The former Giants runner seemed destined for crossover success, but hubris and scandal doomed his postfootball plans. Now, at 36, he wants to get back in the game—and get back at his critics
This is an article from the May 30, 2011 issue
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."
Barber validated city living and served as an exemplar of postracial America. The New Yorker ran a flattering profile of him, as did this magazine. Even the Gotham tabloids suspended their usual cynicism to run stories with headlines like WORLDS APART & ALL TOGETHER: AT HOME WITH TIKI BARBER'S MELTING POT FAMILY. As Barber developed into one of the league's most complete backs, the media became smitten with an outspoken, accommodating star, famously charitable, refreshingly self-aware.
Barber also elevated his profile on television, appearing first on local stations in 1998. For a stint on the New York CBS affiliate he woke at 3:30 a.m. to deliver the morning sports report. Eventually he moved to Fox and appeared regularly on the national show Fox & Friends as the Tuesday cohost. Fox News president Roger Ailes told employees Barber "killed the dumb jock stereotype."
But at his full-time place of work Barber was much less popular. He battled and challenged Giants coach Tom Coughlin, telling him that his hard-ass ways were counterproductive and that his play-calling was dubious. More than that, Barber's eclecticism didn't always play well in the locker room. Teammates accused him of being a fraud. "A lot of players want to be taken seriously as more than a football player," says Roman Oben, a Giants tackle from 1996 to '99 who earned a master's degree in public administration while he played. "But we'd beat the Cowboys and fly home. Guys are yelling, playing cards and watching movies. Tiki's sitting there, legs crossed, reading Wuthering Heights or whatever. Come on. Some guys let you know how bad they had it growing up. Tiki wanted you to know the opposite: Hey, I'm not from the hood."
By the fall of 2006, his 10th season, Barber had put up the kind of numbers that make the Hall of Fame gatekeepers take notice; he'd averaged nearly 1,500 rushing yards a season since '02, and in '05 he gained 2,390 combined rushing and receiving yards, at the time second best in history. But he said he was "tired of the grind." When he announced in midseason that he'd be retiring after that year, he got plenty of grief. How dare he not lick the bottom of the glass? Even Ronde encouraged his brother to ask for a trade rather than walk away.
Barber smiled and stuck to his plan. The Giants made the playoffs, and when they faced Philadelphia in a wild-card game, Tiki rented a suite from Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles' owner. Sitting in comfort, friends and family watched him rush for 137 yards. But the Giants lost, 23--20, and Barber was done. Which, in his mind, meant he was just starting.
For all the retiring athletes who wonder how they'll fill the next 50 years, Barber's future was pregnant with promise. He had a standing offer to work for Fox, but when other networks got wind of the deal he became the prize in a pitched recruiting battle. According to his agent, Mark Lepselter, Fox offered Barber a contract for four years at $3.3 million a year (not much of a drop-off from his NFL salary of roughly $4.2 million) while Zucker and NBC offered three years at $1.9 million, chiefly to be a correspondent on the Today show; he'd also contribute to the news and might get roped into sports occasionally. With Ginny's blessing, Barber chose NBC. He wasn't going to be the ex-player who came on at halftime to serve up clichés and analyze nickel packages. "To be a journalist," says Lepselter, "he left seven million plus on the table. I'm no John Nash, but I scratched my head on that one."
At a splashy Manhattan press conference announcing his signing, Barber was flanked by Zucker, NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol and news division head Steve Capus. Zucker gushed that Barber was "one of those rare personalities who appeals to virtually every audience." His title with Today was correspondent, but there was speculation within 30 Rock that he was being groomed to succeed Matt Lauer as the show's host. His first assignment was to cover the Virginia Tech shooting. "Dream job," he recalls. "I always said, Don't put me in a box, because you won't find one that fits."
A few weeks into the job, though, it appeared this one was particularly ill-fitting. Barber appeared stiff and uncomfortable on the air. Some Today staffers were not exactly devastated when their new colleague—lacking experience and having paid few dues—began to fumble. The show's well-regarded producer, Jim Bell, did not, by all accounts, share Zucker's fondness for Barber.
Whether he was making rookie mistakes and could have worked harder at his new craft (NBC's claim) or was caught up in fierce office politics (his contention), Barber's stock at NBC was plummeting. In football there were those 100-yard games to confirm that he'd performed his job well. For all his battles with Coughlin, he usually knew where he stood. "With TV it's so subjective," says Barber. "You think it's good; someone else thinks it's awful."
When Barber worked for the sports division he did so with some reluctance. Appearing on NBC's Football Night in America, he mocked the leadership of Eli Manning, his old quarterback, calling his inspirational talks "comical." Barber also continued his feud with Coughlin. To Giants Nation it was high treason. To nonpartisans it had the whiff of desperation, of an ex-jock trying to prove he could be biting and opinionated. By the time New York went on to win the Super Bowl in February 2008, Barber hadn't just burned his bridges; he'd firebombed them.
As an athlete, Barber played the media game in a masterly way, but once he went through the looking glass, he lost his savvy. Says Strahan, now an analyst for Fox's NFL coverage, "You can be critical, even of your old team, but people felt Tiki was malicious. You take that, and then the team you criticized wins the Super Bowl? That can be hard to recover from. Especially in New York."
Says Barber, "In New York you're supposed to speak your mind—unless they don't want to hear it, and then you're not allowed to have an opinion. My mother would slap me across the face if she thought I was following a path of being one of those plantation guys—yes, sir, no, sir, whatever you want me to say, sir."
Barber continued his dispatches for Today, some of them quite good—a story on same-sex parents, a feature on a Palestinian soccer coach in Atlanta—but his star dimmed further during the Beijing Olympics when he was relegated to stints on MSNBC with Today Sunday anchor Jenna Wolfe. The two sniped on air (shtick, he says), and Barber may or may not have committed the mother of all Freudian slips when speaking of a medal count. That same week he referred to the U.S. Olympic basketball coach as Mike Rezevski and mentioned the nation of Hungaria.
Barber's wings, apparently, had melted once he got too close to the klieg lights. "He can spin it however he wants," says one former NBC executive. "He just wasn't good. Maybe he was good 'for an athlete.' But that wasn't a [relevant] comparison."
At the same time, Barber's marriage was unraveling. This is hardly uncommon for ex-jocks, a subset with an exceptionally high divorce rate. There's philandering, sure. But when an athlete retires, the dynamics, rhythms and finances of the marriage also undergo an abrupt change. In Barber's case it was all of the above. He and Ginny (who declined to comment for this story) spent 2½ years in counseling, then separated in late 2009. Barber says he spent the first two nights of the estrangement sleeping in his NBC office. Then he moved in with Johnson, a 23-year-old intern at the network.
In New York there was only one place this narrative was headed. The confluence of sex, sports, money, media and race was irresistible. On April 7, 2010, the New York Post's back page blared: tiki barber dumps pregnant wife for hot blonde, accompanied by a salacious story. It was Barber's 35th birthday. "That's the day I stopped believing in coincidences," says Barber, implying that the story was leaked by someone with a vendetta. The same New York media and buzz generators that had helped him ascend—that had made him so different from his twin in sleepy Florida—were now going to accelerate his fall.
Barber and Johnson went into hiding in the attic of Lepselter's house in New Jersey. "Lep's Jewish," says Barber, "and it was like a reverse Anne Frank thing." (Here is Barber writ small: He has the wit and smarts to make an Anne Frank allusion and the artlessness to liken himself—an adulterer trying to elude gossip columnists—to a Holocaust victim.)
A few weeks later NBC declined to renew Barber's contract. The $40,000 speaking engagements evaporated. Barber had partnered with a Manhattan fitness studio; now the company was suing him for $1 million, claiming that "reaction among the company's clientele to Barber's affair has been overwhelmingly negative, especially amongst the business's core clientele, 25-to-55-year-old women, many of them married with children." (The suit was settled out of court.) When Barber's twin daughters were born in May 2010, he was not in the delivery room. Supporters disappeared. "It's amazing how loyal some people are, sticking with me when it wasn't popular," says Barber, "and it's amazing how fast some people will jump off a ship when they see a leak.
"I had a bad marriage. I left. It doesn't mean I'm a bad father. I fell in love with someone else." He sighs, then shakes his head. "You're walking down a path, and you know it's not right. Do whatever it takes to change. Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's violent. Mine was violent. But somehow it seems right."
If he can handle the criticism, the lack of control has been harder. "In sports you can will yourself to another level," he says. "In dealing with life—whether it's divorce or pleasing the boss—sometimes it's just not in your hands. You're dealing with emotions and realities of other people."
For the first time in his life Barber had no challenge to confront, no direction. He bought a Harley. He inked up his body, tattooing his mother's directive PLAY PROUD on his rib cage and FIERY-TEMPERED KING, the meaning of his name in an African dialect, on his chest. But he was used to being active, competitive, with goals and mental stimulation. "Those guys who want to retire at 30 and go fishing, good luck," he says. "It's hard to do nothing. Even if you can afford it."
Compounding it all was the success of Ronde. When you have a twin, you have an easy point of comparison. And Ronde was thriving. While Tiki was retired, Ronde refused to show outward signs of age. Even in his mid-30s he was excelling in the Tampa Bay secondary, his passion for football still blazing. "Ronde serves on no boards. Simple tastes. He likes golf and Corvettes," says Tiki. "He's like the Mannings. Singularly focused on football. Did seeing him make me think about myself? Sure. Absolutely."
Inevitably, visions of breaking tackles began to dance in Tiki's head. He and Lepselter put out feelers. When the NFL labor dispute ends, the Giants will happily relinquish their rights to Barber. And other teams have expressed serious interest in a durable back who has kept up his physique. In March, Lepselter filed the necessary paperwork with the NFL to "unretire" his client.
Barber insists that regardless of how costly four children and a contentious divorce might be, he's neither broke nor motivated by money. Excelling on the field is a great way to win back fans (see: Vick, Michael), and sure, this is partially about repairing a tattered image. But there's more. "It's about self-fulfillment," Barber says. "It's about having a goal, trying to do something that maybe hasn't been done before, returning to run the ball at a high level after four years away."
Predictably, the comeback has triggered skepticism. Antonio Pierce, a former Giants linebacker and now an ESPN analyst, said of Barber, "He's not going to do anything for your team." ("Antonio hates me!" Tiki says, chuckling.) Just as damning was the silence from other former teammates and coaches. "Physically he can probably do it," says a former Giant, "but the locker room? I mean, Tiki is a complex guy."
Strahan, however, laughs when asked if Barber can still play. "He didn't leave because he was a beat-up bum on the end of the bench," Strahan says. "Let me tell you, he worked. Love him or hate him, he earned every yard... . Yeah, he can still help a team."
Adds Ronde, "The thing about Tiki: What he lacks in the give-a-s--- factor, he makes up for with a will to find a way out. He's ready for a new challenge, which in this case is an old challenge."
Oben, who runs his own foundation, has a different take. "Retirement is a tough transition," he says. "You can win the Super Bowl your rookie year, but not usually in retirement. It takes four or five years for most players to hit their stride in their second career. And sure, you get in the door and people want to meet you. But are they really willing to help you advance, succeed in their world? Or do they want to ask you, 'What's it like playing in the NFL?' I'm telling you, this happens to all of us. Even Tiki Barber."
Barber proudly describes himself as "a black and white guy," which is to say he doesn't mince words. But, really, there's plenty of gray to go around. If he isn't the unreconstructed good guy his previous image suggested, neither is he an antihero. There's something to be said for an athlete who has lofty goals, a public figure who disdains the company line. And if Barber has an optimistic gloss on his downfall, at least he's aware of it.
In preparation for his comeback, he has begun training at Carini's House of Iron, a sweaty dungeon in Pine Brook, N.J. Culturally it's about as far as you can get from the power and money circles Barber once occupied. "People on the Upper East Side wouldn't know how to find this place," he says. "And if they did, they wouldn't want to stay."
Daily, he makes the trip from Riverdale, sometimes riding the Harley across the George Washington Bridge, other times driving his Mercedes SUV through the Lincoln Tunnel, passing the stadium, which almost taunts him from the side of Route 3. At Carini's no one cares what you're wearing, what board you serve on or where you scored a lunch reservation. "It's pretty simple," says Joe Carini, six-time winner of the New Jersey Strongest Man and Barber's personal trainer throughout most of his career. "Did you or didn't you put in the work?"
Barber does. On an early-spring Wednesday, sweating through a T-shirt, ignoring the blood on his palm caused by a popped blister, the 5'10" Barber displaces 1,100 pounds on the leg press machine, 800 on the back squat, 805 on the deadlift. He weighs 200 pounds—his former playing weight—and vows that he's never felt better. "All that other stuff," Carini says with a dismissive wave. "Tiki is back to doing what he does best. I haven't seen him this energized—this alive—since he retired."
By coincidence, on this day he works out alongside Giants guard Chris Snee, who blocked for Barber for three seasons and is Tom Coughlin's son-in-law. When the potential awkwardness of this is raised, Barber says loud enough for Snee to hear, "I love Chris. My problem was with Coughlin. And that wasn't personal; it was professional." When Snee mentions an upcoming family cruise to the Caribbean, Barber tells him, "You can't go! It's [associating] with management!" Snee laughs uneasily at the reference to the lockout rules, as if to say: Still at it, Barber, stirring the pot.
It's spring break in the New York City private schools and, per the custody arrangement, A.J., 8, and Chason, 7, are with their dad today. (Johnson is not there. Per the custody arrangement she has yet to meet the kids.) Indifferent to Dad's weight work, the boys play their Nintendo DS, smack chalk on their hands like LeBron James and try to throw a baseball through a tire. When Chason curls 10 pounds and watches himself in a mirror, his dad says, "You're just like Uncle Ronde, admiring yourself while you lift!"
Finally it's time to go. "Great workout, Tiki," yells Carini. "We're not far off." With that, Barber leaves the gym. Outside, a stiff breeze smacks him in the face. The warm weather might be coming. It's not here yet.