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Tiki Barber makes 'giant' debut on TODAY

Tiki Barber’s tenure with the New York Giants is reflected in almost every corner of his Manhattan apartment, from the massive trophy case showcasing both the former Giant’s MVP trophies and a Tiki Barber bobble head, to the hand-painted Giants Stadium mural in his sons’ bedroom. Even some wilted balloons, left over from his 32nd birthday celebration on April 7, are Giants blue and white.Whi
/ Source: TODAY

Tiki Barber’s tenure with the New York Giants is reflected in almost every corner of his Manhattan apartment, from the massive trophy case showcasing both the former Giant’s MVP trophies and a Tiki Barber bobble head, to the hand-painted Giants Stadium mural in his sons’ bedroom. Even some wilted balloons, left over from his 32nd birthday celebration on April 7, are Giants blue and white.

While the memorabilia speaks volumes to the past 10 years of Barber’s life, during which time he evolved into an elite NFL running back, it says little about the perspective this retired football star will bring to the TODAY show when he debuts as their newest correspondent on Monday.

After all, as Barber himself pointed out, TODAY doesn’t exactly cover many stories on the NFL or sports in general. But Barber has never been the stereotypical jock, and if you look past the Tiki Time clock, the Tiki hand towel and the Tiki dart board scattered throughout his home, there are more subtle signs of the Renaissance man who plans to make his mark in morning news.

One shelf in the bookcase in his home office, for example, contains the entire Harry Potter series, three Bibles, “Moby Dick,” a collection of poems and the jacket of the book he is currently reading, Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope,” offering a small window into Barber’s “eclectic view of the world” and the kinds of issues he hopes to tackle in his second life.

“Eventually I want to be able to do anything,” he said. “I want to have the credibility to talk about politics or breaking news, that’s the top end. But I understand there’s a process to get there … I’m starting at the bottom again.”

Where do you go from the top?

It’s been a long time since Barber was at the bottom.

In January, he walked away from professional football while at the very top of his game, having amassed more total yards in the past three seasons than anyone other player in the league, setting almost every offensive record in Giants franchise history and voted to the Pro Bowl on three occasions.

He chose to forfeit at least a handful of productive years as a football player — and several lucrative endorsement deals that came with it — in part because he had become so accomplished.

“My entire career, from the time I was a rookie to 10 years later, my goal was to constantly reinvent myself, to find whatever my fault was or whatever I was deficient in and reinvent myself into something powerful,” Barber said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t reinvent myself any more…When you hit the top of your profession, what do you aspire to?”

If you’re Barber, you find a new mountain to climb.

The man under the helmet

Friends and family have always understood that Barber had greater ambitions than being known as a guy who could run really fast while holding a ball, but his decision to abandon his position as a sports hero has been harder to explain to fans.

“There’s a weird player-fan relationship that exists,” Barber said. “While they admire you and they appreciate what you do on the football field, there’s this reserved right to be able to determine when we go. In a lot of ways I robbed people of that because I went out on top.”

Barber continued: “It’s an American dream to be a professional athlete. [Fans wonder] how can I throw away making a ton of money, being a popular sports figure, to do something else?  It’s confusing because they don’t have the answer.”

He tried to answer those lingering questions again last week, as reporters lined up to meet the newest star at American’s No. 1 morning show just days before his debut. 

Barber has been used to answering tough questions for years — he’s famous for his openness with the media — but these queries had a different tone. Yes, the reporters wanted to know why he left the NFL, but they seemed more interested in Barber’s childhood, his opinion on the Don Imus controversy, and how he has come to own more than 50 suits.

So Barber leaned back in his chair on the TODAY set, and with an ease that suggested he had been there for years rather than days, shared stories of taking his two sons, A.J., 4, and Chason, 3, to the Museum of Modern Art and classes at the 92nd street YMCA.

He talked about meeting his wife Ginny at the University of Virginia and how, ever since, he hasn’t had to worry about picking out a suit or cooking a meal. (Ginny, who was a fashion publicist until deciding to stay home full time to raise the kids recently, will be in charge of Barber’s NBC clothing allowance. She is also a great cook, and when she isn’t preparing a meal her parents, who live with the Barbers, are whipping up something tasty.)

Even when Geraldine was fighting breast cancer during Tiki and Ronde’s final season at UVA, she had surgery on a Monday and was in the stands for their game on Saturday.

“My mother nurtured us to be the kind of people and players that we became,” Barber said.  “We persevered through a lot, we were always achievers and we would never want to let her down.”

Geraldine, 53, has never had any doubts that her son would be a success.

“In all of his life, whatever he set out to do, he will do whatever it takes to be successful and to get the job done and to get it done in a more than acceptable way,” she told TODAY.

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Slow and steady

Barber didn’t become a football success overnight. 

When he was selected by the Giants in the second round of the 1997 draft, it was as a third down option, not a starter. After injuries early on, his durability was questioned; he struggled to overcome a fumbling problem. 

“I never failed because I never stopped trying,” Barber said. “These failures that came along, they happened to me, but I didn’t let them conquer me, so I never did fail.”

Barber figured out what it took to succeed, finding the right combination of lifting coaches, chiropractors and massages. He learned how to study up on his opponent by watching two hours of film instead of five.

“Things got more efficient,” Barber said. “That comes with experience and going through hard knocks.”

“I have team regrets that we didn’t win to continue forward, but I definitely have not a single regret for those games and my entire career,” Barber said. “My ups and downs I wouldn’t change for the world because the struggles I went through made me appreciate when I became successful.”

The next challenge

Preparation made Barber a top football player, and preparation is what he feels will make him a great journalist on TODAY and a top analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America,” his second assignment with the network.

For almost as long as he has been a part of the NFL, it as if he has been quietly getting ready for his second career, or as Barber calls it, his first “real job.”  He has written three children’s books and starred in a couple off-Broadway plays. He hosted one radio show covering politics, news, sports and entertainment and another sports radio talk show with Ronde.  In 2000 he started as a morning sports correspondent on WCBS and about two years ago he become a correspondent with “Fox and Friends.”

“At Fox news and WCBS, I was dabbling, I was putting my foot in the door,” Barber said. “But to actually have this as my profession is different. It’s a great responsibility to me, so I have to work to get to that same point as I was as a football player.

“That’s the challenge in it. That’s why I love it, because I love a challenge.”

And there are no more questions in his mind about who he aspires to be. That person will be right next to him on the couch.

“Getting to know Matt (Lauer) and seeing Matt do what he does and having a trust and a confidence about himself in delivering the room whether it be putting on a silly Halloween costume or interviewing the president, he’s the kind of person that I want to be,” Barber said in February. “I’m honored to be able to learn from him a little bit and direct my path.”