Commentary

What makes Barber run back to NFL?

Theories abound as Tiki's life takes on reality-show feel, but this could just be ego

Updated: March 11, 2011, 4:01 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

After trying to promote Tiki Barber, then explain him, then advocate for the retired running back the previous two days, agent Mark Lepselter switched tactics Thursday in the face of the backlash Barber has caught since saying he wants to return to the NFL.

Barber's camp has decided no more trading barbs -- for now anyway -- with uncomplimentary ex-Giants teammates like Antonio Pierce and Justin Tuck, the anonymous NFL personnel men who have panned Barber's return plans, or anyone else inclined to suggest Barber is coming back because he needs the money, or something even more trite than that. What if it just proves Barber's ego is making him look silly again?

"Right now we are laying low," Lepselter said Thursday, explaining he just wanted to give a reporter the courtesy of a call-back but couldn't talk further.

[+] EnlargeTiki Barber
AP Photo/Ronen ZilbermanTiki Barber's final NFL game was the Pro Bowl in February 2007. Twelve months later, the Giants won the Super Bowl without him.

"When Tiki signs [with an NFL team] we will have further comment."

The stance is understandable. But it won't stop other people from talking about Barber, whose romantic relationship with a 23-year-old, unpaid NBC intern made headlines last year.

When asked directly if Barber is broke because of his messy, pending divorce or his loss of his two NBC jobs last year, a TV professional who has worked with Barber in the past said Thursday, "Either that, or there's a reality show coming, I'm just not sure."

So it's come to that? Tiki Barber: The Hard Knocks-Turned-Hard Luck Story?

In the last year alone, Barber -- a smooth guy who always portrayed himself as a family man and atypical jock living a considered life -- has become a sad case study in how to ruin two vibrant careers, not just one.

He's de-evolved from a hotly recruited network TV presence, Giants legend and children's-book author who spoke up often about the hurt caused by his own absent father, to an accused phony who has alienated his former bosses and ex-teammates and left his pregnant wife.

When highlights of Barber's runs were played on the New Meadowlands scoreboard in recent years, Barber was routinely booed by the same Giants fans he once thrilled -- and that was true even before he separated from his wife of 11 years just weeks before their twin daughters were born last spring. The Barbers have four children and are now in the midst of a contentious divorce.

Barber's chances of making an NFL comeback at 36 and after four years out of the game would seem slim, even as a situational running back. And nobody who paid attention to Barber's NFL career is buying that love-of-the-game explanation he gave to Foxsports.com, as if he was cribbing from one of Michael Jordan's comeback playbooks and returning because at heart he's just another kid with a dream, a ball and an identical twin named Ronde whom he might like to go play with in Tampa.

When Barber quit football at the age of 31, he was coming off his three best seasons and he left a $4.625 million salary for 2007 on the table.

The Giants won a Super Bowl that season without him.

Now, for the second time, it looks like Barber quit too soon.

[+] EnlargeTiki Barber
Peter Kramer/Getty ImagesTiki Barber's broadcast career was full of promise before it really began. Within three years, it was pretty much over.

When Barber retired he was frank -- even justifiably proud -- about his post-football plans. After two years of learning the ropes at a New York City Fox TV affiliate, he was heading to NBC to try to be the sports division's next Bryant Gumbel or -- better yet -- a man-of-many-hats newsman like the network's Matt Lauer. Barber signed a deal to work for NBC's Sunday night football telecast, and as a correspondent to "Today," the prestigious morning show. He seemed on his way. He spoke of doing news, not just sports, and using his brain to branch out into other fields rather than being just another ex-jock coasting on his football reputation.

But his parting from the Giants wasn't warm, despite how great a player he was. Teammates were privately making mental notes about how he seemed more interested in managing his career up and hobnobbing with the likes of Giants co-owner Jonathan Tisch rather than with them. Even before he retired, some Giants found Barber smug, self-absorbed, as though he thought he was better than grunts like them.

Now it's all bubbling up.

Some Giants, including Pierce, didn't like how Barber leaked his coming retirement during the 2006 season. It only got worse after Barber quit and later said coach Tom Coughlin's demands contributed to the running back's early retirement, or that some of quarterback Eli Manning's early-career attempts at leadership were laughable.

Barber must not have left NBC with all of his friendships intact, either. Once his affair became public he was even the butt of jokes in this stinging Jay Leno monologue on the network in April:

"Well, Tiger Woods got some good news today -- it's called Tiki Barber," Leno began. "Oh, man. Former NFL player and 'Today' show correspondent Tiki Barber has announced he's leaving his wife, who is eight-months pregnant with twins, for a 23-year-old NBC intern who is his mistress."

Disapproving groans from the audience.

"Well, she's not a full-fledged mistress yet -- she's just interning for the position!" Leno added, to loud jeers.

In the lengthy annals of sports stars behaving badly, Barber's transgressions clearly left some people highly offended. But as his loyalists might point out, nothing he's done approaches the criminal behavior other athletes have engaged in. He's not the first man to have a painful divorce, either.

Yet for whatever reason -- probably that ego of Barber's again -- he seems to be especially radioactive right now. His divorce settlement isn't finished. A cycling fitness chain company sued him for a $1 million, too, alleging he was worthless to them as a celebrity spokesman because of his extramarital affair. Since leaving NBC, his most high-profile media work lately has been webcasts for Yahoo.

[+] EnlargeTiki Barber
AP Photo/Charles SykesTiki Barber has an estranged wife and four children -- and his image took a hit when he took a 23-year-old girlfriend.

Will Barber's pariah status last?

"Not to sound callous, but I don't see why it would," a broadcast executive, who met with Barber when he was shopping himself for a job, said Thursday, laughing jadedly. "It's like, I just saw something on TV that Mel Gibson is off the hook now after his latest meltdown because Charlie Sheen has taken over. Things happens all the time. A new story comes along."

The same executive doesn't discount the possibility that Barber's job performance, not just the intern scandal, contributed to NBC not renewing his contract.

"He did have big expectations, but he also landed a pretty big gig right away with NBC, and I think they had lofty expectations for him, too," the executive says. "On the 'Today' show, anyway, I believe he went very quickly from being prominent, to being on the show less, to just being buried. The same was true on Sunday night football. To me, that tells me the executives there thought he wasn't growing or striving as well as they were expecting him to. Or that he wasn't putting the time into it. Because he came across as very articulate, very intelligent, very charismatic once on camera."

To New Yorkers, especially, here's the rub with Barber: The story of how Barber left his wife ran so contrary to his carefully cultivated image as a family man/football star who was smart enough to get out of the NFL with his brain and knees intact. Then he dissed the team and his former teammates, too.

And now he wants to come back to the NFL like all is forgotten?

Rather than get behind his comeback as though it's some great adventure, people are mocking Barber instead.

A love-of-the-game comeback? No one's buying that. But the suggestion he's still enthralled with himself -- that Tiki loves Tiki? Now you're talking. ...

Might even make a good title for a reality series.

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