Having been around the sport of football for all my life both as a competitor and spectator, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many players at all ages. From these observations, I long ago recognized that football is the ultimate team game. On any given play there are a multitude of factors that can contribute to the success or demise of a team’s efforts. Without question, a football team is only as strong as its weakest link, and while there have been many superstars to grace us with their unbelievable talents, it is those superstars that manage to shine as part of a greater whole that are remembered as the game’s best. Often times as we sports fans turn on Sportscenter and other sports programs, we are forced to watch the continuous exploits of self-made superstars that attempt to elevate their play and self-worth above the good of their respective teams. Though typically these selfish players take the form of the brash, outspoken and highly-flamboyant players, as a New York Giants fan, the ultimate “me” player was someone who was incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, and eloquent. That man was Tiki Barber.
The reason that I am forced to present this entry is based upon the fact that this past week, Tiki Barber, at the age of 35 years old and having been retired since the end of the 2006-2007 season, announced that he plans to file the necessary papers to unretired and once again play professional football in the NFL. Originally a 2nd round draft pick of the New York Giants, the University of Virginia product spent his entire nine-year career as a New York Giant. Though at times flashing big-play ability, it was not until the 2000-2001 season in which Tiki Barber became a featured back in the New York Giants offense. Gaining 1,006 yards in 2000, Barber finally began to realize the enormous potential that he had demonstrated in brief spurts during his first few years in the league. By 2004, Barber was the team’s undisputed lead back, but was plagued with fumbling problems. That same year, newly hired head coach Tom Coughlin sought to rectify Barber’s fumbling problems, and assisted Barber in readjusting the manner in which Barber held the ball. The results quickly came back extremely positive, as Barber became one of the premiere backs in the league, earning several trips to the NFL Pro Bowl.
However, as the team began to regroup after the disastrous 2003 season and make its way back to the playoffs, Barber began to exhibit very selfish behavior, openly criticizing the coaching staff during their 2005-2006 wild-card loss to the Carolina Panthers, as well as the following year as the team got off to a sluggish 1-2 start. Then, in the midst of five-game winning streak that brought the Giants to a 6-2 record and atop the NFC along with the Chicago Bears, Barber suddenly announced that he would be retiring from the game at the close of the season. Coupled with mounting injuries, the New York Giants limped into the 2006-2007 playoffs on a 2-6 skid, due in part to the media frenzy that surrounded the Giants each week by virtue of Barber’s ill-conceived need to have his own “farewell tour.” During Barber’s last home game, the Giants were so kind as to provide a lengthy 10 minute video montage celebrating Barber’s stellar career as the Giants all-time leading rusher and one of the top receivers in franchise history.
Part of the reason Barber elected to retire was that he felt that with his big name, being one of the most talented running backs in the NFL, combined with his intellectual approach to the game, Barber would be able to capitalize on various television opportunities. Barber was correct, as he managed to secure a position with NBC, both as part of their stacked “Football Night in America” show as well as a special correspondent to the Today Show. As fate would have it, the preseason game following Barber’s first episode on “Football Night in America” was a matchup between the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens. Attempting to establish himself as a tough critic, Barber took it upon himself to take shots at his former quarterback’s leadership abilities, explaining that it was “almost comical” watching and listening to Eli Manning in the huddle.
As talented and as successful as Barber was with the New York Giants, those twenty seconds managed destroy any and all credibility Barber had as a New York Giant great. During the 2007 season, any time a highlight of Tiki Barber was shown on the video board, a collective “boo” of 82,000 people could be heard. The most recent evidence of Giants fans’ distaste for Barber could be seen as Barber was on hand as one of the initial members of the Giants’ newly created Ring of Honor. During the ceremony, you can hear the entire crowd boo when Barber was introduced.
Four full seasons removed from his playing days, Barber returns to the league a highly tarnished figure. Beyond effectively pissing off every New York Giants fan, Barber’s career as a television personality was short-lived, as Barber, though eloquent, came off very robotic and bland. Then, the world found out that Barber engaged in extramarital affairs with a 24 year-old intern while his wife was expecting twins.
What New York Giants fans first saw, was only confirmed by Barber’s most recent actions. Though Barber possesses an almost Hall of Fame level resume with his impressive statistics, I would argue that many of his yards were garbage yards. I can recall countless times Barber would break a long touchdown run after the Giants were out of contention in a particular game. Additionally, as history pointed out, the Giants did not need Barber to win the Super Bowl, as it was the year after his departure that the team went on to make a miraculous run, culminating in their 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII.
Barber to this day fails to see why the New York Giants community dislikes him. What he does not understand is that all the statistics in the world do not automatically equate to fan adoration. As a Giants fan, I was taught that it was the blue-collar ethic, the willingness to play rugged, hard-nosed football that should be celebrated. Lawrence Taylor put up amazing stats, and yes, we all know about his checkered past, but he was not a whiny, self-centered narcissist. More so than Taylor, some of the most beloved members in Giants history have stats that pale in comparison to Barber’s lofty production. Players such as Mark Bavaro, Joe Morris, and Rodney Hampton thrived in promoting the team, and were not concerned with becoming the next Matt Lauer or Bryant Gumbel.
As his former teammate and current ESPN analyst Antonio Pierce correctly pointed out, Barber is a fantastic player, but a drain on a team’s locker room. Though he will eventually find his way on to an NFL roster, I certainly do not wish for his success, as Barber has never demonstrated a willingness to elevate the team surrounding him, in addition to his own inflated self-image.