Play Mates Ronde and Tiki Barber went their separate ways to make it in the NFL, but the bond between these identical twins is as strong as ever

July 22, 2001

It was lunchtime, and the Barber twins were together in a
restaurant on Park Avenue in New York City. Tiki was eating
lobster, Ronde a salad, and that was one of the few ways to tell
them apart. Tiki is a little heavier; he weighs 200 pounds, 15
more than Ronde. Both of them, though, have shaved heads, their
voices sound about the same, and today they were wearing similar
outfits: polo shirts and dress slacks. The brothers have a
tendency to embellish each other's remarks, and this can make it
a challenge to keep up with them. Take when they were talking
about their childhood in Roanoke, Va. Their parents divorced when
they were three, and their father, J.B., a former Virginia Tech
football star, vanished from their lives. Their mother,
Geraldine, worked 12 hours a day to provide for them. She
received no child support, so there wasn't much money to go
around.

Tiki: "We always dressed alike; that's always cute, you know,
when twins do that. Maybe a color change here and there, but
always the same stuff."

Ronde: "Mostly we had the same clothes, and we didn't have a big
selection."

Tiki: "We had only one closet, and there wasn't much in it."

Ronde: "So we'd switch and swap. That's how we got our fashion
sense."

Tiki: "There was only one underwear drawer, one sock drawer,
maybe three or four jeans to share. We had to..."

Ronde: "...make do, in other words."

Tiki is the one who plays for the New York Giants. He's the
running back who last season, in his fourth year in the league,
set a franchise record with 2,089 all-purpose yards and helped
the Giants reach the Super Bowl. Ronde, who is entering his fifth
season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has matured into one of the
most aggressive cornerbacks in the NFL. In 2000 he had 82 tackles
and 5 1/2 sacks. Before proving themselves to be complete players,
the brothers were known primarily as third-down specialists: Tiki
for catching swing passes and coming up with crucial yardage,
Ronde for stepping inside over the slot and rushing the passer.

The twins are 26, live more than a thousand miles apart and enjoy
successful careers independent of each other. Yet on this day in
New York it took a while before you knew with certainty that Tiki
was Tiki and Ronde, Ronde. Things became especially confusing
after the waiter removed their plates from the table, and Tiki's
lobster and Ronde's salad were no longer there to help. "In
college [at Virginia] they weighed the same, so they looked
exactly alike," says Tiki's wife, Ginny. "The only way I could
tell them apart was that Ronde wore a round earring and Tiki wore
a hoop. So I was like, Ronde, round. Ronde, round. Then one day
neither of them was wearing an earring, so I had to guess which
was which. It took me months to nail it down."

The Barbers are identical twins, which means, biologically
speaking, they are essentially one and the same. Born 4 1/2 weeks
premature, the boys had seizures and suffered from lung ailments
as infants. They should not play contact sports, their
pediatrician told Geraldine. Even in their earliest days the boys
seemed drawn to each other as if by a magnetic force. Place one
on the opposite side of the bed from the other, and in minutes
they were entwined. "We'd fall asleep, then we'd just gravitate
to each other," says Tiki. "My mom has a picture: We're lying on
top of each other, and we're like two years old. No bond is equal
to the one of being twins, not the bond of marriage, not the bond
of a priest with his church. If we don't talk every couple of
days, he'll get upset and call me and say, 'Where the hell are
you?'"

"I feel like I'm getting lonely if I don't talk to Tiki," says
Ronde. "I don't know how to explain it. It's a mystery."

"They were always close," Geraldine says. "At some point when
they were little they figured out, 'Hey, this is my brother, it's
not another me,' and from then on they stood up for each other.
One never ratted out the other. If something went wrong at home,
they would both take the punishment rather than have one get in
trouble."

As a newborn, Ronde, the older of the two by seven minutes, was
about an inch longer than Tiki, and his feet were a little
bigger. That wasn't enough for the babysitter to distinguish one
boy from the other, so before leaving for work in the morning,
Geraldine would write Tiki's name on the bottoms of his shoes and
Ronde's on the bottoms of his. To further guard against
confusion, their mother checked them for birthmarks.

Asked to reveal the location of the marks, Geraldine says, "Now,
that's private. But I know where they are."

"I'm walking down the street today," Ronde was saying at lunch,
"and I can feel everybody staring at me. I'm trying to act like I
don't notice. But they're all going, 'Tiki! It's Tiki! There's
Tiki!' You have to remember: At the moment Tiki is a big deal in
New York. So I start thinking that maybe I should say something
or do something that would make him look bad, you know? That
would hurt his reputation. People are stopping me, wanting to
talk. I'm tempted. But finally I say, 'No, I'm not Tiki. I'm
Ronde.' They all look at me, then go, 'Oh.'"

This much is certain: Theirs is no ordinary brotherhood. What's
most amazing is how the arc of one twin's history parallels that
of the other, even after the pursuit of NFL careers forced them
to move away from each other after they had lived together for 22
years.

Tiki went in the second round of the 1997 draft, Ronde in the
third. After four mediocre years as a pro, returning punts in
addition to catching third-down passes, Tiki broke out in 2000.
In March he signed a new contract that will pay him $25.5 million
over six years. Likewise, Ronde came on strong last season and
developed into one of the league's elite defensive backs, playing
in a secondary that ranked first in the NFC against the pass. In
April he agreed to a six-year, $18.5 million deal with the Bucs.

When teammates and coaches talk about the Barbers, the quotes are
so similar that they could apply to either player. Here, for
instance, is Giants fullback Greg Comella on Tiki: "I bet you
can't show me a more ambitious athlete in professional sports.
This kid is competitive as hell. He loves winning, and he thrives
on being the best. Off the field it's the same thing. He works
just as hard at his marriage as he does at football. Whatever
Tiki does, he throws his heart and soul into the project, and
he's never satisfied. He's a perfectionist."

Now here's Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin on Ronde:
"He's incredibly competitive, and he's a tremendous worker. He's
a real team player. He'll do anything to win. He's what you want.
After practice he comes off the field and goes back to the video
room and waits for the tape to be done. He watches the tape of
practice before he even showers. He wants to see if he's made any
mistakes. He's a perfectionist that way."

Following the '99 season the Giants selected Heisman Trophy
winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin with the 11th pick of the draft. At
the start of training camp last year Tiki was penciled in as the
starter, but everybody assumed Dayne was being groomed to take
over the job in time for the regular-season opener--everybody but
Tiki, that is. On the first day of camp he said to Comella, "I'm
starting this year, Co. There's no doubt in my mind." As an
inside-outside combination, Dayne and Tiki became known as
Thunder and Lightning. It was Tiki, however, who started 13
games, and while Dayne got 15 more carries than Tiki did during
the season, Tiki rushed for 1,006 yards to Dayne's 770 and caught
70 passes to his counterpart's three.

In Tampa, Ronde faced a similar challenge when the Bucs took USC
cornerback Brian Kelly in the second round of the '98 draft.
Going into training camp that year everybody assumed Kelly was
being groomed to take over the starting job--everybody but Ronde,
that is. After playing in one game as a rookie, Ronde made nine
starts in his second year and "became a leader by example," says
Tampa Bay cornerback Donnie Abraham. "He became an incredible
blitzer. He always seems to find the seam. Somehow he squeezes
through 300-pound offensive linemen and makes plays. Every blitz
he goes on, he thinks he's going to get to the quarterback. It's
always full speed with him."

The traits that define the Barbers as football players also shape
their lives away from the game. In his spare time Tiki works as a
TV and radio sportscaster in New York. Ronde does the same in
Tampa. Two years ago Tiki married Ginny Cha, an American of
Korean and Vietnamese descent who works as a fashion publicist
for clothing designer Ermenegildo Zegna. This spring Ronde
married Claudia Patron, an American of Filipino descent who works
in marketing for Crown Golf. At 5'7", Claudia is six inches
taller than Ginny, but even the brothers can't get over the
resemblance between their wives. "If you saw them passing by,
they almost look alike," says Ronde.

After meeting Ginny and Claudia, the twins' best friend from
childhood couldn't help but ask the obvious. "Don't you think
this is a little weird?" Chris Vaughan said with a chuckle.

Tiki and Ronde swear they never were attracted to the same type
of woman until they met Ginny and Claudia. Geraldine, however,
recalls that the only time Tiki and Ronde fought was in high
school, over a girl. "She came between them for all of 48 hours,"
she says. "Once they saw that she was playing them off each other
they realized, My brother is far more important to me than this
girl will ever be, and they broke off contact with her."

Before one brother became involved with a girl, it was an
unspoken rule that she must earn the other's approval. By the
time they were adults, Tiki and Ronde understood that one of them
couldn't possibly love a woman who didn't get along with the
other. "Whoever we chose," says Ronde, "or whoever chose us, the
personalities had to mesh, because I think..."

"...if we got along, then they would get along," says Tiki.

Ronde stood as best man in Tiki's wedding; Tiki did the same for
Ronde. In both cases only one man at the ceremony was as proud as
the groom, and that was the groom's brother. Tiki and Ronde say
they live vicariously through each other, but on occasion the
attachment seems deeper than that. "At times I root so hard for
Tiki that I feel I don't even care about what I'm doing," says
Ronde. "He'll have an earlier game, and I could care less about
my game."

"I'm the same way," Tiki says. "The exact same way."

"There are times when I say, 'What would I be without Tiki?'"
says Ronde. "I don't have an answer. I mean, he is me."

"Literally and figuratively," says Tiki.

Last October, Tiki watched the Bucs lose 28-14 to the Detroit
Lions in a nationally televised Thursday night game. Early in the
second quarter Ronde tried to pick up a blocked punt deep in
Lions territory and run with it rather than fall on the ball, and
the Lions recovered in their own end zone for a safety. The play
cost Tampa Bay a chance for a touchdown, and it shifted momentum
in Detroit's favor. Upset with himself after the loss, Ronde
called Tiki at two in the morning, and Tiki, who'd been lying in
bed replaying the blocked punt over and over in his mind, picked
up the phone and said, "That'll learn ya. Next time just fall on
the damned thing."

"I knew he'd call," Tiki says. "I didn't have to look [at the
caller I.D.]. I just knew."

"This is going to sound strange," says Ginny, "but they're so
tuned in to each other that they have their own sort of
'twinspeak.' They're low-talkers, and it may sound like a humming
noise, but they're actually communicating with each other. You'll
be in the car with them, and they're sitting in the front seat
and you're in back. You hear something--a sound--but you can't
quite make out what it is. They're talking. It gets annoying, and
you always end up saying, 'What? What? What did you say?'"

Tiki and Ginny live in a town house on Manhattan's Upper East
Side. They attend the theater and the ballet, visit art
galleries, picnic in Central Park. Ronde and Claudia live in a
house on the 6th hole of Tampa's Westchase Golf Club, and their
favorite pastime is to play the course together. After practice
during Super Bowl week, Tiki retreated to Ronde's house, often
with teammates. "It was the only time I saw Tiki relax," says
Comella. "He really slows down when he's with his brother. Ronde
has a calming effect on him."

In school Tiki was the better student, Ronde the more creative
one. On weekends Tiki, the introvert, wanted to stay home and
study, while Ronde, the extrovert, wanted to go out and meet
girls. Tiki wasn't happy unless he had a 4.0 GPA; Ronde was
content with a 3.33. They had bunk beds until their teen years,
when each wanted to assert his independence, so Geraldine placed
the beds on opposite sides of the room.

The brothers have no relationship with their father, but when
they were kids, they would occasionally pull out a photo album
and look at pictures of J.B. He was a three-year letterman for
the Hokies in the early 1970s and played one season as a running
back for the Houston Texans of the World Football League. The
twins referred to him as J.B., never as Dad, and years later when
they saw him, both would say it was like being introduced to a
stranger.

In 1992 Tiki was a 4.0 student at Cave Spring High in Roanoke
County. That same year Ronde won the 55-meter high hurdles at a
national high school meet. "Letters came in bundles from
recruiters," says their friend Vaughan. "Calls rolled in, and
then the recruiting visits started."

They were roommates as freshmen at Virginia, and for the next
three years they rented an apartment together. They both earned
their degrees: Tiki in management information services, Ronde in
commerce. The brothers were together that day in April four years
ago when their pro careers began. They were celebrating during
the draft at a restaurant in Charlottesville with about a dozen
friends and family members. Shortly after hanging up with Tampa
Bay coach Tony Dungy, Ronde asked Tiki to join him in another
room. They talked for a few minutes, and when they returned Tiki
sat next to Geraldine and put his arms around her. "Quit your job
tomorrow," he said.

"I can't do that," said Geraldine, who'd been working as an
executive director with the Girl Scout Council in Roanoke.

"Sure you can," he said. "Ronde and I are going to take care of
you now."

She left the job five months later. However, four months after
that she'd had it with sitting around the house. "If you don't
want my claw marks on the wall," she told her sons, "you won't be
mad when I go back to work."

Neither was surprised. Easy isn't something Geraldine is good at.
Easy is for other people. Geraldine's father, Army Maj. Willie T.
Brickhouse Jr., died in a helicopter crash while on a
reconnaissance mission in Vietnam in 1967, days before her 15th
birthday. Ten years later J.B. left her and the twins to fend for
themselves. Geraldine answered by punching the clock as a
transcriptionist at an office suite, as a receptionist at a
hospital and as a tracker for an inventory company. She also
earned a master's degree in business. For years she averaged four
hours of sleep a night. She would go to the boys' games and have
dinner with them, but she rarely put them to bed. Babysitters
usually did that. "I remember crying sometimes, because you want
your mom, and she's not there," Tiki says.

"But she never made it seem like we were struggling," Ronde says.
"She never put it on us, you know? If we did something wrong, she
was there to punish us, but as far as school and studies and all
that stuff went, she never told us we had to do well. It was just
implied."

In 1996, when Tiki and Ronde were starting their senior season at
Virginia, Geraldine was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she
underwent a double mastectomy. As she endured months of
chemotherapy, she discouraged the boys from visiting. "When I was
going through chemo, my doctor scheduled my treatments so that I
could get through the down period before their next game," says
Geraldine. "I never missed a game."

"My mom has never asked Ronde and me for anything," Tiki says. "I
can do a single appearance and make more than she does in a year,
but she doesn't ask for anything. She's a private person. Her
whole life has been, 'Learn to live with it. You put yourself in
your own situation, you can get yourself out of it.' That was
especially the case after J.B. left. My mother is the reason we
turned out the way we did. She gave us our independence early,
and she taught us make our own choices."

Not long after turning pro, the brothers bought a house for
Geraldine in one of the most beautiful areas of Roanoke County.
The house is nestled close to Bent Mountain. If she leaves the
blinds open when she turns in at night, Geraldine wakes up to the
sight of the mountain, so close it seems she can reach through
the window and wrap her hands around it. The brothers also bought
her a $70,000 Mercedes. Still, she went back to work, as a budget
administrator for the county of Roanoke.

"To me, our lives have already happened," Ronde says. "I don't
mean spiritually. But sometimes when I'm looking at a picture of
someone's life--like Tiger Woods playing golf--it feels as if it's
already happened and I'm watching a highlight film. It's the same
way with Tiki and me. They go to Virginia, they're successful.
They get in the league, they struggle, now they're successful.
We're living it, but it's as though it already happened."

"Right," Tiki says. "During my second year as a pro, when I was
struggling, when I wondered if they were going to run me out of
New York, even then I never thought I'd fail. I knew I would be
successful."

Suppose one of the brothers had made it and the other had not?
"This is going to sound cocky..." says Tiki.

"...but that was never an option," says Ronde.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI Flying high True to their style, Ronde (left) and Tiki both swung lucrative long-term contracts this year. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Coming of age Last season Tiki (21) emerged as an every-down running and receiving threat for the Giants, while Ronde (20) showed his knack for getting to the quarterback as a Buccaneers cornerback. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES Seeing double After meeting Ginny (above, with Tiki) and Claudia (with Ronde), a friend of the twins said, "Don't you think this is a little weird?" COLOR PHOTO: MANUELLO PAGANELLI Picture of strength The indomitable Geraldine taught her two sons how to deal with difficult situations. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE BARBER FAMILY Who's who? As toddlers the twins looked so much alike that Mom wrote each boy's name on the bottom of his shoes. That's Tiki on the left.

Most amazing is how the arc of one's history parallels that of the other.

"My mother," says Tiki, "is the reason we turned out the way we
did."

The little boys seemed drawn to each other as if by a magnetic
force.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)