Exclusive: The Return of Tiki Barber
Been thinking a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald lately. Not clear on why that is, exactly, but I’m sure some of it has been sparked by the massive marketing campaign surrounding Baz Luhrmann’s $100 million Hollywood adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s most famous work, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Whatever the reason, as I look around the crowded, clubby room I’m sitting in deep in lower Manhattan on a most gorgeous spring morning, anticipating the arrival of legendary football player—and New York Giants record-breaking icon—Tiki Barber, it suddenly hits me: I’m actually waiting for the NFL’s version of Jay Gatsby. I really am.
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” When F. Scott Fitzgerald uttered that classic, revelatory quote, he couldn’t possibly have known how aptly that sentiment would apply to one Tiki Barber, the handsome, once-in-a-generation running back with the infectious smile who conquered Manhattan, only to fall—and fall precipitously—from his perch. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I hadn’t even met the guy. And I had a lot of questions. As do you.
Atiim Kiambu Barber was born to James and Geraldine Barber seven minutes after his identical twin brother, Ronde, on April 7, 1975, in Roanoke, VA. Tiki’s birth name means “fiery-tempered king,” and he was so named because he was screaming right out of the womb. Though the twins’ father was a football star at Virginia Tech and a former player in the World Football League, that particular sport wasn’t a foregone conclusion, because both boys suffered from seizures and lung ailments until the age of four and were strongly discouraged from pursuing contact sports. Also, when the twins were four, Geraldine and James divorced, effectively ending the relationship they had with their dad.
Geraldine, faced with raising two rambunctious sons alone, held as many as three jobs concurrently in an effort to provide for her family. For more than two decades, she was the assistant finance director for the Virginia Skyline Council of Girl Scouts. The brothers had a positive— and tireless—role model in their mom.
As early as elementary school, Tiki and Ronde defied doctors’ orders about avoiding contact sports by participating in—and excelling at—football. By the time they arrived at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, the Barber boys weren’t messing around. Tiki was a three-time Roanoke Times & World News All-District pick and was twice named the newspaper’s Male Athlete of the Year. As great as that was, football wasn’t even Tiki’s main focus in school. Challenged by his mom to make academics his try vocation, Tiki was–wait for it–an intellectual who graduated from high school with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and became nothing less than the school’s valedictorian. Question: How many NFL legends can claim that? Exactly. But I digress.
Next up, the brothers Barber accepted scholarships to the University of Virginia and became roommates. And even as Tiki remained focused on football, by no means did he slow down his excellence in other areas, including track and field— where he lettered three times—and, once again, academics. Tiki majored in management information systems (what?) and regularly made the Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Honor Roll. Clearly, Tiki Barber was no one-trick pony.
Suffice it to say that Ronde, as the school’s star cornerback, and Tiki, as the record-breaking running back for the Cavaliers (he was the first player to ever run for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons), were shoe-ins for NFL greatness. Or were they? After all, both brothers stood a mere 5’10”, and back then, Tiki had a tendency to fumble. But in the 1997 NFL draft, Tiki was taken by the Giants in the second round, and Ronde was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third round, marking the first time the identical twins not only would be separated by geography—they had never been apart from each other for more than three days—but also would be competing against each other. How did they do? Um, pretty damn well.
Ronde just retired last month while still one of the premier defensive players in football and has done so in a quiet-as-a-whisper fashion down in Tampa. His career has paralleled his personality: Winning, but modest. His brother, well, chose a different path.
Tiki Barber played ten magnificent seasons for the new york Giants and holds nearly 20 all-time records for the storied franchise, including the major one—most rushing yards— made three Pro Bowls, was named Sports Illustrated’s “Player of the Year” and is on the Giants’ coveted “Ring of Honor.” Let’s not put too fine a point on it: Tiki Barber did his job phenomenally well for an entire decade. Did he ever. And, oh, yeah, all the while he ate up Manhattan and loved every minute of it.
Here’s the part of the Tiki Barber story that trips up most football purists: Barber is much more than a football player—he always has been, and he’s always known it—and the forward trajectory that is his life couldn’t be stopped by his retirement from the sport. Far from it. you see, that part of his story—the other-worldly athletic prowess— came almost too easily to him. now, what truly excites this Virginian is conquering the unexpected, tackling the seemingly impossible what’s-next goal in front of him. So, yes, being a rock star celebrity in the greatest city on the planet has certainly given Mr. Barber ample opportunity to stretch those nonfootball muscles. And boy has he stretched.
Tiki Barber has written numerous books (including several children’s stories co-authored with Ronde), been a radio host on both WFAN in New York City and ESPN Radio; shared the microphone with his brother on Sirius Satellite Radio; appeared on live television in myriad roles, including lifestyle contributor to Fox & Friends, correspondent for two of NBC’s juggernaut programs— the Today Show and Football Night in America/Sunday Night Football; co-hosted the 66th Annual Golden Globes pre-show with Brooke Burke and Nancy O’Dell; reported from both summer and winter Olympics; acted off-Broadway (Women of Manhattan) and on television (Knight Rider); and made numerous appearances on Iron Chef America, Project Runway, The Electric Company and Cash Cab.
There’s little doubt that Barber has been preparing for life after football since childhood. Single- minded athletes don’t ever feel compelled to get straight A’s in school. Why would they? They’re all considered demigods by the millions of worshiping throngs. But Tiki Barber had other, bigger ideas.
Then, alas, as so much great literature has taught us—and just as F. Scott Fitzgerald became F. Scott Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby— comes the inevitable fall from grace for our protagonist hero. And so it was for Tiki Barber.
While still playing for the Giants, Barber instigated a couple of relatively minor controversies, first by criticizing Michael Strahan, his All- Pro teammate and current co-host of Live with Kelly and Michael (Barber now says he and Strahan are friends) and then, more problematic, by criticizing head coach Tom Coughlin for his play calling. Coughlin, not exactly a warm-and-fuzzy type, didn’t take kindly to his player’s, um, insight. And finally, immediately after retiring from football, Barber made surprising comments about Giants quarterback (and emerging superstar) Eli Manning’s leadership abilities, rankling many football fans.
But all of those moments served as a prologue to the controversy that had real staying power: The firestorm over Barber’s romantic relationships. Here’s where the sharpened knives came out and, for the first time in his life, Barber was publicly portrayed as a villain. In many tangible ways, he’s still working his way back from that draconian, relentless and unfair experience.
I’ve been drawn to Barber for years, and I’ve wanted to meet him since first watching him play a decade and a half ago. For whatever reason, I’ve always felt that Tiki Barber and I were kindred spirits. Sure, we’re the same height, we both have shaved heads and we’re clearly the better-looking halves of our twin brothers—ha!—but elements about his demeanor, his interviews, his choices speaks to something deep within me. In a strange way, he reminds me of Robert Redford’s character in The Way We Were: Hubbell, the great-looking all-American man who had the world handed to him on a platter, but whose truth was much darker and less assured. Hubbell would have made a fine hero for F. Scott Fitzgerald, as would Barber.
I had a real hunch that Barber and I would be simpatico because of our chosen paths. And then, just like that, the man of the hour was standing in front of me, smiling that Madison Avenue smile of his. And, just like that, I knew I was right. So right.
Over the course of the next five hours, Tiki Barber and I became friends. Good friends. And as incongruous as that sounds—after all, I’ve been fortunate to interview more than 500 celebrities in my career, and I consider very few of them close friends—I can count on one hand the times I knew I was talking to someone who saw me, the real me. And I believe Tiki felt the same. Snicker if you must (I know I’d be a bit skeptical upon reading such a declaration), but I know the truth. I also know truth when I hear it. And Tiki Barber speaks truth.
But, surprisingly, what I found almost immediately when speaking with Barber was a man burdened with trying to keep his ambition, his intelligence, his light somewhat dimmed for fear of being knocked off his newfound perch, and it gave me pause. Though Barber is now the co-host of the hit radio program TBD in the A.M. on WCBS, live daily from Manhattan, and also a partner in Thuzio, an athlete booking startup that shows tremendous promise, current—and, yes, inevitable—upward trajectory is much more methodical than ever because he’s learned the hard way that not everyone wishes him well. not at all. After hours of rehashing the many ups and more recent downs of his life, the subtext of what Barber was telling me boiled down to this: Did the punishment fit the alleged crime?
If the people who think they know Tiki Barber—who he is and what he did—would collectively exhale, I know they’d simply find a kind, brainy man who played football a lot better than most and is now asking for a fair shot at redemption. And Barber, the married father of four, is also hoping to disprove another one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous truisms: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
In his extraordinary case, Barber knows Fitzgerald couldn’t have been more wrong. Tiki 2.0 is off and running, and, as you may have heard, Tiki Barber is pretty damn good at running.
Tell me about your childhood.
My mom was raising Ronde and me by herself, and she was always working. I remember being six or seven years old, and I couldn’t stop crying because my mom had to leave us with a babysitter and go to work. But our mom was always there when we needed her. My dad wasn’t a part of our lives since we were four years old. I’ll tell you one thing—I’m divorced, but I’ll always be there for my kids.
What’s your very first memory?
I remember my mom putting us in the back of her car late at night as she made the six-hour drive to my grandparents’ house in Eastville, on the eastern shore of Virginia. We’d sleep the entire drive and wake up to see the huge backyard, the front porch and the great brick house my grandfather, Willie, built by himself.
Tell me about the real Ronde and how being a twin affected your life.
I love my twin brother. I love him and I like him, you know? He’s amazingly easy to hang out with, and we always have a great time together. I’m a hard driver and he’s laid back, but we wouldn’t be in the NFL without the other. Ronde helps me relax, and I know I push him in other ways, too.
If you could change one thing about your brother, what would it be?
I wish he would be more like me by capitalizing on certain business opportunities that he just doesn’t. He’s not as ambitious as I am.
If Ronde could change one thing about you, what would it be?
He would make me stop caring about what other people say about me.
Tiki, did you always know you had greatness in you?
When I was 13, my mother challenged me to make great grades. “Make all A’s,” she said. I made my mind up and I did it. That taught me that nothing stops me if I know what I want. As far as football, Sean Payton, the Giants’ offensive coordinator in 2000, really believed in me—in my talent—and I’ll always be grateful to him.
Let’s talk regrets.
I wish I had listened to the football experts—and most certainly Coach Coughlin—about fixing my mechanics a lot earlier in my career. My numbers could’ve been nuts.
It would probably be how I handled the dissolution of my marriage. I would’ve made it known publicly much sooner than I did, but I frankly didn’t think anyone would be that interested.
Tell me what you mean exactly.
I mean by the time it became public that my marriage was over; it had been over for a very long time.
How important is humility?
Wow—that’s exactly right, Richard. Humility is extraordinarily important in life. Straight up: There were plenty of mistakes made.
The timeline that my ex-wife and I first separated, got back together briefly and then decided to divorce isn’t what people believe it to be. Also, Traci, my wife, was so unfairly dragged into this, and for two years it literally took over her life, and that’s especially unjust and plain wrong. This entire ordeal nearly devastated Traci, but we survived, and here we are.
The press—particularly Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post—was relentless in painting you as, frankly, a monster. Did everyone in your life turn away from you?
It was a surreal, confusing time for me. I must say, the one person who has stood by me my entire career is my agent, Mark Lepselter. He’s so much more than my agent; he’s my brother. Truly. It was sad to see former close friends send me diatribes via e-mail, telling me what a terrible person I was, when all of their information came from the lies in the New York Post. I learned a hard lesson, though. Some people will always believe everything they read, no matter the source.
What scares you?
Failure scares me. Not knowing the endgame, not knowing what the goal is, scares me. Football was relatively easy for me because the goals defining success were always set. I knew what I had to do, so I did it.
Do you think you’ve underachieved?
Yes. Absolutely. I really do think I’ve underachieved. That’s actually a very interesting question, Richard.
I’ll tell you why I ask: I think when a person achieves the level of success you’ve had in football, everyone assumes he’s overreached to attain that excellence. With you, however, I’ve always sensed you felt you could’ve done a lot more with your life than run with a football.
Early in my career, I sometimes would regret playing football at all. I have felt—and do feel—that I underachieve. let me put it this way: My life as a star athlete wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I was my high school’s valedictorian. I majored in engineering. I wanted to be an astronaut. I was a total space geek. Believe me, when I first discovered computers at UVA, it changed my life. But I played football well, and it has given me opportunities very few people will ever have. look, Richard, I had a fantastic NFL career and access to the greatest city in the world, yet, deep in my gut, I knew there was something missing—there is something missing— but I’ll find it. I’m going to find it.
What does Tiki 2.0 look like?
It looks exactly like an entrepreneur. I love that word. I’m very excited about our company Thuzio because technology is changing how we interact with celebrities and athletes.
In five years…
I’ll still be creating new companies, building solid relationships. We’ll be well on our way to making Thuzio “the Amazon of talent interaction.”
Tell me a secret.
You may not believe me entirely, but I’m a significant introvert.
Introvert? Yeah, whatever.
See, I knew it! I knew you wouldn’t believe me! [Laughs]
Time for everyone’s favorite, the name game: Eli Manning.
He’s extraordinarily talented. I believe that, year over year, Eli’s better than his brother [Peyton]—without a doubt.
He’s charismatic, genuine and opportunistic—more than me. I love his success, and I love seeing a black man on morning television.
I love and hate Tom Coughlin in the same breath. He’s by far the best coach I ever played for, but he simply didn’t know how to treat his players.
Are you kidding me? I wanted to be Matt Lauer. How about that? [Laughs]
Your agent, Mark Lepselter.
Mark Lepselter would jump in front of a train for me. Is there anything else that needs to be said?
Luxury feels a lot like how my brother lives: With ease, with comfort—a place where you go and your guard’s completely down. You know, luxury is a place where you belong.
Where do you belong, Tiki?
One place I didn’t belong was in an NFL locker room.
What do you mean?
One day, after a game, I was thinking that here I am 29 years old, and I couldn’t—and didn’t—ever have real, intelligent conversations in the locker room. The locker room with all the jock talk just wasn’t a place I enjoyed.
What remains the biggest misconception about you?
Some people continue to think I’m uncaring or stuck up, and I’m not either of those things.
Tiki, do you think most people still root for you today?
I really think so. I’ll put it this way: I’ve never had an unpleasant encounter in person with a fan—not ever. But nowadays there are some vocal minorities that make a lot of noise on social media; that I do encounter.
Are you happy?
Right now, I’m having the time of my life, Richard. I’m thoroughly enjoying the conversation as well as the company, and this Jack Daniels is very nice, too. [Laughs]
If you could have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy, tell me what would you have liked to have won them for?
I love this question! [Laughs] Let’s see now… my Oscar would definitely be for playing Nicolas Cage’s character in Moonstruck, the Tony for a role in Rent, the emmy for either Grey’s Anatomy or Dexter and a Grammy for John legend’s Ordinary People.
Finish this sentence for me: Tiki Barber is…
The most intellectually complicated former football star you’ll ever know.
Let’s wrap this up in a bow, Tiki: What happened here today?
Don’t assume you know me by what you’ve read. Yes, I’m cocky—I’m a great athlete, smarter than most people I sit in a room with. But if you let me know you, I’ll let you know me. You’ll never find a greater friend in the world. So, yes, absolutely, this is what’s happening now with you. Seriously, brother—you know it, too.