On a Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago, the New York Giants running back Tiki Barber shuffled to the door of his apartment, on East Sixty-ninth Street, and apologized for the mess inside. His two‑year‑old son, Chason, had a play-date, and Legos, wooden horses, and used tissues were all over the floor. Tuesday is a professional football player's day off, and Barber had just woken up from a nap. He was wearing a hooded gray sweatshirt, gray sweatpants, and thick wool socks, and walked without seeming to lift his feet. He rubbed the top of his head a lot, like someone who'd just bumped into a street sign.
Pain tolerance is an essential requirement of his profession. "You get hit in ways that you can't even make up," he said. "It doesn't look bad. It just looks routine. But you'll get up and you'll say, 'God, I feel like my ribs are broken.' And that's how it was for me this week against Dallas." The Giants had just lost their fourth game in a row, to the Cowboys, and stood at 6‑6, with their playoff chances in jeopardy. "We're in the red zone and I take a shot in my side: 'Ughh that's going to kill me tomorrow.' And I knew it. I woke up yesterday morning and I couldn't even sit up." He was not exactly sitting up now. He had shut himself off in the den, to block out the noise made by Chason and his friend, who were attacking toy guitars. He was stretched out on a brown sofa, with one hand behind his head and the other arm folded across his midsection. He is, among his peers, small: about five feet nine and two hundred and five pounds. He has a shaved head, thick eyebrows, a boxer's jaw, not much of a neck, and a soft, nasal voice that makes him sound as though he had a perpetual cold, which enhanced, that day, the over‑all effect of a kid staying home sick from school. "It's like someone's hitting you with a baseball bat," he continued. "That's really what it is, with the helmets and the pads. The way that our equipment has improved over the years, guys are getting less and less scared of contact." He paused, unhappy with the analogy. "It’s hard to describe, because there's nothing else like it. Um, I'm trying to think. I'm sure there are things ‑ like, if you fall off a ladder, that's probably what it would feel like. Or get in a car accident."
Barber is thirty‑one, and several weeks earlier he had revealed that he planned to retire at the end of the season, his tenth. He was already, by a large measure, the most accomplished offensive player in the history of the Giants. He was also, at the moment, second in his conference in rushing, and had amassed more total yards in the preceding three seasons than any player in the league. He was quitting at the top of his game. When the news broke, David Letterman invited Barber on his show, and, speaking on behalf of puzzled Giants fans ‑ football fans - everywhere, he said, "Before we get to this supposed retirement... are you really going to retire?"
Barber felt that he'd been fortunate to last as long as he had without suffering any injuries that would be considered major by football standards. (A fractured ulna in his left arm, late in the 2000 season, did not prevent him from playing in the playoffs.) An N.F.L. career usually lasts about three or four years. Running backs, who take more hard hits than players at any other position ‑ as many as two dozen a game, and often from multiple bodies, and multiple angles, simultaneously ‑ typically fare less well. On average, their bodies give out, or they’re unceremoniously cut, after just two and a half years.
"You see this big‑ass scar?" Barber said, pulling the leg of his sweats up and exposing a six‑inch seam across his left kneecap. "I got that from riding my bike when I was twelve. And it's funny, because at the N.F.L. Combine they go over us with a fine‑tooth comb, like they're inspecting a precious piece of equipment. They would see this scar and they would think I had surgery."
He almost had surgery once, during his rookie season, when he tore the posterior cruciate ligament, or P.C. L., in his right knee. ("That didn't hurt ‑ it just felt weird.") One of the team doctors recommended an operation, but Barber consulted a number of veterans, and many of them advised against it: surgery, they said, only begets more surgeries; better not to start so soon. (Jim Otto, a center with the Oakland Raiders in the nineteen‑sixties and seventies, has had forty-eight knee operations.) Barber built up the surrounding muscles to compensate for the damaged ligament, but he still can't lock his right knee, and standing up straight wears him out. His natural stance involves crossing his right leg in front of his left, and placing his hands on his hips for balance, like a catalogue model. Barry Word, a former Kansas City Chiefs running back, recently sent Barber an e‑mail saying, "It gets worse." Word, who is forty‑two, played only six seasons and retired in 1994. "My knees, my feet, my shoulders, my wrists ‑ I ache," he told me. "Sometimes I have a difficult time walking." Like nearly forty per cent of all retired football players, he has degenerative arthritis.
"The short‑term zeal and passion that comes from being an athlete, it's immeasurable," Barber said, with only halfhearted conviction. "Sure, you're mortgaging your future health to do it, but I think most guys will tell you it was worth it. And I’m not talking monetarily ‑ because for a lot of those old guys it certainly wasn't worth it monetarily ‑ but I think just the chance to be a hero. Football is America's game. Everybody says baseball is. But, nah, football is. Football defines a day of the week for six months of the year."
And yet Barber was no longer ‑ had never really been - a true believer in the church of football. He saw it as a job, not a way of life, and he was ready for a new, lower‑paying one: a career in television, not merely as a sportscaster, like so many former jocks, but as a news personality. That morning, in fact, he'd been up before four, in order to appear, as part of his apprenticeship, on the Fox News show "Fox & Friends," whose topics can range from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and handgun licensing to Donald Trump's feuds.
One of his coaches had recently given him a copy of "Out of Bounds," the autobiography of Jim Brown, another running back who walked away ‑ in Brown's case, at thirty ‑ to pursue a life onscreen, but Barber was more interested in talking about history Vlad Dracula, Vietnam. "You see that one up there?" He pointed toward volume on the bookshelf to his right: "The Secrets of Inchon," about the Korean War. I started reading it because I was thinking about Ginny's dad."
Ginny is Barber's wife. Her father, Won Cha, was an officer in the North Korean military, and her mother, Nga, is Vietnamese. They escaped Vietnam twelve days before the fall of Saigon, and now live with the Barbers in Manhattan. Nga was in the other room, supervising Chason and his friend; Ginny had gone to the 92nd Street Y to pick up A.J., the Barbers' other son, who is four.
On the floor in front of Barber was a red metal contraption resembling an oversized tackle box, with dials, and with the words "Game Ready" printed on its side. He explained that it was a cold-compression pump system, for treating muscle bruises and joint strains. As he described his weekly rehab schedule - acupuncture on Monday, massage on Tuesday, chiropractic on Wednesday and Thursday, massage again on Friday ‑ it emerged that much less of his time was spent playing or practicing football than dealing with its aftereffects, and preparing his body to be hit again. “I get worked on almost every day," he said. "And I have to, because I’m old."
At one point, while shifting positions, he grimaced and reached behind his back. "I have this huge scar on my hip that's just starting to heal," he said. "It’s under my pants. I take my pants off after this game and I have this laceration on my hip, and I’m, like, how the fuck did that happen, you know? But that’s just football. It’s aesthetically detrimental."
The apartment had suddenly gone quiet; the playdate was over, and now it was Chason's turn to nap. Barber lifted himself up from the couch and conducted a brief tour of the apartment, which in many ways resembled any other multimillionaire athlete's home. There was a big trophy case near the entrance, and a flat‑screen TV in every room except the kids' bedroom, which had been painted to look like the interior of Giants Stadium, with lockers and a "Let’s Go Tiki" banner. In the master bedroom was a preschooler's drum set ‑ "a lapse in judgment on my wife's part," he said. The walk‑in closet (Tiki's is bigger than Ginny's) offered a glimpse of his future, with a rack of thirty‑six suits and "too many shoes for any man to have," as he put it. And, last, there was the guest bedroom, which had become the permanent residence of the in‑laws. He peeked his head in: Won was sitting in a reclining chair eating grapes and watching Korean television. The thermostat was set to eighty. "Gee; Dad," Barber said.
Barber was hoping to doze off again soon ‑ "My body just does whatever it needs to do" ‑ but in a few hours he'd have to catch a cab to midtown, where, as further preparation for his life after football, he'd been taping a weekly radio show on Sirius with his brother Ronde, a cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They called it "The Barber Shop."
The Barber brothers are identical twins, although Tiki is a trace shorter and, owing to the demands of his position, about twenty pounds heavier. Their father, J.B., who left the family when the boys were three, was an All-American running back at Virginia Tech. "This was back in the seventies, and everybody was wild and crazy," Geraldine, their mother, says. “We had a friend who was from Africa, and he told us the child's name should have significance." Ronde is short for Jamael Orondé, which means firstborn son in Swahili. Tiki comes from Atiim Kimnbu, which means "fiery‑tempered king." He was an irritable baby.
The adult Tiki Barber is anything but fiery‑tempered. He is disarmingly nice, and speaks almost inaudibly at times. He is also a shrewd businessman, methodical and calculating. He is invariably described (often by himself) as "cerebral." His manager, Mark Lepselter, says he used to joke that Barber has ice water in his veins. The secret to Barber's success on the football field is patience and timing, of the sort that come with extreme self‑confidence. Watch a recent highlight video: although he changes directions abruptly, he is not explosive. He mainly leaves the impression that the defense has been sedated. When he's tackled with notable vigor, he pats his adversary and congratulates him. Recently, he said, "I don't run fast anymore when I’m on the football field." He did not mean the comment to be self-deprecating.
To account for his and his brother's diverging interests, Barber suggests the nature‑versus‑nurture debate. He and Ronde lived, for the first twenty years of their lives, in the same room ‑ first at home, in Roanoke, Virginia, where Geraldine worked two jobs to support them, and later at the University of Virginia, where they both had full scholarships to the McIntire School of Commerce. They were inseparable and indistinguishable. Then Tiki was drafted by New York and Ronde by Tampa. Now, ten years later, Ronde has five tattoos, drinks Crown Royal, and aspires to join the senior P.G.A. Tour, while Tiki reads the Drudge Report, refers to haute chefs by their first names, and has acted in a couple of Off Broadway plays. "Ronde's a better athlete," Tiki says. “I’m just more popular."
But geographical separation is not an altogether convincing explanation. Of the fifty‑three players on the Giants' active roster at season's end, only two were Manhattan residents; the rest live in New Jersey, a number of them in gated McMansion developments not unlike Ronde's. A more plausible explanation may be that Tiki came under the influence of Ginny, whom he met in college. Until recently, when she decided to take care of the kids full time, Ginny worked as a publicist for the fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, on Fifth Avenue.
On "The Barber Shop," Ronde would sometimes queue up tracks from iTunes to play as a lead‑in after commercial breaks. During one show several weeks ago, he played a few bars of the song "Smack That," by the hip‑hop artists Akon and Eminem. "It’s getting played out right now," he said, "but it is a good song."
Tiki: I've never even heard it.
RONDE: Yes you have.
Tiki: I haven't.
RONDE: Come on, Tiki.
Tiki: Dude, I don't listen to the rest of the radio anymore.
RONDE: What station do you listen to?
Tiki: Honestly? Do you want to know? BBC World News.
RONDE: Come on, dude.
Tiki: I'm serious.
RONDE: What the heck is on the BBC World News?
Tiki: I like to be informed. The British news is different. It gives you a different perspective on the world... and they have these really weird accents.
Ronde now calls him Sir Barber.
Barber's torn P.C.L. is in a couple of senses responsible for his great success. By the time he finished rehabbing his knee, late in his rookie season (he missed four games), he'd lost his starting job, and his confidence, and for the next couple of years he was used as more of a specialist, in third‑down situations and on punt and kick returns. Only a change in coaching and personnel afforded him the chance to play a starring role on the field, but in the interim he'd been spared plenty of pounding. In his first three seasons, he carried the ball two hundred and fifty times. In 2005 alone, he took three hundred and fifty‑seven handoffs, each promising temporary, if not long‑lasting, disfigurement.
Those early years as a peripheral player encouraged him to start thinking about what else he might do with his life. In 1998, during his second season, Barber attended a charity auction where he met Sheri and Stasea Rosenblum, twin sisters who were comics. They exchanged e‑mail addresses, and a couple of months later one of them asked if he'd like to audition for a play they were producing, about twins who lived together with one of their boyfriends. He figured, why not? "I wasn't a big‑time football player," he says. "I was just trying to make it. I had no idea what my career would be like." He got the part of the boyfriend's lawyer friend. The play was called "Seeing Double," and it opened in February of 1999, at the New Amsterdam Café, and ran for sixteen performances, perfectly mirroring the length of a football season.
Around the same time, he hooked up with Mark Lepselter, a struggling young agent who had heard from one of the Giants' lesser‑known players, an offensive lineman named Jerry Reynolds, that Barber was "different." Lepselter and Barber started putting together a plan to capitalize on Barber's extracurricular ambitions, and thus began the franchise that Lepselter now refers to as Tiki Inc. They volunteered Barber's services to the sports radio station WFAN, where he made weekly appearances providing the "inside? perspective, as well as to CBS, where he did local sports news at 5 A.M. They signed up with a corporate speakers' bureau, proposing lectures about overcoming adversity (growing up in a single‑parent household, for example). An editor at Simon & Schuster whose son was a big Giants fan approached Lepselter. They came up with an idea for Tiki and Ronde to write inspirational books about their childhood experiences. Three have been published. (The first, "By My Brother's Side," is about Tiki's long‑ago bicycle accident.)
"In those years, he was not a superstar," Lepselter told me. "Quite frankly, I think a lot of people thought he had a big set of balls ‑ like, 'Who the hell is this guy?’"
When he was first drafted, Barber says, he was like a "Jitterbug" on the field, lunging and darting at the first hint of open space. Over time, he learned to slow down, and even to collide intentionally with the backs of his own blockers, allowing the play to develop in front of him. He also picked up a handy trick for observing his pursuers when in the open field, without breaking stride: he'd look up at the JumboTron and adjust his running path based on the disembodied real-time image. His football career took off about six years ago, and Tiki Inc. soon followed. "Back in the day, he'd get paid two thousand dollars for an appearance," Lepselter said. "Now we don't leave the house until they’re offering forty. I won't even look at thirty‑five. You're not seeing Tiki at your local Best Buy."
Barber's endorsement income, which he believes he will have to forfeit for the sake of his journalism career, is now only slightly less than that of his football salary four and a half million dollars a year. If you've watched many football games this winter, you've probably seen him in a commercial for the Cadillac Escalade, dressed in a sweater and driving through the city at night. "One of the great things that I think I've been able to do in my life is seize opportunities," Barber says, in a voice‑over. "I wasn't even a starter. The guy in front of me got hurt and I had a chance and I took that chance and had a big day, and I was a starter ever since. Opportunities are seldom perfect, but I've learned that if you're not ready for them they may not come again." The fact that it's a commercial in which Barber does not appear in a Giants uniform was calculated, Lepselter says, to create distance between two brands: football and Tiki Barber. "I don't want to be pigeonholed in sports," Barber says. 'That's not who I am." (Lepselter has dropped his other football clients. "I got out of the N.F.L.‑agent business," he says, and echoes Barber. “That doesn't define who lam.")
One opportunity that Barber seized came in March of 2005, when he and his wife and some friends were out at the restaurant Tao. An important‑looking man approached Barber's table and said, "Shimon Peres would like to meet you." “’Really? Me? All right, cool.' I went over and met him, and he said, 'My people tell me you're the best.' 'You know, I'm pretty good.' We had this conversation for about ten minutes. He said, You should come see my country.' I said, I’d love to!' He gave me his card."
Presumably, dozens of people are invited, at least notionally, to visit Israel by the former Prime Minister when he's travelling abroad. Very few of them call his office a few weeks later and say, "We're on our way!" In June, the Barbers went to Israel. They stayed at the Dan Hotel, in Tel Aviv, in what they were told was the same room that Bill Clinton had once stayed in. They visited the Knesset, toured Arab Jerusalem, and floated in the Dead Sea. “We were going to go up toward the Golan Heights, but we were a little nervous," Barber said. "At that time, it was right when Ariel Sharon was promoting disengagement from the Gaza Strip, so you had people with blue‑and‑white things on their car antennas and then those with orange ‑ pro, and against, disengagement. There was a protest where they threw tar and nails onto a highway and backed up traffic. We were there - we were right in the middle of it."
Last spring, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice learned that Barber would be attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner with a journalist friend, she invited him to the State Department for lunch. “Within thirty seconds I feel like I’ve known her forever," he said, recounting the experience in a geewhiz style that seems suited for morning television. "She's welcoming and warm. There's no facade. I asked her if she wanted to be N.F.L. commissioner. 'Oh, I'd love to, but I got to figure out Iran first.’" He flashed a gleaming white smile. "She's a phenomenal, phenomenal lady."
Barber and Lepselter told his potential employers at the major networks about his retirement plans six weeks before they confirmed it to the Times, which in turn alerted the Giants' front office. The team, at that point, was 3‑2. The hosts of WFAN's flagship show, "Mike and the Mad Dog," snickered about how Barber had come to see himself as Nelson Mandela.
Before Tiki Barber, there was Frank Gifford, an articulate New York Giants running back with superstar looks, cosmopolitan interests, and aspirations for fame beyond the gridiron. A few years ago, Giants officials arranged for Barber to visit Gifford in his Manhattan office, and the two men talked about everything from fumbling (Barber used to have a problem holding on to the ball) to broadcasting to injuries and, eventually, retirement. “There's an insecurity to anyone who plays this game," Gifford explained to me. "You're portrayed to the world as this invincible character, but underneath there's insecurity about how long you're going to last."
In Gifford's case, the illusion of invincibility was shattered during a game in 1960, when he was knocked out in spectacular fashion by the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik, a famous hard hitter. Frederick Exley, in "A Fan's Notes," described the Bednarik-Gifford encounter:
--I turned to see Bednarik coming from behind Gifford out of his linebacking zone, pounding the turf furiously, like some fierce animal gone berserk .... Gifford never saw him, and Bednarik did his job well. Dropping his shoulder ever so slightly, so that it would meet Gifford in the region of the neck and chest, he ran into him without breaking his furious stride, thwaaahhhp, taking Gifford's legs out from under him, sending the ball careening wildly into the air, and bringing him to the soft green turf with a sickening thud. In a way it was beautiful to behold. For what seemed an eternity both Gifford and the ball had seemed to float, weightless, above the field, as if they were performing for the crowd on the trampoline. About five minutes later, after unsuccessfully trying to revive him, they lifted him onto a stretcher, looking, from where we sat high up in the mezzanine, like a small, broken, blue‑and-silver manikin, and carried him out of the stadium. --
Gifford missed the remainder of that season, as the Eagles went on to win the championship, and retired the following summer. He was thirty, and had a nice television job already lined up.
He is now seventy‑six, and his days guest‑hosting on "Good Morning America" and reporting from the Olympics are over, but he enjoys a kind of emeritus status within the Giants organization. He and his son Cody, a high‑school junior, attend all the team's home games and sit in the owners' box. Before kickoff, they like to go down to field level and stand in the tunnel to wait for the rush of players coming out of the locker room, "like a herd of stampeding buffalo," as Gifford says. Barber often stops to slap Cody's hand as he passes.
The week before Christmas, Gifford joined me in an unused broadcasting booth at Giants Stadium to watch the Giants play the Eagles. He was wearing gray slacks, a red sweater, a tan jacket, and his Hall of Fame ring. He now has a hearing aid, and walks with the wide, lumbering gait of many former athletes whose hips have been overworked. The broad flatness of his nose serves as a reminder of the inferiority of football helmets in the days before face masks.
"I probably could have played, but it was kind of a precautionary thing," he said, bringing up the Bednarik incident, and his decision to quit. "They made more of it than it really was, because Bednarik made a career out of it. Still does. It was more of a situation where I was off balance when he hit me. And then I kind of semi‑fell, snapped my head back, and I had a concussion."
In 1961, as it turned out, Gifford had a hard time leaving football. "The thing I never have forgotten is howl was driving home from doing a TV show ‑ my own TV show, doing local news, both early and late, for WCBS," he said, as, down on the field, the Giants lined up deep in the Eagles' territory. Barber took a handoff and started up the middle, paused, did a stutter step, and veered off to the right, eleven yards, into the end zone: touchdown. "Got it ‑ beautiful," Gifford said.
“Wait till you see a replay." He turned toward the small television screen at his side, where the touchdown was soon rerun in slow motion. "That was supposed to go left," he said, pointing at the position of the Giants' blockers at the moment of Barber's hesitation. "He reads 'em so well."
The Giants kicked the extra point, and Gifford resumed reminiscing. "In any event, I was driving home from doing the late news," he said. "I'd been working out every day, because I just generally enjoyed doing it. And I was in good shape, and I had gone up and actually during that season I worked out with the team, practicing against them. I used to have a lot of fun beating 'em. They'd kid me, and all that ‑ call me Broken Head, you know. So I called Wellington Mara ‑ the owner ‑ "and said rd like to play another year. I said, 'I think I can.' They said O.K., but rd have to make the team ‑ which I had a tough time doing." He sat on the bench for the first couple of games in 1962, before an injury to a teammate cleared the way for him to start. "I played three more years after that, and loved every minute of it," he said. "And when I did quit I never had one regret after that. When I was forced to quit, I had a regret."
The Giants' defense, which had been decimated by injuries, was struggling to contain the Eagles' running back Brian Westbrook. "It's not a healthy game," Gifford said. "I go to reunions at the Hall of Fame, and that's where you see it. Those guys all played twelve to fourteen years ... I've had some neck surgery, probably from football ‑ but it wasn't related to the Bednarik incident at all, just wear and tear. And I’m one of the few I know with all my knees."
A teenager wearing an Eagles jacket had sneaked into the booth and was sitting quietly behind us, but Gifford failed to notice.
"He'll have a very difficult time in television eclipsing what he's done here," Gifford said, tracking Barber on a receiving route with a pair of binoculars. "Unless he becomes Walter Cronkite, it's not going to happen. He can be successful there, but to transcend what he's done... I don't think people will let him do it. Sometimes you get trapped in your own greatness."
A Giants employee poked her head in and asked, "Frank, is this gentleman with you?" He turned and, for the first time, noticed the visitor. "He looks like a pretty nice guy," Gifford said, shrugging.
"People like you to be what you are," he went on. He said he'd enjoyed the encore that television provided him, but that, in the end, he'd been allowed to do very little real news coverage. (He added, with evident pride, "I did the first major story on H.I.V. way back there in the early eighties, and it was interesting, because, obviously, it became one of the great stories of the century.") The football stadium was still where he felt most welcome.
The game was now tied. Barber broke through the line and ran fourteen yards up the middle, dragging the Eagles' safety Brian Dawkins with him; another safety, Sean Considine, drilled them both, head first, causing a cracking sound that was audible even beyond the mezzanine level. "Psycho!" Gifford said. He watched the replay and observed that Barber had at least been fortunate enough to see Considine coming, and had clasped the ball with two hands before impact. I’d have lost it," Gifford said. Two plays later, Barber's backup, Brandon Jacobs, fumbled.
"I was doing a lot of things, like Tiki," Gifford said. "I made a lot of speeches. I'd been to the White House and met Presidents, did a lot of endorsements, was doing commercials. I was the first one I know that did commercials in the N.F.L. Probably in the early days there was a lot of jealousy. I thought, I’m here first as a football player, and if what I'm doing on the outside doesn't affect what I do on the field then the hell with you. I got a feeling Tiki thinks the same way. I put in as much work or more as any of them. I got hit just as hard. And If l want to do something in my free time to enhance my family and well‑being, well, then, that's my business. We had a head coach the last three years ‑ when I came back, I think he would have much preferred I do nothing. He'd say, We got a lot of players on this team who think they're too good for this game.' And it offended me."
Down on the field, the Giants were taking unnecessary penalties. ("Holding again?") This had been a recurring problem all season long, and Gifford, who still speaks as though he were on the team payroll, seemed to take it personally. Eli Manning, the Giants' inconsistent young quarterback, threw an interception. "This one's ugly," Gifford said. “We lose this, man, there's going to be some babble."
At halftime, the Eagles led, 14‑10. Another deferential Giants employee appeared: "Do you want any food delivered here, Mr. Gifford?" There was a knock on the window from the adjacent box, and a young woman waved and came over. "I took a picture with you, like, eight years ago, and I wanted to update it," she said. "Can I just hang in here with you?" She mentioned that Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' maniacal tight end, was her favorite player.
"Is he cute?" Gifford asked, his mood lightening.
"Shockey? I'm getting married to him. He doesn't know it yet. We're almost engaged."
"Well, it'll be your secret." He winked.
"Oh, no, you can let the world know, so that all the ether women will just stay away."
Soon, the game resumed, and the Eagles began marching down the field again with ease. "They're eating our lunch," Gifford said, shaking his head. "God, we look awful."
T he Giants lost that game, and lost again in humiliating fashion ‑ their offense crossed the fifty‑yard line only once ‑ the following Sunday. The season, which began with six wins in eight games, was a dismal, injury‑plagued failure. Only a heroic individual performance by Barber on New Year's Eve weekend, in Washington, salvaged a .500 record and propelled them, improbably, into the playoffs. In what could have been the final game of his career, he rushed for two hundred and thirty‑four yards, a personal record, and scored three touchdowns.
In the locker room afterward, the players seemed as angry as they were relieved. The "babble" that Gifford had predicted had been filling the papers for two weeks, with calls for firing the coach, and accusations of discord among the players. Barber had likened the press coverage of the Giants' locker-room dynamic to the Swift Boat Veterans' campaign: "John Kerry never came out and definitively dosed it, and you don't know what's true, but it became an animal in and of itself." His point was that perceived truth has a way of becoming reality.
One of the larger Giants shouted at the media, "Don't come in!" A smaller reporter groaned, and the Giant snapped back, pointing at him, "He just told me to shut up!"
"Look at the size of you," the reporter replied, backing away.
"Then y'all going to try to sue me," the player said.
One in four Giants weighs more than three hundred pounds, and nearly half of them are at least six feet four. All but a handful ‑ the kicker, Barber, Eli Manning ‑ are covered in tattoos, and, on game days, hopped up on multiple cans of Red Bull. (Six days' rest is not enough time, despite all the whirlpool baths and massages and cold compression, to get most players back on the field without some kind of medicinal aid.) A few players had gashes on their arms. One offensive lineman, who had a Band‑Aid on his butt, strode back from the shower yelling, "Anybody need cutters?" ‑ meaning scissors, for removing the tape that was wound around so many ankles. The journalists cleared out of his way.
"Look at all these haters, surrounding me every day," another Giant sang, while still naked in front of his locker, and doing a little dance. "Now they want to dock my pay. I can feel the hate in the room. I can feel it. Hate hate hate."
Barber emerged from the shower quietly. He took his time dressing, first applying cocoa‑butter body oil to his legs and torso, and then reaching for his lip balm. He pulled on his underwear, covering a fresh cut on his bottom, along with the old hip laceration, which was now more of a dull purple streak, and began buttoning a striped shirt. A female reporter, feigning impatience while she and everyone else waited for him to finish so that they could proceed with the postgame interview, whispered to Barber, "I wish you didn't dress quite so well." They hugged.
During the telecast of the game, it had been revealed that Barber long ago stopped bringing his playbook home with him. In the interview room, he was asked if he intended to change his habits for the playoffs. "I have two kids at home," he said. "So I leave my work at the stadium."
"Don't you have the rest of your life to go to TV?" another reporter asked.
"You know, it's better to leave 'em wanting more," he said.
He walked away carrying a copy of Vanity Fair and the weekend Wall Street Journal ‑ work, but of a different sort. ("Roger Ailes gave me a book that's called 'You Are the Message,'" he told me. "And one of the things it says is the audience won't forgive you for certain things. One is being uncomfortable, and another is being unprepared.")
His football career ended a week later, when the Giants were eliminated in a rematch against the Eagles in Philadelphia. Once again, he was the Giants' best player, but he spent the final five minutes sitting on the sideline, in the pouring rain, with cleat marks from Brian Dawkins in his back, helpless to prevent the Eagles from running out the dock and kicking a field goal on the last play.
Barber seriously considered retiring a year ago. "I decided to come back because I looked at our team, looked at our off‑season acquisitions, and said, 'You know what? We can win a Super Bowl," he told me. "And that was my ultimate goal. The whole off‑season, that's all I thought about: I need to win a Super Bowl, I need to define my career by winning a Super Bowl."
Junior Seau, a thirty‑eight‑year‑old linebacker, may have felt the same way last August, when the New England Patriots called and asked if he'd like to play a seventeenth season. Seau had retired only a few days earlier, after the Miami Dolphins cut him. His previous two seasons with the Dolphins had ended prematurely, thanks to a busted Achilles ten don and a torn pectoral muscle, but the Patriots are perennial contenders, so he accepted their offer ‑ and on November 26th, shortly after Thanksgiving, he broke his right arm while making a tackle. Last month, he announced that he was hoping to be in uniform, somewhere, again next season.
Seau, not Barber, represents the N.F.L. mainstream, and for this reason the Players Association recently introduced an annual "exit symposium," where retired and retiring players can meet to relay their tips and anxieties to one another. Barber can tell them about the benefits of adjusting one's football expectations downward when injuries to teammates and questionable coaching turn a Super Bowl dream into yet another mediocre season, as he did for me recently when he described a peculiar vision of what makes a football life memorable. "Jay Feely, our kicker, he wants to be a politician," he said. "And all he does is read books, whether it's 'Freakonomics' or whatever. Brandon Short, a linebacker who is from the hood, who has this kind of tough exterior, all he and I do is talk politics," he went on. "He's very liberal, Brandon. And, because I work for Fox, he's always coming at me: 'Tik, we got some issues to talk about.' He goes, 'I got to find out how you stand on certain things.' And ifs half funny but he's also dead serious. As someone who's kind of becoming a journalist, I see Brandon as the everyday man, even though he's a football player. He doesn't understand why Bill O'Reills going off on this or why Hannityand Colmes are debating that way. He'll say to me, 'Uh, President Bush, he doesn't have a plan on Iraq, he's just in there because he had this vendetta against Saddam Hussein. The entire invasion of Afghanistan was just a front so he could go into Iraq.' Obviously, we both hardly know what we're talking about, but we're having the same discussion Joe and Susie are having on Fiftieth Street, and that’s what’s cool to me. That’s what I’ll remember about my football experience, other than the games. Really, although we seem like we're lugheads, we're everybody else."
With the WFAN crowd ‑ the lughead‑worshippers ‑ Barber's happy exit doesn't sit so well. The church of football does not tolerate doubters, and Barber, in his final professional appearance at Giants Stadium, said, "I was a business major who played football."
"I have to be fair: my wife thought Tiki would be a very, very successful TV personality," Chris (Mad Dog) Russo said on the air the other day. "I won't go out of my way to watch."
"He's going to be doing light stuff," Mike Francesa said, as though "Mike and the Mad Dog" were suddenly “Weekend Edition." "He's not going to be sitting next to Tim Russert ... Maybe he will have an appeal to women."
The cleat marks in Barber's back are fading. He has lost nine pounds, and figures to lose about six more. ("There's eating until you're content, and eating until you're full. To do this job well, I always had to eat until I was full.") He seems destined for the "bumps and bruises" dub, for guys who walked, rather than limped, off the field, and can make sport of the painful memories. As in "Hell, I was human, I had bumps and bruises." That’s what Chuck Bednarik, who is now eighty‑one, told me last month, before adding, 'Tm just looking at my right hand. The pinky finger is way out a hundred and eighty degrees. My second and third fingers are crooked as hell. My biceps on my right arm is ripped. And of course I had knee surgery. So I can still see and feel some of it, but not too bad."
Barber's contract with Fox is up, and he and Lepsélter are currently negotiating with a few networks (ABC is the rumored favorite) for a four‑year contract involving what Lepselter hopes will be a seventy‑thirty split between news and sports. Barber does not want to end up behind the fake‑mahogany desk on Sunday afternoons.
On the final edition of "The Barber Shop," Ronde played Roy Rogers's "Happy Trails." Toward the end of the show, the brothers started taking calls from listeners, a number of whom seemed convinced that Tiki's retirement, like Michael Jordan's, or Roger Clemens's, or Frank Gifford's, was just a passing phase. A caller named Jeff pressed him on this point: "Say you take this year off, and you go into, like, your reporting and your news ‑ whatever you're going to do. And say John Fox came up and coached the Giants. Do you think you'd come back?"
"No," Tiki said. "This morning I woke up and both of my knees were killing me. I took some shots, and I told myself I'm not going to miss this."