By Steve Serby
Tiki Barber never imagined this kind of career, wasn't supposed to become the greatest running back in Giants history. He came from a broken home, he was too small, he fumbled too much, he was going to make way for Ron Dayne, he was going to slow down once he turned 30.
But as the Giants begin turning their newfound swagger toward a colossal Monday Night showdown with America's Team, they can find comfort that America's Back plays for them. America's Back because he overcame the odds, because he believed in himself and left the nonbelievers tackling air, because he refused to accept ordinary and strove relentlessly for extraordinary.
“I think I've always had the right kind of motivations and ideals; I think my mother was a great influence with how she raised us, just by her struggles being a single mother with two kids, working numerous jobs and forcing us to have our independence early because of that,” Barber said yesterday. “We learned the value of hard work, and it's stuck with me in everything I've done, whether it was in high school being valedictorian, or going to college and excelling in business school, and least of which, in some of my estimation, is sports.
“It's never been easy for me, I've always been small; always told that I couldn't achieve things. But I've always believed in myself and as my mom always said, 'You believe in yourself because if you don't know one else will.' And I think that's pushed me.”
Every great athlete, beyond his physical gifts, has at least one singular intangible quality that makes him great. I asked Barber to identify his.
“Determination,” he said. “I've failed a lot, you know that. I easily could have folded and said, 'What everyone else is saying about me, you're right.' But I've accepted all of that, and been determined to correct it in any way that I could. And it's made me a durable player, mostly mentally. When I go through hardships, and I go through down points, I know because of what I've been through that I can pull through it and be successful anyway.”
Pride would be right up there, because how else do you explain the offseason workouts with New Jersey powerlifter Joe Carini that have remade him at age 31 into a 202-pound rock who can take a licking – and sometimes give one – and keep on ticking?
“That's another aspect of what I do,” Barber said, “and it's funny you say that because my mother calls me every week before the game, calls my brother (Ronde) as well, and she never calls us when she knows she can get us, she calls us when she knows that she's gonna get the answering machine. And she says pretty much the same thing every week, along the lines of: 'Just calling to wish you luck today; you know you're gonna do great; play proud.'
“It's true. I know that everything that I do is making someone else proud, is making someone whose shoulders I've been standing on my entire life proud. It's a big responsibility, but I take it seriously, 'cause I know if I give less than a full effort, then I'm doing not only myself a disservice, but all those people who have been supporting me my entire life.”
His 4.28 speed long gone, Barber is Ali in Zaire now, much smarter, more patient, a student of physics and laws of gravity and leverage.
“I'm not that sexy back,” Barber says. “I play like a big back, and I get treated like that. DBs cut me all the time, they don't try to tackle me up top even though I only weigh maybe five or 10 pounds more than them.”
When he matter-of-factly says, “I'm still damn good,” as he did in Atlanta, it is simply the ego that all great ones have talking. “The balance is not letting that ego distract from the goal at hand, which is a team winning,” Barber said.
Winning everything is what drives him.
“Winning the Super Bowl, because I've done everything else, I think, except for winning the rushing title, but that's an individual accomplishment that doesn't focus on the team concept that we preach here,” America's Back said.
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