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Barber validated city living and served as an exemplar of postracial America. The New Yorker ran a flattering profile of him, as did this magazine. Even the Gotham tabloids suspended their usual cynicism to run stories with headlines like WORLDS APART & ALL TOGETHER: AT HOME WITH TIKI BARBER'S MELTING POT FAMILY. As Barber developed into one of the league's most complete backs, the media became smitten with an outspoken, accommodating star, famously charitable, refreshingly self-aware.
Barber also elevated his profile on television, appearing first on local stations in 1998. For a stint on the New York CBS affiliate he woke at 3:30 a.m. to deliver the morning sports report. Eventually he moved to Fox and appeared regularly on the national show Fox & Friends as the Tuesday cohost. Fox News president Roger Ailes told employees Barber "killed the dumb jock stereotype."
But at his full-time place of work Barber was much less popular. He battled and challenged Giants coach Tom Coughlin, telling him that his hard-ass ways were counterproductive and that his play-calling was dubious. More than that, Barber's eclecticism didn't always play well in the locker room. Teammates accused him of being a fraud. "A lot of players want to be taken seriously as more than a football player," says Roman Oben, a Giants tackle from 1996 to '99 who earned a master's degree in public administration while he played. "But we'd beat the Cowboys and fly home. Guys are yelling, playing cards and watching movies. Tiki's sitting there, legs crossed, reading Wuthering Heights or whatever. Come on. Some guys let you know how bad they had it growing up. Tiki wanted you to know the opposite: Hey, I'm not from the hood."
By the fall of 2006, his 10th season, Barber had put up the kind of numbers that make the Hall of Fame gatekeepers take notice; he'd averaged nearly 1,500 rushing yards a season since '02, and in '05 he gained 2,390 combined rushing and receiving yards, at the time second best in history. But he said he was "tired of the grind." When he announced in midseason that he'd be retiring after that year, he got plenty of grief. How dare he not lick the bottom of the glass? Even Ronde encouraged his brother to ask for a trade rather than walk away.
Barber smiled and stuck to his plan. The Giants made the playoffs, and when they faced Philadelphia in a wild-card game, Tiki rented a suite from Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles' owner. Sitting in comfort, friends and family watched him rush for 137 yards. But the Giants lost, 23--20, and Barber was done. Which, in his mind, meant he was just starting.
For all the retiring athletes who wonder how they'll fill the next 50 years, Barber's future was pregnant with promise. He had a standing offer to work for Fox, but when other networks got wind of the deal he became the prize in a pitched recruiting battle. According to his agent, Mark Lepselter, Fox offered Barber a contract for four years at $3.3 million a year (not much of a drop-off from his NFL salary of roughly $4.2 million) while Zucker and NBC offered three years at $1.9 million, chiefly to be a correspondent on the Today show; he'd also contribute to the news and might get roped into sports occasionally. With Ginny's blessing, Barber chose NBC. He wasn't going to be the ex-player who came on at halftime to serve up clichés and analyze nickel packages. "To be a journalist," says Lepselter, "he left seven million plus on the table. I'm no John Nash, but I scratched my head on that one."
At a splashy Manhattan press conference announcing his signing, Barber was flanked by Zucker, NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol and news division head Steve Capus. Zucker gushed that Barber was "one of those rare personalities who appeals to virtually every audience." His title with Today was correspondent, but there was speculation within 30 Rock that he was being groomed to succeed Matt Lauer as the show's host. His first assignment was to cover the Virginia Tech shooting. "Dream job," he recalls. "I always said, Don't put me in a box, because you won't find one that fits."
A few weeks into the job, though, it appeared this one was particularly ill-fitting. Barber appeared stiff and uncomfortable on the air. Some Today staffers were not exactly devastated when their new colleague—lacking experience and having paid few dues—began to fumble. The show's well-regarded producer, Jim Bell, did not, by all accounts, share Zucker's fondness for Barber.
Whether he was making rookie mistakes and could have worked harder at his new craft (NBC's claim) or was caught up in fierce office politics (his contention), Barber's stock at NBC was plummeting. In football there were those 100-yard games to confirm that he'd performed his job well. For all his battles with Coughlin, he usually knew where he stood. "With TV it's so subjective," says Barber. "You think it's good; someone else thinks it's awful."
When Barber worked for the sports division he did so with some reluctance. Appearing on NBC's Football Night in America, he mocked the leadership of Eli Manning, his old quarterback, calling his inspirational talks "comical." Barber also continued his feud with Coughlin. To Giants Nation it was high treason. To nonpartisans it had the whiff of desperation, of an ex-jock trying to prove he could be biting and opinionated. By the time New York went on to win the Super Bowl in February 2008, Barber hadn't just burned his bridges; he'd firebombed them.