Skip to main content
Original Issue

Media Giant?

Handsome, hardworking, underappreciated New York Giants running back Tiki Barber is about to hang up his cleats. But guess what? You'll be seeing even more of him once he's out of the game

There is a moment when you know, Tiki Barber discovers. When the idea, lurking unspoken in your subconscious, suddenly is fully formed, and you can put words to it. Barber is standing in the end zone at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field before the Sept. 17 game against the Eagles, waiting in line with the other New York Giants running backs to practice short pass routes. When it is his turn, he trots seven yards, and assistant coach Jerald Ingram tosses him the ball. Barber tucks the nose of the ball snug in his armpit, high and tight--always high and tight, he reminds himself, always--and then laterals it to a ball boy and retakes his place in line next to fullback Jim Finn.

In the stands the green-clad Philly fans are shouting their usual stream of profane invective at the Giants, warning of impending violence, singling out Barber in particular. Barber looks at the mob, the men in their Trotter jerseys, the boys in their McNabbs, and doesn't feel a thing.

"You know what?" he says to Finn, his best friend on the team. "I'm done."

"What do you mean?" Finn asks.

"This is it," Barber says. "I don't feel it anymore. Don't get me wrong: I'm gonna have a great year. But I'm done."

Now he is sitting in the sage-colored den off the living room of his condominium on Manhattan's Upper East Side, leaning back on one elbow on a chocolate-striped sofa beneath David Maisel prints of the Great Salt Lake, and he says, "Get down on the floor, then get up. I tell people that: Lie down on the floor 30 times and then get up. It's hard. Now imagine getting knocked down 30 times and getting up. Every day." He's not making excuses. He's explaining that even the quotidian routine of his life is harder than you or I understand.

Then he pauses, because that's not the whole reason he's about to retire at age 31. It can't be. He is leaving too much behind. He is abandoning us. He is walking away from the game in what appears to be his prime, a year removed from one of the greatest seasons in NFL history--2,390 yards from scrimmage, the second most alltime--and still running impressively, with 1,282 rushing yards in 2006 through Sunday. "He is playing better than ever," says Giants coach Tom Coughlin, "and that's not just my opinion. That's what I'm hearing from the teams we face."

Barber is the Giants' leading career rusher, with 10,069 yards, and receiver, with 575 catches for 5,118 yards, and you could make the case that he is the most accomplished New York athlete of the 21st century. Along with his brother, Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tiki is also a genetic anomaly, part of the most successful identical-twins tandem in NFL history. Yet it seems that just as we were belatedly coming to appreciate his greatness and determine where he stands among the game's elite running backs--not up there with Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and Walter Payton, but surprisingly close--he is exiting. His impending departure, reported by The New York Times on Oct. 18 over Barber's objections, caught fans by surprise and elicited the predictable vitriol from a New York sports media that has never really embraced him.

The gist of the complaint was the usual sports-radio chatter about a player's putting himself ahead of the team. But Barber hadn't wanted the news to leak out, so the notion that he had selfishly caused a distraction was mistaken. "I think the media, the talking heads who cover the league, they were like, 'How dare he retire before we tell him to retire?'" Barber says. "They think it's their right to decide when I go."

He shakes his head. "But anyway," he continues, "how can I keep playing a kids' game for the rest of my life?" He is leaving the NFL not only because of the toll it takes on him but also because of his enthusiasm for his next career and the satisfaction it will bring. Playing professional football, Barber believes, is one of the best postcollege jobs a young man can have. But that's all it is, a postcollege job. And no football player has been better prepared for his post-postcollege job than Barber, and not just as another aging jock trading in his football pads for padded shoulders and taking his place behind a desk alongside Chris Berman or James Brown. Just days after that Eagles game in September, four networks--ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox--began discussions with Barber about his potential in multiplatform roles across their news and sports divisions: morning shows to news magazines to evening news to sports coverage. In a decade, Barber believes, television viewers will point to him and say to one another, "Did you know that guy used to be a football player?"

"No disrespect to any of his predecessors," says his business manager, Mark Lepselter, "but nobody has done what Tiki is going to do. Nobody has left the league and gone straight to network news."

Just a few weeks ago you couldn't have scripted a better finale. Barber's postfootball future looked bright, and back in his postcollege job his team was in the midst of a five-game winning streak and leading the NFC East. Yet soon after his decision to retire was reported, the gyre of the Giants' season began to wobble. The first shudder came on Nov. 12 with a minute and a half left in the first half against the Chicago Bears, as the Giants led 13--3. On third-and-22 for the Bears, the Giants' injury-depleted defense let Thomas Jones run up the middle for 26 yards to set up a score and get Chicago back into the game. That was followed by a series of mishaps for the Giants in the second half, including an ill-advised 52-yard field goal attempt into the wind that the Bears' Devin Hester returned 108 yards for a touchdown; a broken leg suffered by New York left tackle Luke Petitgout; and such poor play by Giants quarterback Eli Manning that his receivers began giving up halfway through their routes as balls skittered off the turf or sailed out-of-bounds or, worse, into defenders' arms. The Bears won the game 38--20.

Manning seemed even more discombobulated in a disappointing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars the next week, and in the game after that he threw two interceptions as the Giants blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against the Tennessee Titans. This dispirited play precipitated several rounds of squabbling among the players and between them and the coaches and media. Defensive end Michael Strahan's public criticism of wideout Plaxico Burress for giving up on plays and Strahan's subsequent tirade against an ESPN reporter who challenged him on those comments capped off the most tumultuous few weeks in post--Lawrence Taylor Giants history. And Barber, surprisingly, was front and center, first with the revelation of his plan to retire and then, after the Jacksonville loss, in which he had just 10 carries for 27 yards, with public criticism of Coughlin's game plan. "I felt insignificant for the first time this season," Barber told reporters. "You have to be able to run the ball." In response to a question about the Jaguars' success in shutting down the Giants' running game, Barber said, "When you give up on that part of the game, it's a slap in the face of me and a slap in the face of my front five."

The New York media swarmed, with columns in the Post and The Daily News knocking Tiki and the sports radiosphere dubbing him Me-ki. But lost in all the hot air about Barber's supposed selfishness was the fact that this particular rant was strikingly out of character. Tiki is not T.O., or even Jeremy Shockey. If he was breaking the chain of command, then likely he had a good reason. One source very close to Barber said he was seeking to draw the heat away from his struggling teammate, Manning, a seemingly fragile 25-year-old who would only be undermined by more media speculation and condemnation--especially while Philip Rivers, the quarterback for whom Manning was traded in 2004, was thriving. Barber himself last week acknowledged that he was doing more than questioning Coughlin's game plan. "Yeah, that was part of it," he said when asked if he had been looking to deflect attention from Manning. "When I do something, there is more than one reason. There is a philharmonic in my head."

Against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, the Giants' frayed nerves were soothed by a 27--13 win due in part to another fine Barber performance with 20 carries for 112 yards, taking him over the 10,000-yard milestone.

He is driving his black Mercedes up the New Jersey Turnpike, the concrete ribbon that winds past lozenge-shaped natural gas tanks and estuaries of brackish water. Barber is returning to Manhattan from the Giants' practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J., steering the car with his left hand and with the hard cast that braces his right thumb, which he broke in that loss to the Bears. In the backseat is a ham in a plastic bag. The Giants give each player a choice of a ham or a turkey for Thanksgiving.

In profile, against the orange sun settling into the smog over the industrial badlands of northern New Jersey, Barber's facial structure is so defined that you imagine you know what he will look like in a thousand years, long after the flesh has decomposed and he is only bone. His face is all sharp angles and perfect planes. His broad smile bares gleaming white, evenly arrayed teeth, an extra helping of perfection after the symmetry of his features.

He is lost in thought for a moment, talking about his career and trying to explain why he feels he is both beloved and somehow overlooked. It has to do with his peculiar career arc--the fact that he was a second-round draft pick who was in the league three years before he had his first 1,000-yard season, in 2000, and that he was never, as he puts it, "the Giants' guy. I was a third-down guy, a pass receiver, a scatback, a punt returner, but I was never their guy. It wasn't until Sean Payton became our offensive coordinator [in 2000], and he had this grand idea about how he should use me, that he found the key to me, which was misdirection and screens and being this all-purpose Marshall Faulk type of player. We went to the Super Bowl, and all of a sudden I had a little bit of leverage and I developed a closer relationship with Coach [Jim] Fassel, and he was like, 'O.K., we can use Tiki for everything, he's matured, he's getting better,' and I started developing into the player I became."

Barber pauses and reaches with his right hand, the one in the cast, for his EZ Pass and struggles to mount it on his windshield. Laughing, he narrates, "'And that is when the fumbling issue came up,' he says as he fumbles with the EZ Pass."

Remember the fumbling? Of course you do. If you were in New York City at some point during the 2002, '03 and '04 seasons, the issue was unavoidable, a source of Chuck Knoblauch--like consternation. It was fascinating to watch: a great athlete in his prime nearly ruined by what seemed as much a mental problem as a physical one. Barber fumbled 23 times, and you could almost hear the intake of breath in Giants Stadium whenever he carried the ball and then the sigh of relief when he didn't drop it to the turf. To his credit Barber never shied away from discussing the issue; with refreshing candor he publicly answered questions, regretted his mishaps and condemned himself, even appearing in an ESPN 2004 preseason segment about fumbling in which he and Strahan joked about it.

When Coughlin replaced Fassel in 2004, Ingram, the incoming running backs coach, made it his mission to work with Barber to solve the problem. "'The ball is your friend,'" a smiling Barber quotes him as saying. "Coach Ingram brought an awareness of the ball. My first meeting with him, his first question was, 'How strong are you?' I was like, 'I don't know. I don't really work out upper body.' Ingram told me I needed to get stronger. So I started my off-season workout program with Joe Carini, and Coach Ingram had me carry the ball with me everywhere, and always high and tight, high and tight. If I'm in the stadium, on the treadmill, walking to the practice field, high and tight."

That was just the first part of the fix. The second required Barber to change his running style, from swinging his arm (and the ball) out to balance his body during cutbacks--his method since age 12--to tucking the ball in, high and tight, of course. "When you get in trouble, run with your legs," Ingram told him. "Stop trying to juke people, just f---ing run through them. Take an angle and run through the contact."

Last season Barber rushed for 1,860 yards, 1,000 of them after contact, according to Giants coaches. He fumbled just once. "He bought into our technique wholeheartedly," says Coughlin. "It's much harder than it sounds, to change your style of running when you have been doing it one way since you were a child. Now Tiki is so well-positioned when he makes his final move that he is able to explode into his tacklers."

Barber steers the Mercedes into the garage beneath his apartment building, parks in the driveway and leaves the key in the ignition for the valet. He grabs the ham from the backseat and swings it up under his arm, high and tight.

In his apartment he greets his sons--four-year-old AJ (abbreviated from Atiim Kiambu Jr.) and two-year-old Chason--who sit at a little metal table eating chicken nuggets as their mother, Ginny, 30, monitors their progress.

Tiki stands at the counter, sorts through the mail and flips through People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue. Tiki and Ronde are on page 150.

"How does it feel to be married to one of the sexiest men alive?" Ginny is asked.

She smiles and says, "It just sort of confirms what I already knew." She and Tiki have been married since 1999.

But it is another appearance in the magazine that may be more telling: a spread advertisement for Cadillac inside the front cover. Tiki Barber is behind the wheel of a new Escalade over the quotation, "Every day is an opportunity disguised as a challenge." What most fans and reporters don't realize is that Barber's retirement will make him forgo most of a vast endorsement income. He has deals with Cadillac, Johnston and Murphy shoes, PowerBar, Reebok, Dish Network, Foot Locker, Steiner Sports Memorabilia, McDonald's and the watchmaker Audemars Piguet. His endorsement income, says his manager, Lepselter, is roughly equivalent to his $4.5 million annual football salary. "When I become a journalist," Barber explains, "in January or February, whenever our seasons ends, I'll have to be impartial. For instance, I have a deal with Cadillac that says I can't say negative things about Cadillac. So if I were doing the news and a thousand Cadillacs started rolling over, then I would have to be critical of them. So it would breach my contract. That all has to go away."

It will be worth it, Barber believes, because becoming a television journalist has been his long-held dream. When asked who his hero is, he thinks for a while, and you expect him to come up with a football player, maybe Brown or Sanders. He finally settles on Matt Lauer. "No matter the situation," Barber says, "he is professional, polished and intelligent."

But Tiki wants America to wake up to Tiki, not to Matt Lauer. The strange thing is, the more time you spend with him, the more you feel that his goal is attainable. If you had to engineer an American television news personality in a laboratory, you might come up with someone like Tiki Barber: nonthreatening, articulate, funny, intelligent, self-aware and hugely self-confident without seeming like an egomaniac. And then there is his diction, which is ethnically and geographically neutral, perfect for a news anchor. "We grew up in a white middle-class community and had a mom who emphasized education and lived that neutrality," Tiki says. "She didn't speak that typical African-American diction."

Geraldine Hale, now 53, raised the two boys on her own in a rented Tudor-style town house on Mews Hill Drive in Roanoke, Va. There were two second-floor bedrooms, and downstairs was a little kitchen, a dining room and a living room with black leather sofas, a blue-gray carpet and a console cabinet on which Geraldine arranged Tiki's and Ronde's ever-growing collection of trophies and awards. Geraldine and J.B. Barber, a former Virginia Tech running back who rushed for 2,052 yards in college and went on to play with the Houston Texans of the World Football League, were separated when the twins were three and divorced when they were four. The twins did not have a relationship with their father growing up and have chosen not to seek one as adults.

Geraldine worked three jobs to support the family. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays she was the director of financial aid and administration at the regional Girl Scout Council. She returned home, cooked dinner for the boys, got them ready for bed and then went back to work for another five or six hours at Executive Suites, doing clerical work for insurance companies and financial service firms. She also worked part time on weekends at a birding store.

"As we began to get older," Tiki says, "we realized how hard it was on my mom to have provided for us. We never wanted for anything. My mom sacrificed her entire life, basically. Look, I don't care about the marriage--50 percent of marriages don't work--but you can't just run out on the kids like my dad did. So my mom worked three jobs. At some point I should talk to him about this, but I'm just not ready to."

There is a great deal of Geraldine in Tiki and Ronde. She is a devout Baptist and a fierce believer in education as the key to success--she earned an M.B.A. from Averett College when the boys went off the University of Virginia. "I made a decision when I divorced that I was not going to make the kids pay for the decisions I had made," she says. "That meant doing everything I could so they could still experience the world. By the time my dad died, when I was 15, I had lived in six states and in two cities in Germany, so I had seen the world. [Her father, an Army major, was killed in Vietnam in 1967.] It was important to me that the boys see different cultures, different ways of life. I would take them visiting different people, Asians, African-Americans, whites. They would visit different churches. Education is absorbing a little piece of everybody with whom you've come into contact."

That emphasis on worldliness is one of the reasons why Tiki Barber is probably the only NFL player who is reading Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf's autobiography, In the Line of Fire, or who was invited by former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres to visit Israel last spring. (Barber and Peres met at a New York City restaurant in 2005.) Yet Tiki and Ronde are more than just cultural chameleons, able to adapt to different situations and environments; they both possess an appealing self-assurance that makes even those around them more at ease. That steady, unobtrusive self-esteem makes them locker-room leaders and comes through the TV screen during Tiki's Tuesday-morning Fox & Friends appearances. Steve Tisch, co-owner of the Giants and producer of numerous hit movies, including Risky Business and Forrest Gump, compares Tiki's charisma with that of an actor rather than an athlete. "Tiki has a smile and poise like only one actor that I've worked with," he says. "Tom Cruise."

But where does the confidence come from? Besides having such a devoted mother, being recognized early on as excellent athletes certainly helped the boys. But not every NFL player can sit down on a TV news set and, as Barber has done, pontificate on North Korean nuclear weapons or interview the prime minister of Iraq. Geraldine believes that the fact that Tiki and Ronde always had each other gave them a great sense of personal security, particularly when facing the complex challenges of growing up black in a predominantly white community. "They would say as kids, 'As long as I've got my brother here, everything will be O.K.,'" their mother says. They relied on each other for almost everything, from doing their schoolwork to critiquing each other's football technique to keeping each other company when Geraldine was working late. (When Tiki's fumbling problems threatened to derail his football career, it was Ronde he turned to for advice about whether to make the major changes his new coach was advocating. "You know what?" Ronde said. "They're right.")

Until just a few years ago the brothers spoke on the phone or in person every day. Now, with both of them busy raising kids, they find time to talk only every few days. Many identical twins describe the sense of completeness they get from each other. Lawrence Wright, author of Twins: And What They Tell Us about Who We Are, says it's a feeling of having "someone who understands me perfectly, almost perfectly, because he is me, almost me."

Tiki says his twinship is a central pillar of his success. "I knew there would always be one person who would never be a bad guy to me," he says. "It really makes a difference."

"Even if there was nobody else," echoes Ronde, "we always had each other--to hang out with, do homework, share life."

"It sure made them fun to coach," says Steve Spangler, their middle school and high school football coach at Cave Spring High in Roanoke. "If there was a problem--say, Tiki was fumbling--you didn't have to say anything to Tiki, because Ronde took care of it. They are each other's conscience."

In a hotel room in Jacksonville, Tiki Barber sits in a lounge chair watching San Diego fall behind against Denver 24--7 and then mount a comeback to win 35--27, in part by keeping the ball in the hands of running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "You see, you don't go away from the running game just because you fall behind," he says. "They stuck with the running game, and look what happened. LT brought them back.

"We're armchair quarterbacks just like any fan," he says of NFL players. "You do it watching your own team, too. It's just that we shouldn't go outside the team with it. Once you cross that line, you're not accomplishing anything. It's not going to change anything. But in the long run it really doesn't mean anything when you say things to the media--the only thing that matters is in the locker room."

And he says no one in the locker room questioned his decision to retire. Coughlin says he doesn't "even want to think about life after Tiki."

Since the story of his retirement broke, Barber has turned his focus even more to preparing for his postfootball career. Earlier this day in Jacksonville, Lepselter met with ABC and ESPN executives about Barber's possibly joining Good Morning America and 20/20, a meeting that, Lepselter said, "exceeded my expectations. Tiki is mentally moving on. He is really eager to get to the next phase of his life."

It is a tribute to Barber's professionalism and talent that he is playing well despite what he admits is a decrease in intensity. "Quite honestly," he says, "I don't have the passion to do it anymore. I'll sit in meetings and I'm bored, or my mind is drifting or I'll go out on Sunday on the football field and the blood isn't flowing like it used to. It's imperceptible because I'll still go out and have 185 yards or 140 against the Chicago Bears, the best defense in the league. It doesn't look like it, but inside of me I know."

Finn, the Giants fullback, agrees: "He is so talented that he can still perform at a high level without the passion."

Barber, shifting in his chair and checking his cellphone for text messages, says there is no way he will change his mind and play next year. "Running back for the New York Giants is just a character I'm playing," he says. "It was a character before me, and someone will play the character after me, just like Superman or Batman. Michael Keaton played Batman very differently from Christian Bale, but it's the same character. When I leave, I leave that role behind.

"For so many players," he goes on, "for so long in your life, you are told you are the best thing since sliced bread, you do a great job, people are saying, 'Can I take you to dinner, can I do this for you?' and, literally, the day you retire, that ends, because someone is in your place, is playing that character. You're not that guy anymore, and this person you've defined yourself as for so long is not there anymore, and so this cool pose that you've been in for so long is gone. Well, when I retire, I'll just be jumping into a different character."

"Who will that be?" he is asked.

"Finally," Tiki says, "I'm just going to play me."

MORE TIKI

For a photo gallery of some of Tiki Barber's greatest moments, free of charge, go to SI.com/nfl.

Tiki and Ronde radiate an APPEALING SELF-ASSURANCE that makes them easy to watch and puts people at ease.

Barber is probably the only NFL player who is reading the PRESIDENT OF PAKISTAN'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY.

Barber says none of the other Giants questioned his decision to retire. Coughlin says he doesn't "want to think about LIFE AFTER TIKI."