Gary Barbaro of the Kansas City Chiefs is 205 pounds of proof that you don't have to go to a big school, score a lot of touchdowns, or have Henry Kissinger as an agent to launch a rewarding career in the National Football League. If the talent is there, either some pro scout or some well-programmed computer will find it.
Barbaro, the Chiefs' No. 3 pick in the 1976 college draft out of Nicholls State (about 40 miles west of New Orleans), is a free safety on defense who was named to several all-pro teams last year. Only Oakland's Lester Hayes had more interceptions: 12 to Gary's 10.
This year, going into Sunday's final game, Gary has picked off five enemy aerials, returning them 134 yards, recovered one fumble, made 54 tackles, and assisted on 38 more, for another fine all-around season.
What makes Barbaro so tough is that he never stays in one place long enough when the opposition is lining up for the offense to get a line on him. Consequently he makes it almost impossible for receivers to stick to basic patterns.
''One reason I have been so successful is that I only go after those balls that I'm sure I can intercept,'' Barbaro told reporters. ''I'm also part of a team whose defensive line is so outstanding against the run that it forces the opposition into passing situations. And anytime a quarterback finds himself in a position like that, he's apt to throw too soon and make a mistake.''
Barbaro didn't even start playing organized football until his senior year at East Jefferson (La.) High School, mostly because he wanted to concentrate on his music. He was the lead trombone player in the school's marching band, more familiar with quarter notes than quarterbacks.
What changed Gary's mind, he says, was simply the thought one day that if he didn't play football now, he would never have the chance again. It was to be strictly a one-year thing until Nicholls State, a college about to launch its first varsity football program, offered him a scholarship.
''At first I had the feeling that maybe they were just looking for bodies, but when they offered me a four-year football scholarship I took it,'' Barbaro explained. ''I guess I'm the classic case of what you call a late bloomer. Anyway, the coaches at Nicholls worked hard with me, played me quite a bit, and gave me the time I needed to develop. Considering my football background in high school, if I'd gone to a big college I probably would have wound up sitting on the bench.''
Call it instinct or flexibility, Barbaro came into training camp with the Chiefs in 1976 and beat out several more experienced defensive players with better credentials. A quick learner, he picked up Kansas City's defensive system almost as easily as if he had been one of its authors.
Part of the responsibility of a free safety in pro football, although it's an almost impossible request, is to include the entire width of the field in his sights and not just his immediate territory. So sometimes, even if it's the defensive cornerback on the other side of the field who has been beaten, Gary's anticipation (if he can get over there fast enough) may hold the receiver to merely a long gainer rather than letting him escape for the touchdown.
Reading the other team's offensive keys after they've come out of the huddle and gotten set at the line of scrimmage is perhaps the most important asset a defensive man can have, and Gary plays as though he were born with it.
Teams are so sophisticated today that what often looks like a pass play turns out to be a run, and vice versa. If a free safety commits himself too soon, he can get burned for big yardage or even a touchdown. But if he knows when to hold back and wait for the puzzle to unravel itself, he may wind up with an interception.
Many defensive backs in the NFL were quarterbacks, running backs, or wide receivers in college, so that they already understand what the offense is trying to do. These are people are given to the defensive coach for two reasons - because of their incredible reaction time against the pass and because of their quickness.
Barbaro, who has led the Chiefs in pass pickoffs in three of the last four seasons, also shares the NFL record for the longest return of an interception - 102 yards. That came in 1977 against QB Jim Zorn of the Seattle Seahawks and tied a league mark previously held jointly by Bob Smith of the Detroit Lions and Erich Barnes of the New York Giants.