Tiki Barber has it all as the star running back of the New York Giants, Fox News commentator and radio talk show host

December 17th, 2005

Barber Made It Here and Doesn’t Want to Make It Anywhere Else

New York Times
By JOHN BRANCH

Every room in the 4,000-square-foot corner apartment on the Upper East Side has a flat-screen television. Even the master bathroom has one, a 15-incher on the wall, viewable from the shower and the toilet and the walk-in closet, where Tiki Barber’s impeccable wardrobe resides.

But the biggest TV is in the living room, on a wall perpendicular to the built-in 12-foot trophy case. Barber is watching “Seinfeld,” and Jerry’s head is larger than life.

“You know, I didn’t get into this show until after it went off the air,” Barber said. “I think because when it was on, I wasn’t a New Yorker. So I didn’t get a lot of it. Know what I mean?”

Now he gets it. He gets New York, almost as much as New York gets him.

A 30-year-old running back from Virginia who struggled for years to find a comfortable spot with the Giants, Barber has grown into a symbol, a transcendent ambassador, for one of New York’s most venerable and cherished institutions.

Barber is a popular figure in the locker room, a confidant of coaches, a tight friend of both ownership families, a vital spokesman to the news media, an emerging broadcaster, a burgeoning philanthropist, a conduit to some of the city’s power brokers, even an author of children’s books.

In New York, he is the latest icon with no need for a surname.

Yet he despised New York the first time he visited. That was less than 10 years ago, when he came for a few days during his junior year at Virginia.

“I said if I never go there again, it will be too soon,” Barber said.

Now he is lounging in his favorite chair, his two young sons in their Giants pajamas watching “Thomas and Friends” on one TV while he watches “Seinfeld” on another. Ten stories above New York, his world is at his feet.

“We’re here for good,” Barber said.

Even the Giants cannot trade his life away.

“Because if they traded me, I’d retire,” he said.

He would not really retire; he would somehow become even busier doing other things. He has three more seasons left on his contract, but he said he doubted he would fulfill them, even if he continues to improve as a running back, which he has done for most of his nine N.F.L. seasons.

“Obviously, I want to win a Super Bowl this year,” he said. “Ideally, I’d want to get 10,000 yards and win a Super Bowl next year, then I’m done. And I’ll go do something else.”

In 1999, when Barber was just another back in the rotation and not a viable most valuable player candidate, he met with his business agent, Mark Lepselter. They talked about Barber’s life, not just his football career, knowing that the better Barber performed on the field, the more options he would create off it.

“One of the things that Mark said to me was, ‘All you have to do is perform on the field, and I’ll make everything else fall into place,’ ” said Barber, who is leading the N.F.L. in yards from scrimmage for the second season in a row. “That’s the mentality that I’ve had the last seven years. As long as I keep playing well, I can keep not just knocking on doors, I can keep kicking in doors to do what I want to do.”

Small radio and TV gigs turned into larger ones. Barber’s obligations include a weekly Sirius Satellite Radio show with his twin brother, Ronde, a cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tuesday morning hosting duties on Fox News, where he is more apt to discuss Iraq than the N.F.L.

Charity appearances widened his web of business contacts and led to spots on various boards of directors. Pressed, he cannot name all the charities he officially supports with his time.

Barber has created a complex personality, wildly famous and widely beloved.

“Has there ever been a guy in the latter stages of his N.F.L. career who has been in a more enviable position than Tiki?” Lepselter said in a phone interview Thursday.

Barber said, “I’m setting myself up to do whatever I feel like doing.”

And that is the hard part. That is the exciting part. Barber does not know what he wants to do. Only the setting has been determined: New York.

This is his city, and this is his life, and the two are locked together, and not just because Barber and his wife, Ginny, spent a year gutting and customizing the expansive apartment they moved into the day after returning from the Pro Bowl in February.

It is big enough to raise two kids and contain a suite for Ginny’s parents, Won and Nga Cha, who raised their family outside Washington after leaving Vietnam in the 1970’s. The apartment was Ginny’s project; Tiki did not see the transformation until it was virtually complete. She designed a graceful home without pretension and only a couple of large reminders of the famous person who lives there.

“The only requirements he told me when I first started were comfort and flat-screens everywhere,” Ginny said.

One bedroom, for the couple’s 3-year-old son, A. J., has a long wall painted with a mural that looks like the inside of Giants Stadium. The field is ringed by thousands of little painted faces. In the first row at midfield is the extended Barber family, smiling cartoon faces behind a banner: “Go Tiki #21.”

On the scoreboard, in perpetuity, the clock is expired and the Giants have beaten the Cowboys, 28-24. It was the score of last season’s finale, in which Barber established team records in career and single-season rushing yards and scored the winning touchdown with 11 seconds remaining. Despite the wealth of living space, the couple is considering having 21-month-old Chason move from his nursery to this room with his brother. Tiki and Ronde, twins and best friends, grew up sharing a bedroom in Roanoke, Va.

The glass case in the living room is filled mostly with game balls and trophies. There is a bronze statue of Barber, about twice the size of the Heisman Trophy. There are helmets from the Pro Bowl, bobble-head dolls and a shelf for Ronde.

“He keeps bringing home things and I’m like …” Ginny began.

“What?” her husband said from another room.

“Nothing,” she answered.

This is the headquarters of what might be dubbed Tiki Inc. Its capital is in relationships, and Barber is accumulating great wealth. The Giants are the center of Barber’s spinning universe; he is close to the Mara and Tisch families, who each own half the franchise.

Barber was the one player invited to the bedside of both patriarchs, Wellington Mara and Preston Robert Tisch, the day before each man died this fall. He spoke at Tisch’s memorial service. He led the team inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Mara’s funeral.

“I feel like I represent what the Giants are supposed to be,” Barber said.

His relationship with the families rests on the blend of his performance on the field and his persona off it.

“Every team owner wants a Tiki Barber,” said John Mara, Wellington’s oldest son, who leads the day-to-day operations of the Giants. “You want your best players to be good people. As owners, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Mara said that Tisch had compared Barber to Frank Gifford, the popular Giants halfback from the 1950’s and early 1960’s who was as well known after his football career as he was during it and has spent a lifetime as a team ambassador.

It is a comparison embraced by Gifford, who considers Barber “a throwback” with “a lot of class.” Gifford once introduced Barber to a number of his old teammates at an event by saying, “Tiki is one of us.”

“It’s a group of guys who really cared for the fact that they played for the Giants, that really appreciated that they played in New York,” Gifford said in a phone interview yesterday. “Right now, this is Tiki’s world, and he handles it so well.”

Pressed on what he hopes to do a few years from now, Barber shrugged. A business major at Virginia, he would like to partner with Jonathan Tisch, a son of Preston Robert Tisch and one of Barber’s best friends, in some sort of endeavor. He will probably continue in broadcasting, but probably not sports broadcasting, as so many other former athletes have done, “because then I’m just another guy,” he said.

“I like being in the eye,” Barber said. “I like having the power of influence, and using it in the right way.”

His options are limitless, it seems, and the biggest problem might be choosing among them.

“That’s why we love New York,” Barber said. “You just meet people. Either they become great friends or they become great contacts. If I were in Green Bay, if I had been drafted by the Packers, my life would not be what it is right now. I’m very aware of that, and I appreciate what New York has brought to me.”

He smiled. A trophy case of football memories sat behind him, a dizzying array of possibilities floated in front of him.

Tiki Barber is going places. All from right here.