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Bird’s Redemption: From ‘The Wire’ to a Colts Game 40 Years in the Making

Bleary-eyed from 16 hours on a Greyhound bus, he strolled into the stadium running on fumes. He’d barely slept in two days. The ride he was supposed to hitch from Charlotte to Indianapolis canceled at the last minute, and for a few nervy hours, Antonio Barnes started to have his doubts. The trip he’d waited 40 years for looked like it wasn’t going to happen.

But as he moved through the concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium an hour before the Colts faced the Raiders, it started to sink in. His pace quickened. His eyes widened. His voice picked up.

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

Barnes, 57, is a lifer, a Colts fan since the Baltimore days. He wore No. 25 on his pee wee football team because that’s the number Nesby Glasgow wore on Sundays. He was a talent in his own right, too: one of his old coaches nicknamed him “Bird” because of his speed with the ball.

Back then, he’d catch the city bus to Memorial Stadium, buy a bleacher ticket for $5 and watch Glasgow and Bert Jones, Curtis Dickey and Glenn Doughty. When he didn’t have any money, he’d find a hole in the fence and sneak in. After the game was over, he’d weasel his way onto the field and try to meet the players. “They were tall as trees,” he remembers.

He remembers the last game he went to: Sept. 25, 1983, an overtime win over the Bears. Six months later the Colts would ditch Baltimore in the middle of the night, a sucker-punch some in the city never got over. But Barnes couldn’t quit them. When his entire family became Ravens fans, he refused. “The Colts are all I know,” he says.

For years, when he couldn’t watch the games, he’d try the radio. And when that didn’t work, he’d follow the scroll at the bottom of a 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 hard to dream when you’re serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder.

It started with a handoff, a low-level dealer named Mickey Poole telling him to tuck a Ziploc full of heroin into his pocket and hide behind the Murphy towers. This was how young drug runners were groomed in Baltimore in the late 1970s. This was Barnes’ way in.

He was 12.

Back then he idolized the Mickey Pooles of the world, the older kids who drove the shiny cars, wore the flashy jewelry, had the girls on their arms and made any working stiff punching a clock from 9 to 5 look like a fool. They owned the streets. Barnes wanted to own them, too.

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

So whenever Mickey would signal for a vial or two, Barnes would hurry over from his hiding spot with that Ziploc bag, out of breath because he’d been running so hard. They’d sell an entire package in a day. Barnes would walk home with $50. “I could buy anything I wanted,” he remembers.

Within a few years he was selling the dope himself — marijuana at first, then valium, eventually cocaine and heroin. Business was booming around the towers, which the locals referred to as the “murder homes.” Sometimes, he’d sell 30 bags in an afternoon. He was 14, pulling in $500 a day.

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

He learned to push away guilt. The way he saw it, he was in too deep, “immune,” he says, “to what I was seeing every day.” The drugs. The decay. The murders. He was 9 when a friend fell out of a 10th-floor window, dying instantly. He was 11 when his older brother, Reggie, was locked up; 15 when his birth father died of an overdose.

But he had a loving mother, a hardworking stepfather, a family that didn’t want for anything when so many around them did. His stepfather drove a crane at a steel company and made a good wage. His mother cooked dinner every night.

“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 fool. She heard the whispers. She noticed her son wasn’t home. Finally, 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, still 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 listen, because he relished that feeling, of being needed, of being trusted, of being part of it.

One Saturday, while Barnes was playing shortstop in a little league game, the Knockers closed in. His teammates begged him to stay. He ignored them. He darted off the diamond in the middle of an inning, grabbed the duffel bag and disappeared into the towers while the cops chased. He climbed 10 flights of stairs and nearly passed out before a neighbor let him slip into an apartment.

Inside that duffel bag that day: a half-dozen guns, thousands in cash and 200 caps of cocaine. Later that night, Butch handed him a different bag. It had $4,000 in it. “This is all yours,” he told him.

Barnes rose from runner to dealer to mid-level player. He quit football. He dropped out of high school. He drove around the streets of west Baltimore with a .357 Colt Magnum resting on his lap. “Like it was a credit card,” he says. A few nights a week, he’d work the count, sorting through some $20,000 in cash, plenty of it in $1 and $5 bills, stacking the drug ring’s profits from a single day’s work.

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