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If nothing else, we now know an answer to this question: What exactly does a star athlete have to do to go from hero to heel in the eyes of the hometown fans? Play poorly, demand a trade, act like a jerk? Hardly insurmountable. Get arrested, even do a stretch in jail? Forgiven if you play well. But walk away from the game in your prime? It's hard to win back hearts. Use your new position in the media to rip your old teammates, who go on to win a championship? That's risking serious wrath. Shred your meticulously cultivated image by having an extramarital affair with a younger woman while your wife is pregnant? Consider yourself toast.
On a cold, wet evening last October, Tiki Barber stood on the field at New Meadowlands Stadium during halftime of a Week 4 NFL game. He wore a sharp sport coat that accentuated a physique unchanged since his retirement three years earlier and a pair of fashionable glasses wrapped around his clean-shaven head. The occasion was the unveiling of the franchise's Ring of Honor, an induction ceremony for 30 alltime greats. As each giant of the Giants was named, the fans cheered and even genuflected, not least for Lawrence Taylor. While the indomitable linebacker may have been a one-man crime wave, his passionate play on Sundays seemingly wiped clean his misdeeds off the field.
But when announcer Bob Papa intoned, "This running back owns almost every rushing record in Giants history: three-time Pro Bowler, number 21, Tiki Barber!" the mood shifted. Boos rained from every corner of the stadium, full-throated and profane. Barber grinned and clapped gamely, but that just raised the level of bile from the blue-clad masses. Only when the next honoree, wideout Amani Toomer, was announced, did the feel-good vibe resume.
The ceremony was, as Barber put it a few months later, "another kick in the balls," but at least it gave him an excuse to get out of the house. When "the s--- hit the fan" (again, his words) in April 2010, Barber exiled himself from Manhattan and eventually landed in the Bronx, where he shares a modest apartment with his girlfriend, Traci Johnson, in quiet, staid Riverdale. By summer he was spending most of his days watching Netflix DVDs. "I didn't want to interact with people," says Barber, "didn't have passion for life. It may have been a form of depression."
As Barber holds court at a north Jersey Italian restaurant, it's easy to see why so many have felt comfortable in his orbit; it's easy to see why so many have questioned his authenticity. He makes perfect eye contact and works in references ranging from Tony Soprano to Malcolm Gladwell. He also drops f-bombs, tells raunchy stories and dishes NFL dirt. Insisting he's "in a great place," Barber points out that he has his health, he has his four kids and he has Traci. And at 36, he has football back in his life.
He has a story, too, one that is instantly familiar—athlete struggles with retirement, tries to reclaim glory—and at the same time unique to Barber. It's also a distinctly New York fable, one best viewed through the prism of the media, which fueled his rise and feasted on his fall. It has the ring of myth and classic themes of hubris, sibling rivalry, downfall and revival—Narcissus, Romulus and Remus, and Icarus all rolled into one. How did a man who was once the toast of Gotham, the NFL's Most Likely to Succeed, land on his ass? And how is he going to lift himself back up? "When people are like, 'What's up with Tiki?' " says former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, "I don't even know where to begin."
So often it's an excruciating decision, this business of whether and when to retire. Pro athletes have exceedingly rare skills that allow them to live extravagantly while performing a job that's both challenging and fulfilling. They're usually not sure what comes next, but it's unlikely to involve fawning fans, seven-figure contracts and the adrenaline spike that comes with competition. Most let circumstances make the decision for them. They keep playing until they're unable or unwanted.
Tiki Barber, though, was singularly well-positioned to make a graceful transition. Even at the height of his football career, he wasn't wholly devoted to the Church of Jock. He took an interest in politics and finance and served on philanthropic boards. He was fearless about his social skills and his intellect, and the circles he penetrated enabled him to befriend NBC boss Jeff Zucker and to lunch with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. With his identical twin brother, Buccaneers cornerback Ronde, Tiki cowrote two best-selling kids' books. He endorsed Cadillacs, introduced politicians at banquets and commanded a $40,000 speaking fee.
While his teammates lived in suburban cul-de-sacs, Barber took full advantage of Manhattan. He and his wife, Ginny, a publicist for the designer Ermenegildo Zegna, lived a few blocks from Central Park on the Upper East Side, province of bankers, lawyers and hedge-fund jillionaires. While Ronde was wearing sweats and shorts in Florida, Tiki became a notorious clotheshorse who owned dozens of designer suits and could hold disquisitions about the differences between brands of loafers. The Barbers were regulars at benefits, restaurant openings, art exhibits.
Tiki remained close to Ronde, but they were moving in different directions, a concept unimaginable during their first 22 years. Raised by a single mom in Roanoke, Va., they dressed alike, spoke alike and starred in college at Virginia, where they roomed together all four years. But once they were drafted in 1997, Tiki with the 36th pick and Ronde with the 66th, nurture started trumping nature, and the brothers' interests diverged. Ronde confined his ambitions to football. He didn't know Carrie Bradshaw from Terry Bradshaw and didn't care. Tiki, though, was instantly drawn by Manhattan's bright lights, so alluring, so potentially destructive. "I'd visit Tiki, and New York was like Las Vegas," Ronde says. "I'd run around, have fun for a few days, then go home. I'd say, 'How are you living here?' But Tiki's always loved it."