In his first interview since a newspaper published controversial excerpts from his book, former New York Giants star Tiki Barber said there is no one reason he retired from the game. He also denied telling tales out of the huddle about Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
On Tuesday, The New York Daily News prematurely printed excerpts from Barber’s memoir, "Tiki: My Life In The Game And Beyond," published by Simon and Schuster. In one, Barber writes that his former coach, Tom Coughlin, robbed him of his love of the game. Commentators have taken that to mean Barber quit at the end of the most productive season he had ever had because of Coughlin.
"He is not the reason I retired," Barber, who now works as a news reporter and football analyst for NBC, told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer in the exclusive interview. "Oftentimes people are looking for something concrete, one simple explanation for why I retired. I’m not that simple; I’m not that shallow."
"It’s a confluence of things — the pounding, the opportunities to do other things, the fact that I wasn’t having fun playing anymore. . . but he is part of the reason why I retired from the game."
Barber, who holds the Giants’ rushing records for a single game, a season and a career, was one of the most popular players the team had ever had. But last season he attracted criticism and created controversy when, in response to a question from reporters, he criticized Coughlin’s coaching. In the parlance of the game, it’s calling out a coach, and it’s not supposed to be done.
"Why do it?" Lauer asked.
"I have a choice, and I lose no matter what," Barber replied. "I can say nothing, which is cowardly; I can lie, which is immoral; or I can tell the truth, which will upset people."
"My choice was to be true to myself and tell the truth, and oftentimes, too many people don’t want to hear that. They don’t question decisions, they don’t question people’s opinion, they just accept it and they do what they’re told. And that’s wrong."
This year, he found himself being blasted in the New York tabloids again.
During a cameo appearance during a pre-season game broadcast by NBC Sports, Barber was asked about Manning’s leadership skills. Barber replied that last year, Manning’s attempts to lead at team meetings were sometimes "comical."
Lauer said that sounded like telling tales out of the huddle.
Barber disagreed. "The tales you don’t tell out of the huddle are the ones with guys sleeping around, etc.," he said. "I was asked about Eli’s leadership qualities."
"He needs to step up," Lauer said, suggesting a way Barber could have answered.
"And that is a dull, shill response every former athlete says," Barber said.
"NBC hired me to give my true opinions about what I believe is happening in the locker room. I’ve told this to Eli himself — ‘You need to be a stronger leader.’ I wasn’t ratting him out. The intent of that comment was not to harm; it was to tell a story as I experienced it."
"If you ask any guys in the locker room, they’ll tell you it was funny when he was trying to find his voice, because he’s not an outgoing guy. He is a good leader, he’s a good quarterback, but he needs to find his voice, and I think he’s started to do that."
The 32-year-old Barber and his identical twin brother, Ronde, a star defensive back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, grew up in Roanoke, Va. His father, James Barber, left when the boys were just four, leaving their mother, Geraldine, to raise them alone.
She worked three jobs to provide for her boys, and was, Barber said, an outstanding mother. "She’s a rock," he told Lauer. "She’s my inspiration."
But there were times when the absence of a father and his mother’s long hours of work pressed down on him and he would cry out of sheer loneliness, even with his brother by his side.
"It was hard," he told Lauer. "We were safe. We had babysitters there. I knew that my mom was coming home. But all kids want to be loved; they want their mother there with them. I always had my brother. We were always on top of each other, we were always close. But everybody wants their mom. I knew she was working hard every day — and not at home."
He also writes about his father, a subject which he has rarely mentioned in the past. James Barber, who has another son and daughter by a second relationship, has tried to contact his son since he became a successful football player, but Barber writes that he feels nothing for him: "What did I feel for my father? Not love or hate. Those emotions are too strong. It was something worse. Indifference."
In the final game of Barber’s final season last year against the Redskins, he set a Giants’ single-game record of 234 yards rushing. In the process, he saved his coach’s job by helping the team get into the playoffs. Barber has never paid attention to the crowd at games, his attention focused totally on his job. But after the game, he looked in the stands in Washington.
"And this guy stood up and said, ‘Your father loves you,’ " Barber told Lauer. "I don’t know if he was talking about God almighty or if he was talking about my father."
Barber can’t stop thinking about that moment. "I know there are still some things I need to do in my life, particularly with my dad," he said.