He dropped out of highschool. He drove round the streets of west Baltimore with a .357 Colt Magnum resting on his lap. “Like it was a credit card,” he says. A number of nights a week, he’d work the rely, sorting by some $20,000 in money, loads of it in $1 and $5 payments, stacking the drug ring’s earnings from a single day’s work.

He by no means killed anybody, he says, however he’s additionally not ignorant to all that he was caught up in. He was awash in a world of violence.

“That was our business,” he says. “On those streets, it was either you or them. They’re out to rob you. They’ll kill you. They’ll snatch you up, duct tape your mouth and torture you if you didn’t give them what they want. They’d put your mother on the phone to scare you more.”

They discovered Butch in the entrance seat of his automobile one morning, blood trickling down his neck, a bullet in the again of his head. He’d been executed at point-blank vary exterior a nightclub.

Barnes shrugged it off. He advised himself he simply needed to be sharper. “That’s how backwards my thinking was,” he says. So as a substitute of getting out, he plunged additional in. He began operating with a new crew, one headed by the metropolis’s most infamous gangster at the time: Timmirror Stanfield.

They busted by his again door at 5:30 one morning. Barnes, cornered in mattress, had his arm round his girlfriend, Tammie, who was 9 months pregnant with their daughter.

“Bird, take your hands out from under those covers,” he remembers the officer telling him. “Do it real slow.”

He’d been arrested earlier than on misdemeanor weapons expenses, however this was totally different. 5 members of Stanfield’s crew could be tried for killing a state’s witness earlier than that witness may testify in a separate case, the boss for homicide and 4 of his prime lieutenants — together with Barnes — for conspiracy.

Based on prosecutors, the dispute began when a low-level vendor didn’t present Stanfield “appropriate respect” throughout an argument on the fourth ground of the Murphy towers. Police mentioned Stanfield put one bullet in the vendor’s chest and 5 in his head. The trial lasted 9 weeks, interrupted at one level when Marlow Bates, a co-defendant and Stanfield’s half-brother, warned one in all the witnesses, “You’re going to die.”

Barnes barely paid consideration, sleeping by most of it. He was 20 years previous and conceited, satisfied he had nothing to fret about.

A witness who had initially positioned him at the homicide scene later recanted beneath oath. He refused to cooperate with police. He figured that they had nothing on him. “I thought it was the easiest case in the world to beat,” Barnes says. “I wasn’t there when the shooting happened.”

After closing arguments, the jury deliberated for 90 minutes earlier than touchdown on the verdicts. His legal professional took it as a promising signal. “When it comes back this quick,” Barnes remembered listening to, “that usually means not guilty.”

It was a Wednesday. April 1, 1987. Barnes made plans for that night. He was going out to have a good time.

They known as his title first, and when he heard that phrase — GUILTY — he rattling close to fell over. His abdomen tightened. His knees wobbled. He began to lose his breath. The primary thought that ran by his thoughts was how embarrassed he’d be if the entrance web page of the subsequent day’s Baltimore Solar learn, “BIRD FAINTS AFTER VERDICT.”

The remainder was a blur. Responsible, all of them. Life sentences, all of them. Stanfield and Bates snickered after they heard the verdict, based on the Solar, laughing out loud in the courtroom.

As an alternative of passing out, Barnes remained as cocky as ever. He exited the courtroom, handcuffs clamped round his wrists, and eyed Ed Burns, the Baltimore metropolis murder detective whose eight-month investigation led to the arrests and dismantling of Stanfield’s gang.

“You happy now?” Barnes requested, flashing a smile. “See ya in a year or two.”

Greater than a decade later, Burns would co-write a tv drama with a longtime Baltimore Solar cops reporter named David Simon. They known as it “The Wire.” One among the most feared drug kingpins in the present glided by the title Marlo Stanfield. And in the sixth episode of the second season, a vicious hitman stands trial for killing a state’s witness, defiant to the finish.

They known as him Chicken.

Over 36 years, Barnes bounced amongst 14 prisons, together with a keep in the late Nineteen Nineties at Marion, a maximum-security facility in Illinois. Three cells down from him was famed New York Metropolis mobster John Gotti. The 2 talked baseball, Gotti by no means lacking a probability to rub it in when his Yankees beat up on Barnes’ Orioles.

His goals of getting out died slowly, one attraction after one other swiftly denied by the state. It didn’t actually hit him till two years into his sentence that he was going to develop previous inside, wasn’t going to get to observe his new child daughter develop up. That’s when the melancholy sunk in. The anger. The remorse.

Panic assaults would come at evening, startling him from sleep. He’d have visions of his previous life — Eight months in the past, I used to be right here; three years in the past, right here … — and simply lie there, thoughts racing, eyes open, till 3 in the morning.

Slowly, Barnes got here to reckon with what he’d performed, the decisions he made and the hurt he precipitated. He weighed the ache he introduced his household and his group. He didn’t pull the set off on the fourth ground of the Murphy towers that day — he wasn’t even there, he maintains — however he was a part of the poison plaguing his metropolis and choking its youth.

“I can never make up for what I did,” he says.

In jail, he discovered to learn and write, earned his G.E.D. and led counseling conferences for troubled inmates. He turned a revealed writer — “Prison is Not a Playground” is Barnes’ story in his personal phrases, beginning with that plastic bag Mickey Poole slipped him as a 12-year-old.

He tutored these with developmental disabilities, together with a former cellmate. “Antonio is an amazing example of someone deciding that they’re going to grow and develop instead of being sucked into all the negativity that happens in there,” mentioned Brian Teausant, that inmate’s father.

He labored as a suicide companion for 23 years, counseling the prisons’ most at-risk inmates. He based three self-help applications that, based on one in all his former wardens, led to a decline in inmate self-discipline points. “Wardens don’t usually put their John Hancock on a letter of support for someone with a life sentence,” Barnes notes proudly. Multiple did for him.

He was denied parole 5 instances. At one listening to, Barnes was requested, “How can we put you back in a community that you helped rip apart?

He thought for a moment.

“Because Bird is dead,” he advised them. “And you’re talking to Mr. Antonio Barnes.”

Nonetheless, the denials battered his perception and examined his persistence.

“They were trying to see if I’d give up,” he says. “It was exhausting. However I advised myself, ‘I will die before I give up.’”

Then one afternoon last spring, while he was reading in the prison law library, another inmate told him the parole officer was looking for him. He grew anxious. He hurried upstairs to her office. “Maryland is letting you go,” she told him.

He felt his knees start to wobble, same as 36 years prior, when he stood in that Baltimore City courtroom as a cocky 20-year-old. His stomach tightened. He could barely speak. Only this time, it was relief.

“I was shaking like a ’57 Chevy,” he says.

On July 20, he walked out of the Coleman Federal Correctional Advanced in central Florida. An Uber driver picked him up and gave him a raise to the bus station, the place he hopped on a Greyhound sure for Charlotte. Barnes sat in the backseat, staring out the window, and when the automobile pulled onto the freeway, he closed his eyes and started to cry.

Now, as a substitute of a pistol on his nightstand, he retains his mobile phone close by. The calls come late, typically at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, and it’s his job to reply them.

Barnes presently works as a peer help specialist at ARJ, a psychological well being middle in Charlotte co-owned by his nephew Demon Brown, who overcame his personal troubled teenage years on the streets of Baltimore, plus three stays in a juvenile facility, to develop into a standout level guard for UNC Charlotte’s basketball staff in the early 2000s.

Demon had a room prepared for his uncle and a job ready for him after Barnes was launched in July. “As soon as he came home, he told me he wanted to help others any way he could,” Demon says. “How many guys getting out of prison think like that?

“I’m telling you, the only thing he ever talked about doing for himself was getting up to a Colts game.”

At ARJ, Barnes specializes in the middle’s most at-risk sufferers, a lot like the ones he labored with in jail. He’s taken what he discovered on the inside and now makes use of it to avoid wasting lives.

“A lot of these patients are battling substance abuse issues,” Brown says. “Some are just out of prison. Some are in and out of shelters. Some are homeless. It’s incredibly challenging, and Antonio just has this talent, like this empathy for them, that helps him connect.”

One current name got here in the center of the evening. A girl was delirious, wanting to harm herself. Barnes stayed on the telephone together with her for 5 hours.

“I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t do none of that,” he says. “But every time we have a successful story with one of our patients, that’s the biggest high in the world for me.”

His aim is to have “Prison is Not a Playground” handed out in juvenile detention facilities throughout Charlotte. He needs to talk to lecture rooms. He needs to make use of his story to alter lives. He goes again to what Detective Ed Burns advised him 37 years in the past whereas he sat in a jail cell awaiting processing after his conviction. “Barnes, you’re smart,” Burns mentioned. “You can still make something of your life.”

He’s decided to.

He by no means watched “The Wire.” No want, he says. He lived it. (On Wednesday, Simon posted on X — previously Twitter — that the Chicken character was not based mostly on Barnes or anybody particular person, that the title was “a simple shout-out by Ed Burns and myself to a Baltimore street legend whose adventures date to the 1970s.”)

However Barnes says Burns “saved my life.” He calls the life sentence he was handed in April 1987 “the greatest reward a career criminal could receive.” With out it, he believes, he wouldn’t be alive.

Away from work, he’s nonetheless acclimating to his new life, and typically has hassle sleeping, startled awake by these little noises he by no means used to listen to in jail. He takes lengthy walks in the afternoons, nonetheless in disbelief that he’s a free man. He borrowed a automobile just lately so he may observe parking, one thing he hadn’t performed since the spring of 1987.

He began saving for a journey to Indianapolis as quickly as he was launched this summer season, then burned by nearly each greenback he needed to make it occur. He was granted permission from his parole officer to make the journey, then slogged by 16 hours on a Greyhound, too excited to sleep. “That ride could’ve taken two days,” he says, (*40*)

Round midday on New 12 months’s Eve, he slid into his seat in Part 126 at Lucas Oil Stadium, surprised by the scene in entrance of him. He’d by no means seen a lot blue in his life. He snapped images. He discovered that everybody stands when it’s third down. He sweated out a 23-20 win for the Colts that stored their playoff hopes alive.

“It still don’t seem like it’s real,” he texted his nephew.

After the game, he lingered inside the stadium for over an hour, till the place was virtually empty.

“Still feels like a dream I’m going to wake up from.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; images courtesy of Antonio Barnes, Bobby Ellis / Getty Pictures)

“The Football 100,” the definitive rating of the NFL’s greatest 100 gamers of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.