"Sugar Shack" by former NFL player Ernie Barnes would become the cover art for a Marvin Gaye album. Copyright Ernie Barnes Family Trust / Courtesy NC Museum of History

As an NFL player who left the game of football only to become even more successful in a second professional endeavor, Ernie Barnes was way ahead of his time. The late football player turned artist, who died in 2009, left the NFL at age 28 and became an immensely successful painter, so much so that his artwork is now being featured in a beautiful exhibit that opened Friday at the North Carolina Museum of History

Barnes is a fascinating story -- according to his NCMOH bio, he was "shy, sensitive, and bullied throughout childhood," so he pursued art as a method of expressing himself. He also apparently used the bullying as motivation to become a physical specimen, which is what helped lead him to playing college football at what is now known as North Carolina Central. Despite having a ridiculous 26 athletic scholarship offers, he was unable to attend a bigger local school (he was born in Durham, N.C.) like Duke or UNC Chapel Hill because of segregation. 

The standout at Central would eventually be drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1960 and spent five seasons playing as a lineman for the Chargers and Broncos. He retired in 1966 to pursue his artwork. 

Such art includes a painting named "Sugar Shack" which would eventually become the cover art for Marvin Gaye's album, "I Want You" as well as being featured in the closing credits of the TV sitcom "Good Times." 

The soulfulness within the painting, inspired by a dance at the Durham Armory, is profound. 

Barnes was known as "Big Rembrandt" by his teammates; clearly his artwork infiltrated his playing career. He also created plenty of sports-related paintings too. One such painting, "Study A for Victory in Overtime," appears to feature the Panthers playing in Bank of America Stadium, with the Charlotte skyline in the background.

It correctly captures the organized chaos of a football game. 

"Study A for Victory in Overtime" by Ernie Barnes, 1995 Copyright Ernie Barnes Family Trust / Courtesy NC Museum of History

Barnes also painted "Homecoming," which features Central's (as noted by the 15-501 signs related to Durham) famous drumline. 

"Homecoming" by Ernie Barnes Copyright Ernie Barnes Family Trust / Courtesy NC Museum of History

"The family is proud to kick-off Ernie Barnes' 80th birthday here in his home state with his first public exhibition in 11 years," Barnes' longtime assistant Luz Rodriguez said in a release. "I hope his fans -- and those new to Ernie Barnes -- discover more about his extraordinary career.  His unique journey is inspirational and important to American culture."

The exhibit is free to view and runs from June 29 through March 3, 2019. Visit the NC Museum of History website for details on how to check it out.