Star running back, all the time. Even to your children. At moments like this Barber seems fatigued, and it’s easier to see why he uses words like “liberating” to describe a move that will mean less fame and less money. (His current Giants salary is $4.5 million, which he nearly doubles through endorsements he’ll have to give up in his new career as a journalist.) Besides, the game he is retiring from is not the game he started playing. “It is a cold business,” he says. “It’s hard for me on this team. All my friends that I grew up and became a Giant with are gone.” Amani Toomer, the team’s veteran receiver, has been injured since mid-season. Running back Greg Comella, one of Barber’s best friends, left the team five years ago. Kerry Collins, the former starting quarterback, took off when Eli Manning, a first-round pick with a royal surname and $50 million contract, was picked up.
“It’s easy when you’re 22 to not feel jaded by the politics,” says Barber. “You’re so focused on becoming a star. But then you see your friends getting unceremoniously—sometimes ceremoniously—dismissed. You see guys who are a high-round draft pick playing because they’re a high-round draft pick.” For a moment, he seems to think better of being too specific, but then he figures, what the hell, he’s out soon. “Coach Coughlin’s first year we were maybe 5-2,” he says. “Kurt Warner was our starting quarterback. Then he had a couple bad games, and all of a sudden we have a rookie”—Manning—“starting for the rest of the year. We subsequently lose six games in a row. Yeah, it was great for Eli because he gained great experience that benefited him the next season, when we went 11-5, but it’s like, Where did that come from?”
More than the grind of politics, there is the pain, searing and constant. And running backs—relatively small guys who get hit on almost every play—see the worst of it. Barber has carried the football 2,217 times in his decade with the Giants, and most of those runs ended when he was crushed by multiple bodies weighing a hundred pounds more than him. On Mondays a familiar scene plays out in the apartment: The boys want to go to the park, but Barber can’t take them. “It’s all I can do just to sit up and feel normal walking around,” he says, “much less going to a park and chasing two kids around, helping them ride their bikes or play ball. It’s frustrating. I’m beat up and worn out.” He gives an example of a memorably brutal week: “Philadelphia, second week of this season. Jeremiah Trotter”—the Eagles’ unapologetically rabid linebacker—“literally hit me every play. I couldn’t get out of my bed without doing this.” Barber uses his hand to slowly lift his head. “I had a strain in my scapular muscular area. When I was 22, I’d get that injury and feel fine by Wednesday. It was Friday, and I didn’t think I’d be able to play. I got worked on five times that week. Acupuncture, two chiropractic appointments, and ART, which is active release technique, and two massages. Just so I could play!”
The pain is worse, he hears, once you quit. Barry Sanders told him this, as did Frank Gifford. Your body is no longer strong enough to mask the sprains and tears that will haunt you as an adult. Percocet with your morning coffee, a lifetime of knee replacements: Barber hopes to avoid becoming another cautionary tale. “Look at Earl Campbell,” he says of the Houston Oilers star from the late seventies and early eighties. “He can’t even walk. He has a wheelchair or a walking stick. He’s 50! That’s nineteen years for me. I don’t want to be that way.” He knocks on the wooden side table. “It’s a great living, I’ll tell you, but you mortgage something down the line.”
A few days later, Barber wakes up at three in the morning, puts on a blue pin-striped suit, and hails a cab to Fox’s studios for one of his final tapings of Fox & Friends. Sleepy-eyed under the fluorescent lights of his basement cubicle, Barber spends an hour highlighting headlines with reliably alarmist TV value (“JonBenet Slay Haunts Holidays,” “U.S. Out of Love With Marriage”) and tweaking his intros, one about U.S. immigration policy, another about the least painless ways to return holiday gifts. A young assistant preps him on a best/worst gift segment; another offers him a slice of cold pizza. This is the bush leagues of television, but Barber seems at home, curious, even giddy. “Waking up, that part is hard,” he says. “Once I’m here, I love it.” For the moment, he is no longer a football player.
Then the moment passes. A barrel-chested stage tech comes by, trailing his gawky teenage son. The boy is beaming, but too shy to speak.
“Will you sign this for my son?” asks the stage tech, nudging the kid forward with a football.
Barber gives him a smile. “Of course.”