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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?"