Tiki Barber was one of the greatest running backs in N.Y. Giants’ history, a dual threat so accomplished that, when he left the game after the 2006 season, he owned a passel of franchise records — including most 100-yard games in a single season, most 200-yard games in a single season, most career yards rushing and most yards from scrimmage.
Small wonder, then, that he’s one of the 102 names on the preliminary list for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
But Tiki retired after one of his greatest years — when he ran for 1,662 yards, averaged 5.1 yards per carry, produced a career-best 78 first downs and saved coach Tom Coughlin’s job with a franchise-record 234 yards rushing in the last game of the regular season, a 34-28 defeat of Washington that put the Giants in the playoffs.
It was a bold move then, and one we didn’t understand until we asked on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast: Why leave when you’re on top of your game?
“I’m a deep person and have so many more interests in my life,” Barber said, ” and I knew that the only way I was great, as a player, was because I worked my ass off.
“But my last couple of years things just started to interfere. One, my kids were getting older. My babies were getting to the age where they wanted to play with me, and, after games on weekends, I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t want to. I was so beat up.”
But there was more. In truth, another world had opened up to him, and it didn’t include football. Barber started doing radio and TV appearances and wasn’t just good; he was downright appealing. He was handsome. He was glib. He was smart. He was charismatic. And he was likeable, with a telegenic smile.
Plus, he’d started meeting people outside the game who fascinated him, including then-Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice and former Israeli prime minister and president Shimon Peres.
“So I’m now at a crossroads, right?” he said. “I’m training. I’m trying to get ready for a season … and this is before the 2006 season, my last year. And I don’t want to go to (my strength and conditioning trainer). I want to go meet Condeleeza Rice.
“The offseason before I got a chance to go to Israel at the behest of Shimon Peres, who was then the premier. So my life was getting more interesting outside of the game.”
But within the game Barber seldom was better than his last two years. In 2005, he had a career-high 357 carries for 1,860 yards — another career best — and nine TDs. He averaged 5.2 yards then. He averaged 5.1 yards a year later. And in his last five seasons, he never ran for fewer than 1,216 yards (2003), never caught fewer than 52 passes and totaled 45 touchdowns, including five receiving.
What’s more, in 2004 and 2005 he led the NFL both seasons in yards from scrimmage — with a career-high 2,390 yards in 2005 — and he was a 2005 first-team All-Pro. He’d become the face of the N.Y. Giants, and if there was one pro athlete that Manhattan celebrated then … other than the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, of course … it was Tiki Barber.
Nevertheless, he walked away from it, ending his career with yet another 100-yard rushing effort (he ran for 137) in his last appearance — a 2006 playoff loss to the Eagles.
“To put it into clarity,” he said, “my first game against Philadelphia (in) my last season we played at Philly. It was at the new ‘Linc’ (Lincoln Financial Field), I got the crap beat out of me by Jeremiah Trotter, and I walked out that game saying, ‘I’m done.’
“It was like the second or third week of the season (it was the second), and I knew I was done because I didn’t feel anything anymore. And I didn’t want to do it anymore. I told my fullback, ‘Finny’ (Jim Finn), and he was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Finny,’ I just don’t feel it anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to have a fantastic season, but I’m done.’
“I made up my mind that these other things were more important, that my body didn’t want to go through it anymore and that I was ready to move forward.And to be perfectly honest: I was wrong. I didn’t think the Giants were ready to win a Super Bowl, and I was going to expire before I got a chance to do it.
“And, lo and behold, they went and win the following year. But life got complicated for me, and it became more interesting to do something else other than to play the game of football.”
So the obvious question: Any regrets that he didn’t stay one more season and leave with a ring? Barber was quick to answer.
“I didn’t have regrets because I had made up my mind so strongly to walk into my next career,” he said. “The short answer to that is: I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t want to put in the work that I was detailing before to be that great player anymore, and so I couldn’t have played.
“If I would’ve tried to do it and … quote … ‘hung on’ for a couple of years, I wouldn’t have been valuable to my teammates; I wouldn’t have lived up the expectations that they had for me. And so it was best for me to walk away. And in some regards, it was probably best for the Giants that I did.”