Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Updated: August 30, 12:24 PM ET
Tiki Barber gets dressed
By Roger Director
Special to Page 2
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Roger Director's new book, "I Dream in Blue: Life, Death, and the New York Giants," available now at Amazon.com.
"The most important decision you're going to make here today is
if, for whatever reason, something terrible happens
who do you want to be your daughter's legal guardian?"
The lawyer, Newmark, sits opposite me in the conference room. He looks nothing like what I always imagined the guy putting my affairs in order ought to look like. That lawyer is gray at the temples, somber and distinguished. But Newmark has little vegetative clumps in odd spots on his pale, scaly scalp. Also, he has smallish hands. The capper: he keeps sucking back the saliva he overproduces when he talks.
But I didn't pick Newmark, my wife did. She has been trying to get me to sit down with him for months. She's the one who says we need a will.
She wants to make sure our daughter's education is taken care of.
Check. No disagreement there.
She wants to make sure that the assets we have will not be taken from her by some humpbacked villain in a black cloak straight out of a silent movie.
Check. No disagreement there.
But a will? Why not hang a sign around my neck that reads: "Come and Get Me?"
Newmark's question hovers in the air. His gaze swings from my wife to me, seeing that she and I are at loggerheads. My wife has lists of candidates. And a point system. After one late-night argument I hit the wall and told my wife I was dropping out of the discussion. I wasn't going to make any more suggestions. I'd just have my one candidate in mind and wait until the time came.
Newmark clicks his pen and slants his lined, yellow legal pad, preparing to inscribe the name of the person to whom I'd entrust my most precious belonging. The name comes easily to my lips:
I have been trailing Barber and the Giants all year. From day one of training camp in the furnace-hot Albany summer. Why? Well, because 50 years ago, on an icy day in the Long Island suburb where I grew up, my father put our bulky, root-beer-colored Bakelite radio on the dining room table so that he and my older brother and I could listen to the magic coming from Yankee Stadium where the Giants beat Chicago for the NFL title, 47-7 and the world was as pristine as a snow crystal.
And because, five decades later, Newmark wanted me to put my name to something that said the world wasn't really a snowglobe, that I wasn't a kid anymore. So, I thought, let that kid in me run free one last time. Take one more look before I lock him away in a safe deposit box.
And if, as turned out to be the case, Tiki Barber was at the end of his run -- like me at the end of mine, according to Newmark -- maybe I'd learn something. Learn how to "shut it down." That's the phrase. The wonderful euphemism the baseball pitcher Roger Clemens used when he talked about pitching no more. He talked about "shutting it down." As if you weren't some ordinary person stumbling toward a fixed-income retirement and hip replacements, but a giant furnace, a nuclear reactor burning with the unstoppable energy of the sun itself, allowing a couple graphite rods to be adjusted a couple centimeters. Shutting it down.
Show me how to shut it down, Tiki.
The NFL season is merciless. Especially for the Giants. Because Tom Coughlin coaches them with Capt. Bligh's how-to book in his back pocket. Even so, the players are well-fed. Overseen by experts who can attend to every bruise and strain, who strap them together, scope and clean out their frayed joints, knead sore muscles, even talk out tenderized psyches. They have agents to coddle them; families, in most cases, to support them; and trainers and medical staff to keep them playing. They have film to help them to correct their mistakes.
What about me?
By the time the season is over my back'll be on perma-spasm like Luke Petitgout's. My foot as Lisfranc-ed as Michael Strahan's. My knee rattling like Amani Toomer's.
When word leaks in mid-October that this season will be Tiki's last, that he is calling it quits, fans and sportswriters act betrayed and angry. Barber, who has been the face of the team, its emblem, stands accused of being a distraction, a problem, a torpedo hole beneath the water line.
I'm not surprised by Barber's news. The first day at summer training camp, Barber showed up in a dandyish Tattersall vest and matching cap -- so deliberate, so chosen -- and made a point of how he was not sure he'd play through the end of his contract, which had two more years to run. Your last day isn't the thing to be talking about on your first day, I had thought, and I took it as a clear hint of something I'd suspected for awhile.
Months earlier, over lunch at the East Side saloon P.J. Clarke's in the spring of '06, Barber had talked about how drained he felt following the season marked by the deaths of the team's two owners, Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch. Tiki lives on the East Side but wasn't familiar with the history of the saloon and its football ghosts. And at P.J.'s, the ghosts teased from Tiki the truth about how much the '05 season had meant. He was talking to all of them. To Jack Mara and Ken Strong. To Rosey Brown and Sam Huff. To LT. To Big Red. To Joe Morris and Ron Johnson. To Ward Cuff and Bill Swiacki and Eddie Price and Emlen Tunnell.
"Given what we went through, having to adapt to the loss of our two owners
that was a historic season for us," he said over lunch. "And not because of the wins and losses, but because of what we lost. So to me, losing to Carolina in the playoffs was not just another loss. It was something much deeper, you know? And it was disappointment, anger, it was all these different emotions bottled up in one, in me, because I have an understanding what this organization is. We had the opportunity to do something, you know, and we'll never have that opportunity again. Yeah, we may win a Super Bowl in 2006, but we won't have the opportunity to do it in a year that was so historic for a lot of reasons."
What seems to turn disappointment into anger among some outsiders in the wake of the news that this is Tiki's last season, is that it is self-scheduled. He wants to leave on his own terms. This seems to partake of blasphemy, the sort that wrinkles foreheads and tightens workingmen's calloused grips around beer mug handles down at the Blarney Stone.
Tiki wants to remain intact. And this infuriates people who wish two things in life: achieving recognition or "fame" and remaining intact. Not everyone can be famous or as recognized as Tiki for their merit -- but of one thing all mankind, high and low, can rest assured: despite what you might wish, nobody, goddamit, nobody, gets to leave here intact. You do not get to leave on your terms.
No, Tiki, you'll beg and cry like the rest of us. You'll long and self-recriminate and thrash in bed at night. Maybe you'll even learn about it last, the way the rest of us do. Maybe you won't get told face to face, man to man. Maybe you won't even get a call. That's the way it works for the rest of us. Nobody gets out of here intact. Especially in football. Football and intact cannot coexist. Ask LaVar Arrington. Ask Luke Petitgout. Ask Chad Morton. Ask Carlos Emmons. Ask Drew Bledsoe -- drafted no. 1 overall by Bill Parcells for New England in 1993; brought to Dallas by Bill Parcells in 2005 to lead the Cowboys back to glory; and benched, unceremoniously, by Bill Parcells, at halftime in full view of a national audience, the last pass of his Hall of Fame career an interception.
No sooner has the Times broken the retirement news than Tiki has to weather a storm of criticism and he has an uncharacteristic verbal tussle with Daily News columnist Gary Myers.
"I think everyone in this locker room, including myself, we all realize my personal decision has no effect on the 2006 football season," Tiki says in response. "It has a great effect on 2007, but no effect on this season. My role as a leader on this team extends from encouraging other players, getting [backup running back] Brandon Jacobs ready, to playing with the same passion and excitement and courage that I always do and that's what I've done so far. So anybody who thinks otherwise is not paying attention to what's going on."
Actually, Tiki has to weather more than reporters and disillusioned fans in the very next game at Dallas. On a short yardage play, going over the middle, Tiki takes a handoff and is hit by the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, a lethal linebacker. Ware, it appears to me, isn't even going for the tackle or the ball; he is, in fact, even if only by happenstance, an agent of the gods, of what the ancients might call the logos or the indifferent genius of the world.
Ware crashes like a Jovian thunderbolt straight into Tiki's jawbone, the sort of hit, helmet to helmet, that gets people fined and flags thrown.
In mid-air, having already left his feet, Tiki is knocked out. That's the way it looks to me. You can see his eyelids flutter. He is comatose in the air. The ball drops from his grasp and fumbles out onto the field and Tiki falls back to the ground limply and onto his back, blacked out. He lies there for a moment and to me he looks dead, maybe. It is a brush with death.
Don't think it isn't. This might turn out to be not just Drew Bledsoe's last game, but Tiki's too.
Most players would have come out. But Tiki couldn't. After all, it had been announced that this was to be his last season, and even if his head had been separated from his shoulders and had gone rolling along the sideline, coming to a stop beneath Tom Coughlin, had Tiki sat out the rest of the game people would have called him a slacker, someone biding time until retirement and not giving his all.
And so, in an unremarked act of fortitude that would have made Terry Molloy proud, Tiki had to get to his feet. Had to blink himself back to consciousness and wobble back to work. Okay, maybe it wasn't like the end in "On the Waterfront." But he knew, and accepted willingly that his every play would be seen as a test of whether he was a quitter. This is a worthy standard by which a man should be judged, let alone a pro football player. Let's not even try to guess what percentage of men rise to that simple, yet stringent, standard that fathers pass on to sons: Whatever you do, be able to put your name to it.
That's the real contact sport. The real game film. Viewed on the ceiling at 3 am. Staring from the pillow.
Tiki Barber gets dressed. He drags a towel across his broad shoulders. His locker is right next to the showers. Beyond, there are echoes with shouts pitched high enough to be heard over the roar and splash of water. Teammates emerge from the clouds of steam, small towels held around their waists. A losing locker room is an ice box, but the Giants have just beaten the Redskins to get into the playoffs and it is hot in here.
A few feet away, Eli Manning, in boxers that look like they were picked off a charity table in a church basement, his hair a wet tangle, burnishes his growing reputation for being one of the city's least-colorful athletes:
"I think we did some good things out there tonight
But Tiki is silent. He stares evenly and straight ahead into the locker. Just getting dressed. Like maybe he's thinking about something on the grocery list, or reminding himself he's got an appointment tomorrow morning for a massage at the Oasis day spa. As if he were at home, smoothing on some lotion, stepping into his clingy mid-thigh briefs. All by himself.
Just Tiki. Tiki's IPod. His overnight bag. And a book, Washington's Spies.
Tiki gets dressed.
No way is he 5-10, as listed. If he's 5-9, I'm a six-footer. The majesty of his body isn't its size, however hugely strong he is after years of exhausting, nearly year-round weight training; it's in its proportion. The man is compact. Tiki's legs ascend with sculpted might, and no doubt more than a few of the female journalists about, however impregnable their professional virtue, can't help but succumb to an appreciation of this perk in the job -- watching Tiki Barber get dressed.
Barber pulls on his pants. Then his shirt, through which the few remaining wet spots he hasn't toweled off appear in damp blots below and behind his neck. His gaudiest accoutrement is usually his tie knot, and when he has secured yet another saucy, fat one into place, he tugs on his suit jacket and, now, shooting his cuffs, he turns.
Fifty people await him. They are pressed against the walls and sardined against the cinderblocks. Print reporters, TV broadcasters, pads and microphones and recorders and cameramen, male and female, have watched him saw the towel north and south a few times just like you do at home before donning his typically stylish suit.
The floor is strewn with towels and tape and crumpled gloves and eddies of steam and the exoskeletal-like remains of the discarded shoulder pads and helmets among the bulging duffels holding each player's gear. It's impossible to move. I am in the process of imagining I am a Life magazine photographer, shooting from out of the shower past Tiki's shoulder at all the people just standing there, particularly some nearby women, checking out Tiki's tiki, when there is a nod and then a bailiff-loud summons:
"Tiki's going to the podium." Peter-John Baptiste, the Giants' p.r. guy announces.
"Tiki's going to the podium!" is picked up through the crowd. "Tiki's going to the podium!"
Barber wades through the throng in the visitors' locker room. Reporters and microphones and cameras surge after him in a steeplechase, hopping and tripping over the hurdle-high duffels, banging at the other players' stools even as they balance a foot on them to lace up their shoes, or forcing other players who tower over the stampede to shrink back as they look down their noses to even up the tails of their shirts, their eyes following Barber while applying their massive hands to the tiny, bottom buttons.
"Tiki's going to the podium."
Across the hall in the interview room, Barber calmly answers questions regarding the things he'd been doing in the two and half hours before he came out of the shower and got dressed.
Here is what he did: He made plays. He got his team into the playoffs.
In the last regular-season game of his career he ran for three touchdowns on runs of 16, 52 and 55 yards. He ran for 237 yards, a franchise record. And one 33-yard burst was called back for a holding call on center Shaun O'Hara.
He had been called a quitter. He had been called a distraction and, had the Giants not made the playoffs, his mid-season announcement that he was retiring would have been seen as an incontrovertible factor in the team's poor showing.
Instead, when it was said and done, all this storied performance lacked was Grantland Rice writing about it from the press box.
The previous Thursday, after finishing practice and before traveling to Washington for the game, Tiki walked out of the Giants Stadium tunnel for the last time. Barber said he actually felt better at this point this season than the last. But he felt there were things he could no longer do, although he could not be specific.
"Maybe it's a cut, maybe it's a tackle that I break on a play, I just don't know. I can't pinpoint one thing. I can't say, oh, this play against this one team I shoulda done this. All I know is, today, I feel pretty decent. But after the game, on Monday, I won't feel that way and it'll take three or four days to come back from because that's the nature of this beast. When you're 22 it takes two days, and when you're 31 it takes four or five. I don't want it to take seven."
Late in the tight game, after the Giants' defense has tried doing for the Redskins' young QB Jason Campbell what it did for Tennesee's Vince Young earlier in the season -- making raw talent look like an All-Pro -- Kevin Gilbride [the newly installed play caller] called Barber's number on five out of six straight plays. On the last of which, Barber nudged O'Hara into a block, then downshifted for a split second to watch the linemen crash and topple like falling timber supports in a collapsing mine. Barber planted his right foot and cut off it. He tore himself free of clutching defenders and briefly disappeared in the smoke of the struggle before suddenly emerging and running for a 50-yard touchdown.
"I knew in his last regular season game he would make some kind of record," Shaun O'Hara said in the Giants' locker room afterward, "and that's what he did. He carried us to a win. This is what he does. This is Tiki Barber."
"Given the stakes and what was necessary for us, this game was right up there for me," Tiki tells the reporters who jam into the interview room.
Some of the reporters ask if it's true he hasn't been taking his playbook home the last couple weeks. They make it sound as if Tiki has been having unprotected sex.
"Unless you've walked miles in my shoes and done all the things I've done you can't understand what it takes for me to get myself ready for a football game. I've always said, judge me by what happens on the field. I have two kids at home," Tiki says, "so I leave my work at the Stadium and that's where I prepare and that's worked for me. I've been playing this game an awful long time and I know when I get an opportunity to do my job that I'm awful damn good."
In the narrow corridor below the stadium, Tiki exchanges a kiss with his wife Ginnie. The staccato beeping of a golf cart backing up claps off the walls. Tiki shakes a few more hands and heads with the golf cart through the crowd and back out onto the now-deserted stadium field. A mist, a blanket of evaporated human effort, clings to the grass parting before the wheels as the golf cart carrying precious cargo Tiki glides the man to one last station. His "performance" isn't over.
Out in the rolling Maryland countryside traffic is jammed up for miles, doing loop-de-loops on the Beltway, choked with fans and those who've been forced way off course by security closures for the late Pres. Gerald Ford's funeral ceremonies in the capital. And all those hundreds of thousands of cars' tires are wobbling still from the tremors in the ground touched off by Tiki Barber's feet.
It's Saturday night and everyone wants to get home and run under the blankets, a natural human, shelter-seeking reaction to the extraordinary (and I don't mean Gerald Ford's funeral). I think of the cab driver who brought me to the stadium, a Giants fan who called in his dinner order and was hoping to drop me off and pick it up and I hope he's gotten home and enjoyed his chicken. He'd told me he wouldn't watch the game on TV and wouldn't watch the nightly news because he preferred learning about the game by looking at the headline in the Washington Post on his doorstep the next morning. I recall fondly his devotion to the unique graphic snap of a morning newspaper headline, and I envy the wonderful feeling he'll have, coffee cup in hand, when he picks up the Post tomorrow.
No one could possibly want to get home more than the post-game TV crew for the NFL network. It's midnight, the stadium is empty, the maintenance crews are breaking it down, rolling up hoses and wiring, but these guys -- Rich Eisen, Steve Mariucci and Marshall Faulk -- have to remain on the field, tired and chilled to the bone yet performance ready behind their cheap phony "desks" to do a post-game sigmoidoscopy.
Tiki gets hooked up to talk about what he just did. But the words are meaningless compared to the deed. Perhaps they are diminished by the queer juxtaposition of having a guy on a panel all dressed in his suit talk about the great things he did a few minutes ago on the field right here when he wasn't wearing the suit and sitting at a desk. Anyway, it seems inherently less interesting. But Tiki, of course, goes with the performance. He understands the acting part of what he does very well. He is a running, darting content provider.
When the interview's over and the show wraps, the crew can begin lifting the fake desks and putting them in a truck. Mariucci undoes his microphone, drops it off with the sound guy and turns to go. The former coach of the Lions and, of course, 49ers, has dark circles under his eyes. I'm not sure if he's bored or whether his suddenly distracted look is simply that of a performer who's come off camera and is shedding all of that being focused-on. But either way, it's late and he's got somewhere else to be and he is certainly not disposed to be badgered.
"Whadya think, Mooch? Huh? Was that somethin'? Was that something else? Huh, Coach? Mooch? Huh? 'Scuse me, Coach. Did you see Tiki? Huh, Mooch? Have y'ever seen any better performance than that? Huh?"
Mariucci half turns. He looks confused. The tone of the way he's being hectored, has led him to expect he'll come face to face with a boy. But there can't be any boys here -- it's way past everyone's bedtime.
The NFL network crew has begun rolling up cable and breaking down the phony desks. The golf cart draws up to Tiki Barber. It will get him comfortably and swiftly, sliding through the mist like a ghost, across the field and back onto the bus to the train station and home.
Tiki Barber is now dressed and interviewed. And good to go. He leaves Fed Ex Field and the Redskins insignia at its center, marked by clumps of gouged-aside sod. Tonight, Tiki Barber has chewed it up. Torn it to bits. Beaten it to a pulp. Scalped it. I walk out to the middle of the field and take a picture of it with my cell phone.
"Huh, Coach? Huh, Mooch! Was that good? Tell me that wasn't the best you ever saw. Huh? Huh, Coach? I know you coached some great ones. But to get into the playoffs like that? Three touchdowns? Huh, Mooch?"
Tiki Barber gets dressed. It is a week later, a rainy Sunday night in Philadelphia.
Following the game, there was the usual stampede to the locker room like the running of the bulls at Pamplona. The others are running because they are on deadline. I am running because I have waited all year to observe Tiki's last moment. I need to watch it closely so I can learn from it. How to deal when there are no more creases (Tiki-talk for holes in the line) to run through, no more opportunities, when the race is over and the ball stops bouncing.
I try to keep up through the tunnels hampered by my bum hips when some reporter tugs at me and yells, "You dropped something," and points behind us.
My underpants. I'd hurriedly stuffed all the stat sheets and notebooks back into my shoulder bag before joining my fellow stampeders. I'd left the bag open and now the entire thundering herd of the Fourth Estate has rumbled over my briefs and kicked them aside. I retrieve them. There are sportswriters' footprints all over them. I toss them out and re-join the throng in the visitors' locker where the Giants are showering and packing. With quiet, glum faces they are accepting the fact that David Akers' field goal sailed straight through the uprights as the gun sounded and ended the season for Big Blue. Philadelphia 23, Giants 20.
The Eagles' owner, Jeff Lurie, enters and seeks out Tiki to offer congratulatory final words. Tiki dons a suit, not looking pained to have taken off his Giants jersey for the final time. He is at peace. In a black trench coat, GM Ernie Accorsi makes his way through the knots of reporters and players. Accorsi stands for a moment in the middle of the room. A man with a large head and an overturned bowl of dark black hair, his neck seems to swivel around, bird-like, taking in the blur of dressing players and the steam from the showers. He went all in this season, played every card and farthing he had for this, his last game after more than four decades in various front offices. But no sooner had the Eagles kicked the winning field goal on the very last play, than all the players in this locker room became Ernie Accorsi's no longer. Their contracts, their injuries, their divorces, their dustups, their futures and that of the team they played for are no longer his professional concern.
Accorsi shakes hands with players, congratulates Tiki on his great career, stuffs his mitts deep into his black coat pockets and leaves the National Football League after 37 years. I watch Bob Whitfield leave the locker room. For him, too -- 15 years in the league, a former first-round draft pick -- the locker door is swinging shut as well.
I'm struck by a horrible pang at the thought that the locker room door is closing on me as well. The Giants' season is over. Mine too.
Tiki's twin brother Ronde stands beside me. From now on one way to tell them apart is that Ronde is the one with the Super Bowl ring. As if sensing how stricken I am by the end of things, Ronde tries to cheer me up. "It's hard to be too emotional about this being his last game," Ronde says. "Tiki knew the stakes. We all knew the stakes. We all knew it was going to end, but you have to look at it as a new beginning. A new phase of life."
Tiki "goes to the podium" for the last time as a Giant, on the heels of an encomium from his teammate, tight end Jeremy Shockey, who says, "Tiki's one of the greatest players I've ever played with and it's just an honor to be around him. He's not the fastest guy or the strongest guy or the biggest guy, but he's got twice the size heart of anyone in this league."
Shockey exits, and it's impossible to imagine him heading toward anything other than the ether. Is there really an offseason for Jeremy Shockey? Or does he simply disappear into the rain forest or into some cave atop Mt. Olympus or some titanium tube where he waits in suspended animation until next year?
"Maybe sadness will hit me at private moments when I can sit and recollect and enjoy what I've done for ten years," Tiki tells the reporters. He looks not just completely at peace with his decision but happy. "For the longest time I thought my career was meaningless unless I had that Super Bowl ring. I didn't get a Super Bowl ring. And for a long time I thought that was going to define me. And I've come to the conclusion that it's not going to define me. My legacy is going to be that despite the ups and the downs, the good times and the bad, I've never walked out on that field without leaving it all on the field. And that's what most of the players I've played against and the fans who watch me, that's what they see."
Returning across the hall to the locker room, Tiki picks up his gear and heads for the exit. But before he leaves he is steered into a small, adjacent storage room. There have been innumerable celebrations and huzzahs, not to mention brickbats, sent Tiki's way in the weeks leading up to this moment, but nothing seems as appropriate as the one last gesture a locker room attendant offers Tiki.
There is a low beam running across the length of the ceiling. Squinting up, Tiki sees dozens of names scrawled. The men who have come before him, who have played and won or lost here, have left one simple reminder of the life in football they lived.
The beam is covered with their signatures. Curtis Martin, the great running back of the Pats and Jets. The All-Pro linebacker Willie McGinest. A few coaches: Tennessee's Jeff Fisher and the Cowboys' Jimmy Johnson. Along with some older players -- like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. And others who have made the plays that live forever.
I explain to Ronde who Tommy Nobis is, the first linebacker ever chosen No. 1 in the NFL draft and the first pick of the new Atlanta Falcons franchise in 1966 before the Barber brothers were born. And there's the signature of the immortal quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. They have all hurt and healed and, ultimately, removed their pads and passed them on to others and left their names on this beam to say they, too, came this way and left it all on the field.
Tiki is handed a pen. And a chair to stand on so he can reach high enough. As Ronde and I watch, the greatest Giant running back of all stretches on his tiptoes and signs: Tiki Barber 21.