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L. Jon Wertheim
May 30, 2011
The former Giants runner seemed destined for crossover success, but hubris and scandal doomed his postfootball plans. Now, at 36, he wants to get back in the game—and get back at his critics
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May 30, 2011

Tiki Barber Gets Real

The former Giants runner seemed destined for crossover success, but hubris and scandal doomed his postfootball plans. Now, at 36, he wants to get back in the game—and get back at his critics

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As an athlete, Barber played the media game in a masterly way, but once he went through the looking glass, he lost his savvy. Says Strahan, now an analyst for Fox's NFL coverage, "You can be critical, even of your old team, but people felt Tiki was malicious. You take that, and then the team you criticized wins the Super Bowl? That can be hard to recover from. Especially in New York."

Says Barber, "In New York you're supposed to speak your mind—unless they don't want to hear it, and then you're not allowed to have an opinion. My mother would slap me across the face if she thought I was following a path of being one of those plantation guys—yes, sir, no, sir, whatever you want me to say, sir."

Barber continued his dispatches for Today, some of them quite good—a story on same-sex parents, a feature on a Palestinian soccer coach in Atlanta—but his star dimmed further during the Beijing Olympics when he was relegated to stints on MSNBC with Today Sunday anchor Jenna Wolfe. The two sniped on air (shtick, he says), and Barber may or may not have committed the mother of all Freudian slips when speaking of a medal count. That same week he referred to the U.S. Olympic basketball coach as Mike Rezevski and mentioned the nation of Hungaria.

Barber's wings, apparently, had melted once he got too close to the klieg lights. "He can spin it however he wants," says one former NBC executive. "He just wasn't good. Maybe he was good 'for an athlete.' But that wasn't a [relevant] comparison."

At the same time, Barber's marriage was unraveling. This is hardly uncommon for ex-jocks, a subset with an exceptionally high divorce rate. There's philandering, sure. But when an athlete retires, the dynamics, rhythms and finances of the marriage also undergo an abrupt change. In Barber's case it was all of the above. He and Ginny (who declined to comment for this story) spent 2½ years in counseling, then separated in late 2009. Barber says he spent the first two nights of the estrangement sleeping in his NBC office. Then he moved in with Johnson, a 23-year-old intern at the network.

In New York there was only one place this narrative was headed. The confluence of sex, sports, money, media and race was irresistible. On April 7, 2010, the New York Post's back page blared: tiki barber dumps pregnant wife for hot blonde, accompanied by a salacious story. It was Barber's 35th birthday. "That's the day I stopped believing in coincidences," says Barber, implying that the story was leaked by someone with a vendetta. The same New York media and buzz generators that had helped him ascend—that had made him so different from his twin in sleepy Florida—were now going to accelerate his fall.

Barber and Johnson went into hiding in the attic of Lepselter's house in New Jersey. "Lep's Jewish," says Barber, "and it was like a reverse Anne Frank thing." (Here is Barber writ small: He has the wit and smarts to make an Anne Frank allusion and the artlessness to liken himself—an adulterer trying to elude gossip columnists—to a Holocaust victim.)

A few weeks later NBC declined to renew Barber's contract. The $40,000 speaking engagements evaporated. Barber had partnered with a Manhattan fitness studio; now the company was suing him for $1 million, claiming that "reaction among the company's clientele to Barber's affair has been overwhelmingly negative, especially amongst the business's core clientele, 25-to-55-year-old women, many of them married with children." (The suit was settled out of court.) When Barber's twin daughters were born in May 2010, he was not in the delivery room. Supporters disappeared. "It's amazing how loyal some people are, sticking with me when it wasn't popular," says Barber, "and it's amazing how fast some people will jump off a ship when they see a leak.

"I had a bad marriage. I left. It doesn't mean I'm a bad father. I fell in love with someone else." He sighs, then shakes his head. "You're walking down a path, and you know it's not right. Do whatever it takes to change. Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's violent. Mine was violent. But somehow it seems right."

If he can handle the criticism, the lack of control has been harder. "In sports you can will yourself to another level," he says. "In dealing with life—whether it's divorce or pleasing the boss—sometimes it's just not in your hands. You're dealing with emotions and realities of other people."

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