After all, pro athletes are in the rarefied company—ballet dancers, artists, and chess prodigies also come to mind—of those whose adult careers are a direct extension of childhood hobbies. They are born with a freakish ability, which is coddled and exploited before they have time to consider the alternatives. It is a narrow coming-of-age: childhood abbreviated, adolescence hyperextended. This evening, Barber will head to the Glenpointe Marriott in Teaneck, New Jersey, where the team sleeps before home games. There are few things he will miss less. “We have a curfew!” he says, shaking his head. “I have two kids, I’m married, and someone’s knocking on my door to make sure I’m here. Are you kidding! I kind of want to grow up.” Another bite of his sandwich, and then this, a realization that only became clear in recent years: “As long as you’re playing a kids’ game, they’re gonna treat you like a kid.”
Barber, then, finds himself arriving late to a universal milestone of growing up: He is making the first major professional decision of his adult life. He considered quitting after the 2004 season, and again after last year, in which his 1,860 rushing yards and 530 receiving was the second best combined total of any running back in league history. But it took time before leaving the game seemed logical. “When you start to get those desires not to do it anymore, you still feel like it’s holding you,” he says. “You feel like you have to do it, or you should.”
“We have a curfew! I have two kids, I’m married, and someone’s knocking on my door to make sure I’m here. Are you kidding?”
For years, he joked about quitting to his twin brother, Ronde, who plays cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The past few seasons, he’ll come to me and say, ‘This is my last year,’” says Ronde. “I started to realize that Tiki was not so much in love with football anymore and that it was only a matter of time.” As close as the two are, Barber didn’t consult his brother about his final decision. “I don’t care what you do as long as you get 10,000 yards,” Ronde told him. After rushing for 1,662 yards this year—fourth overall in the league—Barber finished the regular season with 10,449 for his career.
“Until now,” says Ronde, “we’ve been doing the same thing our entire lives. The moment it came out, people came to me, like, ‘So, are you gonna retire now?’ I still love getting up in the morning and going to practice. Some people play for fun, but I think Tiki played the game so he could master it. Tiki has always been very concerned about not being defined only as a football player.”
To spend time around Barber is to see how relentlessly the game defines his life, like it or not. Aside from a 52-inch flat-screen television, the most dominant feature in his living room is a trophy case that takes up an entire wall: plaques and jerseys and bronzed footballs commemorating a variety of accomplishments, many of which are the sort few players ever receive. He goes to check his e-mail, and there he is, first as a Tiki Barber screensaver and then as Tiki Barber desktop wallpaper. At a recent taping of Fox & Friends, the morning show he until recently co-hosted on Tuesdays, a production assistant popped his head into the makeup room to ask how Barber thinks he’ll play on Sunday. Why? Because the assistant was thinking of trading Barber from his fantasy team. (“Don’t drop me—I’ll score you two touchdowns,” said Barber, who ended up scoring three that week in his best game ever—234 yards—against the Washington Redskins.) His two boys sleep under a massive mural of Giants Stadium, in which they are depicted cheering for their father, and this afternoon, when they return from their errand, they have purchased composition notebooks from CVS featuring a holographic image of their father on the cover. Turn it at the right angle and you watch No. 21 sprint across the field, the ball held high and tight to his chest in the trademark style he adopted to cure his once-notorious fumbling issues.
“Who is that?” Barber asks 2-year-old Chason.
“I thought it was you,” Barber teases.
“It’s you, Daddy!”