The Curious Case of Tiki Barber

There is something about Tiki Barber that resists connection, something that just won’t be loved.

On a Sunday night in September of last year, the New York Giants welcomed 30 players, coaches, and executives into the new Giants Ring of Honor in New Meadowlands Stadium. The fans cheered lustily for the great and the obscure alike, including Lawrence Taylor, who had recently been charged with felony statutory rape, the outcome of a sordid Holiday Inn encounter between Taylor, a vicious pimp, and an underage girl. But the same crowd booed Tiki Barber.

In June of this year, Plaxico Burress, a gifted wide receiver notorious for missing team meetings and sitting out practices to nurse vague injuries, was released from prison after serving eighteen months on a concealed weapons charge. A number of his teammates—including Brandon Jacobs and Justin Tuck—appealed to management to bring him back. When Tiki Barber announced his intentions to return to football for the 2011 season, no former teammate vouched for him. A couple went out of their way to deride him in interviews.

What is it with Tiki Barber that irks everyone so? In a town never much known for holding its sports heroes to high standards of morals, ethics or even sheer likeability, Tiki Barber is an anomaly. He just rubs everyone the wrong way.

Is it that he’s not perceived as a “team guy?” New York sports icons from Babe Ruth to Joe Namath to Alex Rodriguez have elevated “me first” to an art form, and done just fine. Lawrence Taylor crossed his own team’s picket line to play with strike-breaking “replacement players” in 1987. Is it because Barber is a dumb guy who thinks he’s smart? That never seemed to hurt Tom Seaver or Reggie Jackson much. Is it that he’s never won anything? See Exhibit A for Never Winning Anything: Don Mattingly. Hell, even Patrick Ewing gets more love. Is it that the family-friendly public image he once projected has been so thoroughly debunked? Well, hello, Mickey Mantle!

When he retired in 2006, Tiki Barber was only the third player in NFL history established as the career leader in both rushing yards and receptions for his team. The other two? Walter Payton and James Wilder, the latter for the expansion Tampa Bay Bucs. Barber is one of only three players in NFL history to gain more than 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards in a NFL career. The other two? Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen. Barber owns a significant chunk of the Giants record book. In the last regular season game he ever played, the Giants made the playoffs in large part due to Barber, who rushed for 234 yards against the Redskins, still a team record. At the age of 30, he was, amazingly, better than he’d ever been. He was at the absolute peak of his game. For at least three years, from 2004 through 2006, it was simply astounding to watch him play.

And then he quit. Well, actually, he quit in October of that year, prompting his teammates to complain that he was turning the spotlight on himself in the midst of a playoff run. Then he blamed his premature retirement on humorless, red-cheeked taskmaster Tom Coughlin who, Barber complained, “demeaned and talked down to me.” Then he called Eli Manning “comical.” Then he had to go on TV, quivering rictus of a false smile pasted onto his face, and interview members of the Super Bowl Champion Giants team as they celebrated their victory just one year after his retirement.

There’s something in Tiki Barber that just won’t submit to good fortune. The Super Bowl thing may—or may not—have been out of his control. By then, he had already turned down an $11 million offer from Disney to do occasional Good Morning America features and be a featured analyst on ESPN. Instead, Tiki took considerably less money (about $300,000 per year) to join the Today show on NBC. He wanted to do “real news.” NBC News President Steve Capus said at the time that he thought Barber was “just going to light up the screen.” But doing real news made Tiki look shallow and stiff and uncomfortable, and soon he was relegated to the last hour of Today’s daily morning broadcast, doing features on ice-fishing and getting painted blue by small children.

Finally, last year, he took an ax to his formerly wholesome image, getting romantically involved with a 23-year-old NBC intern, after which he was sued for divorce by his wife of 11 years, even as she was eight months pregnant with twins. Goodbye Today Show. Goodbye to the semi-popular series of children’s books he’d authored with his twin brother Ronde.

Today, you could scour Google all day looking for a recent account of someone saying something nice about him. (Former coach Jim Fassel has offered him a shot at a job in the UFL.)  After retiring a year too early and un-retiring two years too late, he finds himself on the outside looking in. NFL training camps have opened and Tiki is still at home, still working out. Maybe a team beset by injuries at running back will take a flyer on him in the next week or two. Maybe he’ll find a home somewhere for one more year. As I post this, the rumor mill suggests that Tiki might go to the Steelers. Almost immediately, Steelers beat writers suggest the opposite.

Either way, the event that he had hoped to orchestrate, a kind of Roy Hobbsian comeback with himself in the Robert Redford role, has an audience of one. It’s an odd place for a Giant legend, one of the best running backs to ever play the game, to find himself in. Some people, for inscrutable reasons, are moved to throw it all away.

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