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.
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
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
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."
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.