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"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.