John Barefield spent only three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, but with all due respect to Conrad Dobler, there may not have been a larger character. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker was the Cards second round draft pick in 1978 out of Texas A&I University where he was known for wearing quarters in his ears, stalking cemeteries at night, writing poetry about his tackles, and going by the name of Doctor Doom.
“I know I’m strange. I’ve got a strange mind,” the flamboyant linebacker said at a rookie workout at Busch Stadium in 1978. “I see visions, vibes and things. I was going to leave my Dr. Doom cap back at college, but I found myself putting it back on.”
Barefield was a star in college and told tales of 20,000 fans screaming “Doom… Doom…Doom.” The Javelinas won 46 straight games and he was named outstanding defensive player in the Lone Star Conference his junior and senior seasons.
“I tell you what, I play the game to hurt,” Barefield said after the draft. “I don’t want to sound cocky or anything, but I play some ball. There are going to be some people who’ll have to watch out… I got wonders.”
“They called me The Intimidator, The Exterminator and Bad News Bear and they called me Doctor Doom,” Barefield told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1980 interview.
The Big Red spent most of the 1970s searching for a play-making linebacker and were hoping that Dr. Doom could live up to his reputation. He was known as a wild, undisciplined defender in his college days.
“Jungle ball is what I call it. I was all over the field. I’d go up and try to break a dude’s neck if I could. The worst thing I ever did was knock a disc out of a guy’s back. I figure if I came here and these coaches teach me the right technique, I’ll be able to utilize the natural ability that I have.”
Unfortunately, Barefield didn’t get the coaching he needed as a rookie because of a 34 day holdout.
“I took a hell of a chance holding out,” Barefield told the Victoria Advocate in 1979. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
“I knew they (Cardinals) needed a linebacker because they drafted me in the second round, but they were being stubborn in the negotiations and I was already concentrating on sitting out for the year. It went right down to the wire.”
Barefield arrived in St. Louis to sign his contract on August 9, 1978. The day turned out to be memorable in more ways than he could have imagined. On his way to take his physical, Barefield demonstrated that the “Doctor” in his nickname may have been more than symbolic.
Barefield noticed a woman frantically waving her arms beside a car parked on the exit ramp of Interstate 270 and Olive Boulevard. He stopped and the woman tearfully explained her husband was suffering a heart attack.
“She was crying and telling me that her husband was having a heart attack,” Barefield told the Fort Worth Star Telegraph. “The guy weighed over 250 pounds and I thought there was no way I was going to pick him up. Her car was stalled so I knew I had to get him in my car. Before I got him in the car I thought I was going to drop him.”
The Big Red linebacker loaded the man in the back of his station wagon, managed to stop one lane of traffic by stepping in front of several cars and rushed the man safely to the hospital. The man was released a couple of weeks later.
“His wife sent me one of the most moving letters I’ve ever received,” Barefield said.
Later that evening, Barefield signed his five year-$350,000 contract. It would be the highlight of his rookie season.
Dr. Doom talked a big game, but that didn’t translate to his play on the field. His holdout left him unprepared and out of shape. Shoulder and leg injuries limited his playing time to only a few games on special teams and he would finally be placed on injured reserve.
“I played nine games on the specialty teams and it was an education like no other I’ve ever gotten,” Barefield said. “There were things I didn’t understand at the beginning. By our fourth regular game, though, I understood.”
“His first year was a washout,” said Big Red defensive coordinator Tom Bettis. “He walked in here like he was going to capture everything. He found out this is a different game; you’re playing with the big boys.”
Barefield had a tough time adjusting to the NFL and couldn’t understand the skepticism that greeted him in St. Louis. Then came the controversy with the real “Dr. Doom,” Houston Oilers All-Pro linebacker Robert Brazile.
When Brazile learned of Barefield’s antics he said: “There’s only one Dr. Doom and my mother gave birth to him. I don’t even know who this other guys is.”
When informed that Barefield was a rookie linebacker for the Cardinals, Brazile said, “That’s a shame. If he was a running back and we played St. Louis, the two of us could decide who was the real Dr. Doom—and it wouldn’t take long. I don’t want the name of Dr. Doom to fall into the hands of somebody who’s not even All-St. Louis.”
Those words cut Barefield deeply. “I know the dude is mad,” countered Barefield, “but tell him I’ll give him a quarter for his ear and then he, too, can be a 25th wonder of the world.”
Barefield went on, “Robert Brazile has been in the league for six years and no one ever heard of him being Dr. Doom until I came along. I’m not here to compete with him; I’ve got no time for that. Let the fans be the judge.”
The Oilers and Cardinals mer in the pre-season opener in 1979 and Barefield played well on special teams. He also intercepted a pass and returned a fumble 26 yards, earning Brazile’s respect. At one point in the game, Brazile tapped the Big Red linebacker on the shoulder and when he turned around, the All-Pro winked at him without saying anything.
“I respect the guy (Brazile),” Barefield said after the game. “He’s All-Pro, and in this business, that’s the ultimate. I admire the way he plays and what he has done, but I don’t feel he should have come down on me with those things he said about me last year. After he said them, everyone really put it on me. I’m not complaining though. I still feel I’m the only Doctor Doom.”
Barefield wrote a short poem about himself prior to his second season with the Cardinals.
“78 was supposed to be great, but I started too late; ‘79’s gonna be fine, ‘cause I’ll be on time.”
“I’m glad I got the first year down,” Barefield told the Victoria Advocate. “It’s rough being a rookie, that’s why I admire Earl Cambell so much because I know what he went through.”
Barefield improved in 1979. He quietly went about the business of learning the linebacker position in training camp and became a top special teams’ performer the first half of the season. He then started the final seven games at linebacker in place of injured Steve Neils. He recorded 10 tackles against the Bears and the 49ers.
“Last year was like his rookie year,” Tom Bettis said at the end of the season. “He really improved in a lot of areas once he settled down and started concentrating. We had some long talks and I think he’s got himself squared away.”
Bettis remembered telling Barefield the value of talking softly and carrying a sharp scalpel. “You can do a lot of talking about how you’re going to play, but it depends what you do on the green stuff.”
Barefield took the advice, closed his mouth and went to work. As John Sonderegger wrote in a 1980 Post Dispatch column, “He still wasn’t ‘All-St. Louis’ and he knew it.”
“Until I earn that job,” Barefield said, “it ain’t no fun and games.”
In 1980, Barefield showed up at training camp determined to win Steve Neils’ job. It didn’t happen, but he continued to excel on special teams with his big hits, until suffering a season ending knee injury against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6. It would be the last NFL game for Dr. Doom.
Despite being a superb special teams’ player, head coach Jim Hanifan cut Barefield just a couple of months after the 1980 season.
When asked the reasons for his release, Hanifan didn’t hold back.
“Have you seen him play from the line of scrimmage?” asked the second-year Big Red head coach. “Rather than getting into negotiations on a contract and dragging it out for months and months, I wanted to go ahead and cut the tie now and announce that we could not pick up his option.”
Barefield seemed confused on why he was released and thought it may have been that the team didn’t think he would recover from knee surgery, but Hanifan said that was not the case.
“They told me I didn’t fit into the program, whatever that is,” he said. “I really hate to leave because I’m probably one of the few players who really got a kick out of being here. I especially appreciate what Tom Bettis did for me. He taught me how to play the game and I’m ready now.”
“But they told me my services were no longer needed here, so I’m not going to argue. This is really the beginning of my career.”
What wasn’t reported at the time, was that Barefield made more money than starting linebacker Tim Kearney, a defensive team leader who led the Cards in tackles.
Barefield had a brief tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1981, but never got another job in the NFL. A year after his release, Tom Barnidge of the St. Louis Post Dispatch caught up with Dr. Doom at a speaking engagement.
“The people in St. Louis never got to know the real John Barefield. That Dr. Doom stuff and the quarter in the ear, it all was exploited to death.”
Barefield resurfaced in the United States Football League in 1983. He played three seasons and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Michigan Panthers in 1984 while playing with the San Antonio Gunslingers.
Dr. Doom retired from football after the 1985 season. He’s lived most of his retired life in Colorado with this wife and three kids.
Dr. Doom’s time in St. Louis was short, but there’s no question he left a lasting impression with many Big Red fans.