Passing Judgment – Tiki Barber’s Legacy
It is fascinating to see and hear what people, specifically New York Giants’ fans and football fans in general, think about Tiki Barber. Generally speaking, fans only care about players’ performance on the field. The off-the-field shenanigans only gets brought into the equation when someone does something horrific, commits a crime, goes to prison, or is so completely outrageous that his personal life overshadows his athletic career. But deep down, there is a respect and appreciation for what a player did for your team during his career – usually. I am not so sure this is the case for former Giants’ running back Tiki Barber.
It is hard to believe that a player who holds almost every Giants rushing record in history could be booed on a night at Giants Stadium honoring him along with other all-time great franchise players. It is hard to believe that some people argue Barber’s departure was what catapulted the Giants to becoming Super Bowl champions in the 2007 season. It is hard to believe that people are so willing to castigate and judge a person who has not done anything illegal or so grossly outrageous like some other professional football players that are still revered despite their “mishaps.”
Now four years after his retirement from the NFL and a failed broadcasting career, Tiki Barber is looking to make a comeback at an age where very few running backs have ever had success. During an interview with HBO that aired on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Barber acknowledged that he now needs football more than it needs him. This is partially due to his failures off the field after he initially retired which led to an extremely long bout with depression.
“I remember there were days where I would literally wake up, have coffee, get something to eat and sit on the couch and do nothing for 10 hours,” said Barber to HBO.
Barber has spent the past four months working out in an attempt to make a comeback, although his chances rest on the league and its players reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. He said football represents a necessary anchor in a life turned upside down by the depressive aftermath of scandalous divorce and disintegration of his television career. Upon his retirement in 2006, Barber was on his way to an illustrious career in television beginning as a NBC football analyst for Football Night in America. Earning $2,000,000 per year, Barber progressed to having a featured role on the Today Show. But things did not turn out how Barber had envisioned, and he was eventually demoted and fired. This led to his bouts with depression.
“I crafted this career, right? And I had gotten to the point where I was right where I wanted to be and then I failed. It’s hard to deal with.”
In addition to his career struggles, he was also dealing with major strife in his personal life as his marriage had started to fall apart just months after he ended his ten-year playing career. Then his image as a “good guy” took a serious blow when he ended up moving in with Tracy Lynn Johnson while his wife was pregnant with twins. Even though Barber proclaimed that he had separated from his wife before he moved in with Johnson, the tabloids and media painted him as an adulterer. Barber did all he could to defend himself and his honor. He tried explaining that his wife getting pregnant was right in the middle of his marital problems, and things did not change for the better.
After retiring from the game he loved to play, then having his NBC career crash and burn, and then having his reputation and integrity shattered by the public’s perception of his failed marriage and new girlfriend, Barber sorely needed something to grab onto to change the cycle. That is when he was encouraged by friends and other players to attempt a comeback.
Assuming he is in game condition shape and works off a lot of the rust that may have accumulated over the past four years, Barber should get a shot on an NFL team to contribute. One option that is not going to be available to him is a return to the Giants. This is what is so disheartening about the whole situation, and Barber has no one to blame but himself. In an ideal world, this would be an amazing story of an all-time great player making a comeback to the only team he ever played for and being embraced as a returning hero. Unfortunately, there will be no storybook ending for Barber and the Giants. And there are many reasons why.
First, it should be noted that Barber truly is one of the greatest players to ever play for the Giants. Some of his career highlights include: one of twenty-one players to ever rush for over 10,000 yards; third player to ever rush for more than 10,000 and receive more than 5,000 yards; three-time Pro Bowl selection; first player in NFL history with 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in one season; one of three players to ever have at least three 200-yard rushing games in one season; one of four players to have four 2,000 total yard seasons; third player in NFL history to be the career leader in both rushing yards and receptions with their team; and holds an NFL record of leading his team in rushing every game for 80 consecutive games from 2002 through 2006. He also holds practically every Giants team rushing record in history, despite not winning a Super Bowl.
So with a resume like that, how can this man not be revered by Giants fans? There are several examples of how Barber crossed the line and raised the ire of Giants players and fans. In 2002, Barber publicly criticized All-Pro defensive end Michael Strahan’s negotiating stance on a new contract. Barber commented that Strahan was being selfish and greedy, a tact that fellow teammate Keith Hamilton took exception to as being a violation of a cardinal rule never to speak about other players’ contracts.
Additionally, Barber did not hide the fact that he disliked Tom Coughlin’s coaching style and demeanor. This, despite the fact that Barber saw his statistics and performance improve exponentially under Coughlin’s tenure. Nevertheless, after the Giants were handily shut out at home during the first round of the 2005 playoffs by the Carolina Panthers, Barber made post-game comments that he felt that the Giants were outcoached by Panthers’ head coach John Fox (the former defensive coach of the Giants). After receiving a lot of media attention about this comment, Barber apologized and insisted he only meant to convey that the Giants’ performance was unacceptable. Additionally, after a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars during the 2006 season, Barber criticized the team’s play-calling for abandoning the running game too soon. On the eve of what would be his last game with the Giants, Barber told ESPN that he is “demeaned and talked down to” by Coughlin. Taking it another step further, Barber attributed his decision to retire to Coughlin’s unrelenting style in practice.
“Coughlin pushed me in the direction of television. I don’t know if you realize this, but we were in full pads for 17 weeks, and with the amount of injuries that we had, it just takes a toll on you. You physically don’t want to be out there, when your body feels the way you do, in full pads.”
After he retired, Barber was interviewed just prior to the start of the 2007 season where he questioned Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s leadership abilities. Barber was quoted as saying that Manning’s motivational pre-game speeches sounded “almost comical.” Manning fought back in the media by bringing up Barber calling out the coaches and all of the articles written about his decision to retire in the middle of the season. After retiring without a Super Bowl victory, Barber seemed at peace with leaving the game without a championship ring. However, the very next season after he retired, the Giants went on a miraculous run to win Super Bowl XLII by defeating the then-undefeated New England Patriots for their third Super Bowl victory. Eli Manning led the game-winning drive down the field and was named MVP. At this point, Barber looked foolish for his caddy questioning of Manning’s leadership skills.
Since then, Barber has been the subject of Giants fans anger and dislike. When several Giants were honored during the last season at the old Giants Stadium, Barber received a chorus of boos when he was announced. He has even further tarnished his reputation with his mouth when he was quoted in the May 30, 2011 Sports Illustrated comparing hiding in his agent’s attic with his girlfriend so they wouldn’t get caught to Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis. I don’t think that Barber intended anything offensive by this comment, but it was another instance of him being unable to think before speaking and sticking his own foot in his mouth.
All of these things have added up to the point where Giants fans have ostracized Barber from their team. His accomplishments on the field have taken a back seat to what we think of him personally. No, he never committed a crime or spent time in prison. No, he never did anything so truly offensive to warrant extrication. But he had bitten the hands that fed him one too many times and attacked other beloved figures in the franchise. All of it seemed like sour grapes because deep down, it had to have killed him that the Giants won a Super Bowl the very next year after he retired.
Personally, I will always respect and admire Tiki Barber for what he accomplished on the field. He progressed from being a fumble-happy third down back to one of the premiere rushers of his and other generations. He was a warrior who played hurt and did whatever he could to help the team win. What he chose to do and say after his retirement is unfortunate because it has effectively ruined his reputation. But his legacy should always be that he was the greatest running back to ever wear Big Blue. His lack of championship rings and chronic case of verbal diarrhea does not negate the fact that #21 was one of the best ever. I thank Tiki Barber for his contributions to the Giants during his career and I only hope he finds success and happiness in returning to the NFL. Unfortunately, he has a lot of fences to mend before he is welcomed back by the Big Blue faithful.