For the first time in his life Barber had no challenge to confront, no direction. He bought a Harley. He inked up his body, tattooing his mother's directive PLAY PROUD on his rib cage and FIERY-TEMPERED KING, the meaning of his name in an African dialect, on his chest. But he was used to being active, competitive, with goals and mental stimulation. "Those guys who want to retire at 30 and go fishing, good luck," he says. "It's hard to do nothing. Even if you can afford it."
Compounding it all was the success of Ronde. When you have a twin, you have an easy point of comparison. And Ronde was thriving. While Tiki was retired, Ronde refused to show outward signs of age. Even in his mid-30s he was excelling in the Tampa Bay secondary, his passion for football still blazing. "Ronde serves on no boards. Simple tastes. He likes golf and Corvettes," says Tiki. "He's like the Mannings. Singularly focused on football. Did seeing him make me think about myself? Sure. Absolutely."
Inevitably, visions of breaking tackles began to dance in Tiki's head. He and Lepselter put out feelers. When the NFL labor dispute ends, the Giants will happily relinquish their rights to Barber. And other teams have expressed serious interest in a durable back who has kept up his physique. In March, Lepselter filed the necessary paperwork with the NFL to "unretire" his client.
Barber insists that regardless of how costly four children and a contentious divorce might be, he's neither broke nor motivated by money. Excelling on the field is a great way to win back fans (see: Vick, Michael), and sure, this is partially about repairing a tattered image. But there's more. "It's about self-fulfillment," Barber says. "It's about having a goal, trying to do something that maybe hasn't been done before, returning to run the ball at a high level after four years away."
Predictably, the comeback has triggered skepticism. Antonio Pierce, a former Giants linebacker and now an ESPN analyst, said of Barber, "He's not going to do anything for your team." ("Antonio hates me!" Tiki says, chuckling.) Just as damning was the silence from other former teammates and coaches. "Physically he can probably do it," says a former Giant, "but the locker room? I mean, Tiki is a complex guy."
Strahan, however, laughs when asked if Barber can still play. "He didn't leave because he was a beat-up bum on the end of the bench," Strahan says. "Let me tell you, he worked. Love him or hate him, he earned every yard... . Yeah, he can still help a team."
Adds Ronde, "The thing about Tiki: What he lacks in the give-a-s--- factor, he makes up for with a will to find a way out. He's ready for a new challenge, which in this case is an old challenge."
Oben, who runs his own foundation, has a different take. "Retirement is a tough transition," he says. "You can win the Super Bowl your rookie year, but not usually in retirement. It takes four or five years for most players to hit their stride in their second career. And sure, you get in the door and people want to meet you. But are they really willing to help you advance, succeed in their world? Or do they want to ask you, 'What's it like playing in the NFL?' I'm telling you, this happens to all of us. Even Tiki Barber."
Barber proudly describes himself as "a black and white guy," which is to say he doesn't mince words. But, really, there's plenty of gray to go around. If he isn't the unreconstructed good guy his previous image suggested, neither is he an antihero. There's something to be said for an athlete who has lofty goals, a public figure who disdains the company line. And if Barber has an optimistic gloss on his downfall, at least he's aware of it.
In preparation for his comeback, he has begun training at Carini's House of Iron, a sweaty dungeon in Pine Brook, N.J. Culturally it's about as far as you can get from the power and money circles Barber once occupied. "People on the Upper East Side wouldn't know how to find this place," he says. "And if they did, they wouldn't want to stay."