NFL star Tiki Barber, on his final season: "Sometimes you just feel a calling greater than the NFL…."

December 8th, 2006

With retirement looming, Tiki's balances NFL with his next career in the media
By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY

NEW YORK ? New York Giants running back Tiki Barber sits amid a percolating Fox newsroom, easy smile and sharp focus mocking the pre-dawn hour as he opens a window on the uncommon range of his versatility.

Co-host Kiran Chetry describes these 18-hour, New York marathons Barber has run nearly every regular-season “off day” for two years as “Tiki Tuesdays.” They are training days for his football after-life. At 31, after 10 NFL seasons, the all-time Giants yardage leader is retiring after this season.

By the bluish glow of a computer screen, Barber pores over world news in white shirt and tie, checking the latest on Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey, President Bush's trip to the NATO summit in Latvia and developments in Iraq.

He has been at it since 3 a.m. at Fox News Studio, while most of his NFL brethren are sleeping and recovering from the latest game-day ravages. That includes twin Ronde, an all-pro cornerback for the Tampa Bay Bucs. In a sharp gray suit, Barber breezes through the green room at 5:55 a.m., grabbing some juice before taking the set alongside Fox & Friends co-hosts Chetry and Brian Kilmeade.

With his meticulous work ethic, inquisitive mind, A-list personality and Madison Avenue looks, Barber has met with Fox and other networks about proposals for a hybrid news/sports broadcasting deal with the idea of ultimately hosting a morning show tailored to his strengths.

“Tiki's not just a star in the making. He's a star, a very different, very talented guy who is going to go far,” says Bill Shine, Fox senior vice president of programming. “What we've seen from Tiki the last two years is how versatile he is.

“We definitely hope he continues on with us. But we understand there's other people interested.”

Barber interviews former Gen. Wesley Clark about the two-day NATO summit, updates the Pope's arrival and opines on the Giants' epic Nov. 26 Music City meltdown against Tennessee.

“We really look forward to 'Tiki Tuesdays' because he brings a spark,” Chetry says. “Tiki's a gem. He has energy and is always prepared. This show is very unscripted, and you have to be quick on your feet but also comfortable knowing your stuff.

“The Giants had a Monday night game (Nov. 20 at Jacksonville). He flew back on the team plane and got to Giants Stadium at 4:30. He took a car service here and did our 6 a.m. show on no sleep. He does this because he wants it, because he really loves it and he's good.”

When the show ends at 7 a.m., Barber walks a couple of blocks to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a breakfast meeting with an NBC programming executive. Barber has an engaging way with people who approach for autographs and conversation. He also passes the outdoor NBC set of Today hosted by Matt Lauer, whom Barber someday hopes to emulate.

Barber was due to earn a combined $8.3 million in base salary over the last two years of his NFL contract, the amount of money he's leaving on the table. And the expected deal he'll sign with a network after this season?

“Will he recoup $4.15 million next year? No,” says Mark Lepselter, the Barber twins' business manager, who is helping Tiki find the right offer for his talents. “Eventually, he will make that and more.” He is also entertaining real estate and banking opportunities for the current Giants tailback.

Nothing like a good challenge

Barber has always been energized by challenge:

?He and his twin were raised by their mother, Geraldine, after being born prematurely and suffering from seizures into their elementary school years.

“The pediatrician at the time said, 'This may limit what they can do,' “says their mom, herself a survivor the last 10 years of breast cancer. “The seizures went away to the point where I just said, 'Whatever they want, they can try.'”

?Drafted by the Giants 36th overall in 1997, he was pigeonholed as merely a third-down back. The 5-10, 200-pounder not only shattered that scouting stereotype with five consecutive 1,000-plus yard seasons, his 1,860 rushing yards last season were 20 fewer than league MVP Shaun Alexander.

?Weighed down by a flight suit and feeling like he might drown treading water for two minutes, Barber passed the training so he could fly in an F-18 fighter jet out of Norfolk (Va.) Naval Station in March 2002.

?At the Pro Bowl in February he was the only player to rise at 5 a.m. to run three miles with Charlie Company, the Army's 2nd Battalion, 25th Infantry that has since been involved in more than 300 combat patrols in Iraq.

“Sometimes you just feel a calling greater than the NFL,” Barber says. “I'm crossing over to world events, entertainment, sports because that's what I'm interested in. That's what I see myself doing, delving deeper, being provocative.”

This husband and father of two young sons wants to leave footprints beyond pro football's record books. His agenda?

“I would say education,” he says. “The socio-economic strata are causing an enormous divide in education levels, so people get stuck, unless they have an inspiring event, great talent or fortune….There should be a way everyone should be able to benefit.”

His mother, a former teacher, always left books around their Virginia home.

“I remember picking up Lonesome Dove when I was 14 just because it was around and I felt like I was in the Wild West,” Barber says. “Nowadays, kids don't read. That's why Ronde and I started to write (three) children's books.

“Get an 8-year-old boy who hates reading but picks up a book about football and learns a lesson, maybe he'll get the next one, then go on to read something else.”

Welcome to the brave new world

Minicamps and weekly meetings began to drag after Barber and his wife, Ginny, spent six days in June in Israel at the behest of vice premier Shimon Peres, whom they met in a Manhattan restaurant.

“It gave me an eye-opening experience to the rest of the world,” Barber says of the six days. “Then, on the heels of the trip to Israel, we had lunch with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. We did all these cool, unique things that just gave me an appreciation for the world.”

Barber told his wife before the season it would be his last. His decision also was influenced by last year's passing of Giants co-owners Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch, legendary men and mentors.

“They taught me to use my powers for good and that football isn't forever. I know I can make a difference in some way,” Barber says. “Everything I did last year was inspired and driven because of how I wanted to pay respect to them.

“But last offseason, I started thinking, 'What do I want my life to be about?'…. Football is just a small part of who I am, what I can be.”

Barber gave one of the eulogies at Tisch's funeral.

“Tiki is aspirational as well as inspirational,” says Jonathan Tisch, Giants treasurer and chairman/CEO of Loews Hotels. “What my father saw in him 10 years ago was a young man who came to his job with the Giants with tremendous enthusiasm and talent, but someone unusually grounded.”

“My father made a statement to Tiki and Ginny. He told them, 'Yes, I'm fortunate to be in this position, but I have a responsibility to share my good fortune.' I'm sad as an owner and football fan to see him leave. But I'm very optimistic about his future.”

Barber was stung by the backlash from critics, including ESPN analyst and former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin, who said he became a distraction when retirement plans were reported Oct. 18.

“Anyone who knows Tiki knows those statements weren't true,” his brother says. “They touched a nerve, questioning his character.”

Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi affirms that.

“We trust Tiki,” he said in an e-mail response to questions. “Not only is he a gifted athlete, he is very intelligent, has great character and is dedicated to making himself as good a player and leader as possible and doing the same for his team. You don't come across many Tiki Barbers in your career, and when you have one, you are very grateful.”

Barber admits football “may be in my rear view a little bit. But it's still my job. And I care about doing (it) really well.”

His mother says both sons care about doing well in whatever they tackle.

“Tell them what they can't do, then, get out of their way,” she says. “They've always approached life with the attitude, 'I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity to do something different that can also make a difference.'”

Ronde is not retiring. He signed a five-year extension worth up to $24 million before the season, coming off his third Pro Bowl appearance, and the next two years include $12 million guaranteed.

“Anything we put our mind to we're passionate about achieving,” he says. “We're still the same two kids who grew up together. And we're still living through each other.”

No waste of time in his day

On his way to pick up youngest son Chason at preschool at 11:30 a.m., Barber talks about Manhattan's unique cultural, educational portals for A.J., 4?, and Chason, nearly 3. “We're excited for our kids to be here. There's tons of different things for them to do.”

A neighborhood church program, “Little Maestros,” introduces them to music's possibilities, which they love. “They're like groupies of this little band they've been listening to since they were 1,” Barber says.

He, Lepselter, Chason, a preschool pal and his mom arrive at Barber's home at noon. At the heart of the Upper East Side condominium, 2? apartments combined into an expansive, warm setting, is a glass trophy case. It's filled with 32 game balls, trophies, his Giants helmet, Ronde's Buccaneers' helmet and bobble-head dolls of the twins.

“It's a quality of life decision,” Barber says again of retirement. “Earl Campbell is 51 and can't walk. Twenty years from now, I don't want to be that way.” Barber says he has slowed “imperceptibly” but his body is slower to recover.

“There's a lot more maintenance now,” his wife says.

After a 1 p.m. meeting with an HBO executive, Barber heads for a 3-6 p.m. photo shoot for Gotham Magazine, a Manhattan society publication. His wife has been watching the kids until her parents fill in around 5, allowing her to join Barber for the end of the shoot.

From 7-9 p.m. is his SIRIUS NFL radio show with his brother, The Barber Shop, done from midtown studios. Although his boundless energy is flagging, the show energizes Barber like a double espresso. He and his brother, who does the show from his Tampa home, riff about issues, including the ambiguity of the roughing the passer rule that haunted the Giants in the Tennessee game.

“It's like listening in on a phone conversation between us,” says Barber, whose day is done.

“As soon as he walks in the door, he gets on the massage table for three-four hours,” his wife says. “So even though he's very busy he doesn't sacrifice what he needs to do to get ready for Sunday,” including chiropractic treatment Wednesdays through Fridays.

Any other NFL player spend this kind of Tuesday? Barber says: “Heck, no!”

NFL adversaries admire Barber's future course
Updated 12/7/2006 5:11 PM ET
By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY

NEW YORK ? What type of reaction has Tiki Barber encountered from snorting defensive players who have lined up against him since the Oct. 18 revelation that this would be Barber's final NFL season?

Any parting shots? Some unexpected going-away gifts delivered at the bottom of a pile? Any in-game trash talk about heading to the hammock and the good life of a network morning news/entertainment show host?

“The reaction has been cool,” Barber says. “Nobody's heckled me.”

In fact, Barber has found quite the opposite reaction than some might expect.

When the hitting is over, the bravado has lifted. That's when Barber received the ultimate compliment from one of his fiercest rivals, Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams, after the Giants' Oct. 23 win against their NFC East foes.

“The first game after it came out that I was retiring, Roy Williams came up to me afterward and said, 'Tiki, I'm going to miss you. I respect the way you play,'” Barber says. “Roy's my arch rival. Things like that show me players respect me and understand my decision and are generally happy and proud of me. That means a lot.”

“(Former Giant and current Bears punter) Brad Maynard said, 'I'm going to miss watching you play.' The reaction has been extreme respect.”

Barber has done everything possible to leave the one legacy anyone who respects the game embraces: Leave the game better than you found it. Pass the torch. In this case, the Tiki torch.

He has tried to mentor younger teammates, helping groom fellow Giants running back Brandon Jacobs to follow in his footsteps as best he can.

“I've had a good opportunity the last couple of years with Brandon to talk to him about the things I've learned and my approach towards football and things in life that transcend football,” Barber says. “Jason Bell, one of our defensive backs, his locker is two down from mine. He'll see or hear about some of the things I'm doing off the field. He jokes a lot, but I know he's serious when he says, 'That's inspirational, Tiki. I've got to get my life outside of football started.'”

Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson approached Barber after Chicago's Nov. 12 win in the Meadowlands.

“He said, 'Tiki, I want to give you a call in the offseason,'” Barber recalls. “He said, 'I'm from the hood. I want to get myself in a more polished way and start thinking about other things off the field.'

“Even though guys don't understand what I do or why I do what I do, they want to emulate it.”

Enduring a monster Tuesday workload the past two years to prepare for his transition to a news-based morning show host, Barber has impressed one ex-Giant, former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Phil Simms, who has worked hard in his own right to emerge as one of the game's most respected NFL television analysts.

“I watch Tiki on the Fox morning show and I'm going 'Wow! That's so hard to do,'” Simms says.

“He's playing football while he's doing that show. Man, I admire that.

“He's taken a different approach to this than most ex-athletes. Tiki's setting the bar really high.”

“Tiki gets Pro Bowl honors. But for a New York athlete it's amazing that he doesn't really get the credit he deserves,” Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi says. “He's just a great player. He's gotten faster, better and bigger as the years have gone on. That's not something that happens. He's defied all the rules when it comes to running backs.

“A lot of it is hard work. He's forged a Hall-of-Fame career. I hope he gets his honors. I just hope for all of our sakes, he gets a Super Bowl championship first.”

Barber has the same exceptional vision for seeing what's ahead in his news broadcasting future as he does for finding daylight as a running back. And he's worked hard at sharpening that vision and talent for several years as he's steadfastly worked to prepare for both the coming season and the next phase of his life.

“Tiki has the rare ability of someone in a game of talented individuals to look ahead,” Giants treasurer Jonathan Tisch, son of the late Giants co-owner Preston Robert Tisch, says. “Maybe there's a parallel to his vision and him finding a hole on the field. He also knew he had to find the next hole ahead in his life.”

Mark Lepselter, longtime business manager for Tiki and his twin brother Ronde, is practically a third brother the way he's been embraced by the Barbers and their families. He has been helping Tiki Barber prepare for his transition game for the last nine years.

“Tiki is looking for an opportunity for growth,” Lepselter says. “He's relentless about learning. His ascension in the NFL is similar to what he'll be in the news business as he went from good to great player to elite player.

“NBC's Matt Lauer is the guy he wants to strive to emulate down the road as he gets better and better in the broadcasting industry.”

Lepselter adds that Barber's long-term goals are unprecedented for athletes who have made the transition from the field to the studio.

“No professional athlete has ever done anything like Tiki is trying. Not only will broadcasting be the linchpin of his future, the deal will be a hybrid deal in so far as it's going to be a news and sports deal, definitely, a morning show deal. But it will also entail other aspects of news.”

Lepselter has met extensively with every network, including Fox News Channel and Fox Sports, HBO, ABC/ESPN and CNN.

What? No Dancing With the Stars?

“We're not doing reality TV,” Lepselter says. “No disrespect. His path is clear.

“I met Tiki in 1997 when he was a backup and I represented a backup offensive lineman, Jerry Reynolds. Jerry said, 'You want to get to know this guy. This guy's different.' Tiki's unusual. The guy's just done it on another level.”

And his will to achieve has never known any limits.

“Tiki sustained a bad knee injury when he was 12 years old,” his mother, Geraldine Barber, says. “It was terrible. He was doing something he had no business doing ? riding his bike around a construction site that was clearly marked. He and Ronde rode through the construction site and Tiki got too close to the edge and he and his bike went over a 30-foot drop.”

Geraldine tried not to fixate on the grotesquely twisted kneecap that had the surgeon telling her privately that Tiki would likely never play contact sports.

“Tiki's sitting on the gurney inside the hospital ER and I said, 'What happened?'” his mom recalls. “They were waiting for the surgeon to come. I walked over and looked underneath the sheet and Tiki's kneecap is sitting up on top of his knee, totally out of place.

“I said to myself, 'OK, I don't need to see this.'

'The whole time, Tiki's asking, 'Am I getting out of here in time to make our baseball all-star game today?'

I said, 'I don't think we're going to be done in time.'”

To this day, Tiki has a very slight limp according to his mom.

“The surgeon told me, 'He probably won't play contact sports and he'll probably have arthritis,'” Geraldine says. “To see him now, you'd never know. Every now and then he does get the arthritis.”

How does she feel about his decision to retire from football after 10 seasons and 16,788 total yards?

“Tiki's taken some heat lately for being narcissistic and selfish about his decision,” his mom says. “He's taken the hit. He just wants to win. What I sincerely hope kids will take from his decision is that you don't have to be what everyone thinks you are.”

But mom has no doubt that her son's drive will propel him to further success after the NFL.

“If I had allowed the surgeon to tell me that he'll never walk straight again and he shouldn't have played sports, it would have broken his spirit.

“Tiki's always been very open-minded. He absolutely thrives on a challenge.

“Both of my kids are phenomenal fathers. I know he wants to be a part of his sons' lives ? not just on weekends, he wants to be there to watch them be kids.

“It's been neat watching Tiki emerge in the New York arena where you have a lot of opportunities a lot of people can only dream of having. That's what I'm proudest of, how he's taken advantage of those opportunities.”

One last question for Tiki: Any circumstance where he would reverse field and play one more season with the Giants?

“No, nope, nothing,” Barber says emphatically as he gets ready to go to a meeting with another network programming executive.

“I'm not obsessed with being an NFL player. I never have been.”

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