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.
what?" he says to Finn, his best friend on the team. "I'm
"What do you
mean?" Finn asks.
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?"