Jeff Pearlman

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Tiki Barber

#207
The former New York Giants halfback suffered through public ridicule and a failed football comeback. But sometimes a return from tough times makes a man significantly more interesting than 10,000 rushing yards. POSTED May 19, 2015

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Back in 2011, Tiki Barber planned his comeback to the NFL. The former New York Giants tailback had been retired for four seasons, and, well, it hadn’t gone smoothly. Initially, Barber was considered the ideal candidate to transition from playing field to real world. He was hired as a correspondent for The Today Show, as well as for NBC’s Football Night in America. Hell, he even hosted the pre-show for the 66th Golden Globe Awards. It was all sunshine and honey.

Then, the bottom fell out. Word spread that, in 2009, Barber had left his pregnant wife for a 23-year-old NBC intern. The New York tabloids went bonkers. He made some ill-advised quotes. His contract was not renewed by NBC. And, like that, Tiki Barber was persona non grata. Suddenly he was sitting at home, watching bad television and wondering what the hell happened.

He tried returning to the NFL—it didn’t work (the market for 36-year-old running backs isn’t great).

Again, he was lost, confused, hurt, devastated. So, with few options and little hope, he partnered up in an oddball business venture called Thuzio.

And here we are.

These days, the 40-year-old Barber is the co-chairman of Thuzio, a company that provides businesses and professionals with an all access pass to celebrity talent through database, booking and event services. He’s also the co-host of Tiki and Tierney on CBS Sports Radio. He’s married, lives in New York with his wife and kids and Tweets regularly  here.

Tiki Barber, don’t call it a comeback. The Quaz has been here for years …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Tiki, is fame a good thing or a bad thing?

TIKI BARBER: Fame is a great thing because it means you’re celebrated for doing something good. Now, we usually reserve that for athletes and movie stars and etc., but I think teachers are the same way. Or parents. I think it is a good thing, as long as it’s channeled correctly.

J.P.: But it seems like it comes with a lot of … the destructive element of fame. Lately I’ve been thinking about the Kardashians, who drive me crazy …

T.B.: I don’t understand their fame, either.

J.P.: Is it addicting?

T.B.: Is it addicting? You know what’s addicting? Relevance. So it’s less about being famous, because there are a lot of people, we don’t have a clue who they are, but when you get told about them you learn that they’re extraordinarily relevant in their industry. For instance, if you didn’t know the hedge fund world and somebody told you about Paul Tudor Jones, you’d be like, ‘Holy cow! That guy’s an ass kicker.’ So I think relevance is what’s addicting. Fame is just kind of a product of these great people who do great things.

J.P.: I interviewed a guy the other day who lost a Super Bowl, and he also played with the Browns when they went 3-13. He said he would rather go 3-13 than lose the Super Bowl. You lost a Super Bowl. Is it better to go 3-13? Or 11-5 and lose the Super Bowl?

T.B.: Did this guy also win a Super Bowl?

J.P.: No. He did not.

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T.B.: Hmmm … I’ve done both. I don’t know if I went 3-13, but I’ve had a ridiculously bad season. I think losing a Super Bowl is much more preferable to going 3-13. Because you don’t feel like you’re doing your job if you lose like that. I guess for me it was all about achieving something. Was it all about me at times? Yeah. But was it not about me at times? Of course. If I’m not doing my job and 53 other guys aren’t doing their jobs, you go 3-13. But if you’re doing your job, at the end of the day it’s entertainment. So if everyone does their job, and the fans are entertained, losing the Super Bowl is much preferable.

 

J.P.: Was the Super Bowl fun even though you lost?

T.B.: Um, you know, I’m gonna say, yeah, it was fun. But it was frustrating. Because we were so good leading up to that game and we were so bad in the actual game.”

J.P.: I’ve asked this to a gazillion people, and I pretty much get a 50/50 split on answers. If you take into account the aftermath of a football career, as far as the physical, mental, financial problems—is it worth it being a professional football player?

T.B.: Yes, and I think even more so as the years go on. Because the brand continuation is getting easier to capture. Before social networking, if you were a starting cornerback on a football team, 90 percent of the world didn’t know who you were. But the way it is now, you can expose your brand and let it live for much longer. So, yes, it’s definitely worth it. Especially if you’re smart how you position yourself for your post-career.

J.P.: What sort of physical pain do you have because of football?

T.B.: None.

J.P.: What?

T.B.: The only major issue I had was a torn TCL, which created laxity in my knee joint. I have some bone spurs. But I just ran a marathon. I’m running a half marathon in three weeks.

J.P.: How do you explain so many running backs in pain, and you’re not?

T.B.: I think a lot of it is the pounding and the fighting through injury. You get hurt, you get a little nick or something and you keep going. I think it’s a precursor to what happened to the running back—he became expendable. You kind of knew that. It’s probably the easiest job to learn how to do, and to do well, if you know what you’re doing.

J.P.: Are you lucky?

T.B.: Absolutely. There’s an enormous part of me that’s lucky, because there were times when I get bent backward or Roy Williams—the master of the horse collar—he horse collared me, and I fell on the back of my legs and I just happened to fall just right so I got a sprained ankle as opposed to a broken ankle.

J.P.: I remember when Thuzio just came out and I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ And I’d go through it and say, ‘Hmm, John Rocker will appear at my birthday party for $500?’ And now it seems like you guys have become something different, and smarter. When did the idea come up, and when did you realize it would work?

T.B.: The second part of that question is difficult, because we’ve gone through so many iterations. But I’ll get to that in a second. So this idea came from my and Mark Gerson, who is my co-founder. Really just having a conversation over lunch. Now I’ve heard this subsequently, and it’s exactly right. To start a great business and to understand how to make it work, it has to be your problem. You solve your problem, so you know all the answers to the questions when they come your way. So Mark and I started talking about how do athletes book themselves when they don’t have an agent anymore. I said, ‘That’s a great question. I have no idea.’ So basically, after three months, we created Thuzio. How did I know it’d work? I didn’t. Because it started as an e-commerce company, then it moved into a booking business, then it moved into an events company and now it’s moved back into a software company, which is Thuzio 360, which gives this comprehensive look at any athlete across the world. We have 21,000 on our platform. For ad agencies or anyone who has interest in an athlete commercially. I think we knew it was going to work at the Super Bowl in 2014. That’s when Ernst and Young, who had a debate whether to bid $1.5 on the NFL Super Bowl professional services contract, or could they contact Thuzio and do six events in their offices with Joe Montana and Dan Marino and Phil Simms and Victor Cruz and Wayne Chrebet and reach many more people at intimate events and get CEOs to come. They chose to do the latter, and they had an unbelievable Super Bowl. That’s what prompted us to start doing Thuzio executive club. And every time we did one—Brian Billick, Roger Clemens—every single one of these things was fantastic. That’s when I knew we had something that was going to work and have legs. And here we are cooking along.

J.P.: It’s a really smart idea.

T.B.: Thank you. I appreciate that.

J.P.: I could walk down the street right now, past a firefighter who just saved 12 kids from a burning building, or I could walk past a pilot who every day lands a 300,000-pound piece of metal in the sky—and I don’t really give a crap. But Wayne Chrebet walks by and people go crazy. How do you explain that?

T.B.: I think it’s something that’s not easy to accomplish, and we know that. We would love to do it but we can’t. And even if you were trained like a pilot or a firefighter, you still couldn’t do it at the highest level. It’s an unattainable goal and you’ve seen someone do it really well. And you’re in awe of it. You’re in awe of their ability to do something you couldn’t do, even if you really, really, really, really tried your hardest. And I think there’s immediacy in it. I always say this when I speak—the lessons of life, people want to hear them from athletes because they’re exactly the same, it’s just the media. You’re judged immediately. Were you successful? Was he good at that play? Not, ‘Was he good in the last financial quarter?’ I was good in the first quarter, I was shitty in the second quarter. I think the instant gratification that sports provides is really compelling.

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J.P.: But you’ll see these advertisements for sports people as business speakers. You know, ‘Tom Coughlin will come speak to your group about success in the office!’ And I always think, ‘Is there really anything—truly anything—a football coach can teach the guys at Xerox?’

T.B.: I would say no. But what I would say that he can give an experience … those speeches are more about giving insight into football, and stories behind what happened. Who was Pick Mickelson’s caddy? Jim (Bones) Mackay. He had him do one of our Thuzio Executive Club events. He’s not even a star. He’s a caddy. He was explaining these moments that everyone in that room—and they were gold fans—knew Phil had gone through. And he’s explaining it. And it’s like these people were re-living those moments with a commentary. So it’s no different than watching a documentary on someone or reading a memoir from a guy, giving you greater clarity. That’s special, because you can’t get that on an everyday basis. It’s not that he’s teaching them anything. He’s explaining how the successes he had happened. And that is a lesson in itself.

J.P.: So I’m a big fan of comebacks. Like, a huge fan. Mark Spitz, Jim Palmer—anyone who comes back. And I remember when you were coming back and I was thinking, ‘Yes! Comeback!’ I can’t explain it. Here are my two questions: Were you doing it out of love? Because you needed money? 2. Are you better off that it didn’t work out?

T.B.: The answer to No. 2—I am absolutely better off that it didn’t work out. Because that was the exact same time that I sat down and had lunch for the first time with Mark, who wound up being my co-founder of Thuzio. Why was I trying to come back? I was covering the Super Bowl, and Mike Tomlin said, ‘You know, you should try and come back. We could use a guy like you.’ I really was doing nothing else. Literally. Working for Yahoo here and there, but otherwise I was directionless. I mean, I’d wake up in the morning and watch Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I watched every episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I watched every episode of Cheers. I watched every episode of Dexter and Roseanne. I’m not kidding you—I never left my apartment. And it got to a point where I was like, ‘I’m gonna jump off my roof if I don’t do something.’ I was out of TV, I didn’t have any media gigs. I didn’t know what to do. So what do I know how to do really well? Play football. So I worked out with Joe Carini, my strength coach, which was awesome. Because it was great to be in the gym lifting around all these guys. Muhammad Wilkerson was in there. LaDainian Tomlinson. It was great to be around the guys again, but then the lockout happened and I never really got a look. Could I have done it? Sure. Am I glad it didn’t happen? Absolutely. To me, it was something to get my ass off the couch and be engaged in life again. Which is something I hadn’t done in a long time. I was going through a divorce, all that shit.

J.P.: I feel like you’re a great example of … you had a horrible run where it was all negative, negative, negative … but it seems like you’re the classic example where, if a lot of shit is going on, the best thing to do is wait it out and it’ll go away.

T.B.: Yes. You have to wait it out. But then you have to go do something. Don’t sit and feel sorry for yourself. Don’t say, ‘”I should have” or “People should have.” Forget that—go do something. And I think that’s what trying to come back to the NFL and founding Thuzio did for me. It was do something.  Find something you’re passionate about and really go do it. And it pulled me out of whatever I was in. Call it depression or whatever it was. I was lucky. I had good friends. I had bad friends who disappeared, and that was probably a good thing at the end of the day. But I had a lot of good friends who pulled me out and got me engaged doing things I feel really fulfilled doing.

J.P.: You ran for 10,500 yards. Are you a Hall of Famer, and do you care?

T.B.: I would say I am a Hall of Famer, but I understand how the process works. And do I care? Somewhat. You know what I mean? I don’t know if it makes me any different now if I’m viewed as a Hall of Famer. Because I’m borderline. I know I’ve done some unbelievable things in my career. I’m the all-time leading rusher in Giants history. There are only three guys with 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving. I was unique and different. But what’s held against me, and I know this, is I left and they won the Super Bowl. Not that my presence or non-presence had anything to do with the Giants’ Super Bowl run. If you look at the statistics—the rushing statistics and Eli Manning’s statistics are almost the same from 2006 to 2007. The difference is that Michael Strahan played eight games, Jason Tuck played 12. These guys were beat up. But when they won in 2007, their defense was unbelievable. So as much as people want to point to me as the problem, it was actually the other side of the ball that got really good, and that’s why they won.

J.P.: Does that hurt your feelings?

T.B.: Not really. Here’s what I love, because I’m a geek and stats matter to me. Analytics matter to me. So if people are going to say what they want to say about me, and that’s your opinion because you don’t like me—fine. But if you’re going to say I’m a bad player, I’m going to call you full of shit. Because I wasn’t. So that’s what bothers me. When people say I wasn’t a good player—no. If you don’t like me because of something I’ve done, or because I trumpet I’m intelligent, fine. But I was a good player.

J.P.: Is it hard watching your team win a Super Bowl the year after you leave?

T.B.: No, it wasn’t. Because I wasn’t committed to being on that team. There’s so much depth as to why I retired. No. 1, obviously, was because of the pounding. But, No. 2., there were so many things happening for me outside of football that were very interesting. Working at Fox News. This was all in the off-season before I retired. Condoleezza Rice asked me to have lunch with her in the State Department. I went to Dick Cheney’s Christmas party. I was traveling, doing stories that weren’t football related. Those things became interesting to me at the same time my body started to break down. And I didn’t wanna put in the work. I didn’t want to go dead lift 550 pounds and squat 700 pounds. And I made the rational decision to walk away. Most guys would steal a check; play another year because the money is so good. But that would have been disingenuous to myself, much less my teammates.

J.P.: I just thought the grief you took over the Eli quote was so overblown …

T.B.: It was stupid. There was no malice aforethought. It was picking the wrong word. Literally picking the wrong word. What I meant was that he’s funny. Not that he’s a joke, but that he’s funny. Because he is an awesome kid.

J.P.: I know you’ve heard this a million times. But very few athletes I’ve seen—who were good to the media, great with fans—caught more shit …

T.B.: Yeah. That’s one of the things that bothered me from the media standpoint. Forget the fans and everything else. But the media. They piled on. I was so accessible to you guys, you all had my cell phone number. If you had a question you called me directly. You didn’t call and agent or publicist. You called me directly. And as soon as they had the opportunity to cast me as the foil, they did.

J.P.: Do you forgive?

T.B.: Of course. Of course. Steve Serby is my boy, even though he tried throwing me under the bus by saying I gave my brother tips on how to beat the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs in 2007. I mean, I understand what they have to do for a living. Sell newspapers.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TIKI BARBER:

• Five greatest running backs of your lifetime: Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin and Marshall Faulk. Because of Marshall Faulk, I was able to be the guy who had 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yard receiving.

• Three ugliest NFL helmets: Browns, Jaguars and … lemme think. I can’t think of a third one. Buffalo Bills.

• We give you 30 carries in an NFL game right now. What’s your line?: I’m gonna have 160 yards and one touchdown. Because I’ll always get caught on the 1. Brandon Jacobs will come in and score it.

• You ran the New York City Marathon in 2014. Impressions?: It was miserable. It was the coldest marathon in the last 20 years, and I can’t explain it, my body quit. I broke down at mile 14 and I got full-body cramps. So I ended up walking the second half. So I need to do it again.

• Best movie I’ve ever seen?: This is going back to my childhood, but The Goonies.

• Three nicest guys you’ve ever dealt with in professional sports: I’d say Drew Brees, C.C. Sabathia and I’ll give my brother Ronde a toss.

• I’m having a debate with now. In 1999 for Sports Illustrated I wrote the story about John Rocker, racist ballplayer. He recently said I took him out of context and lied. Last week the fact checker sent me the tapes. Release them or sit on them?: Ahhh … mmmm … ehhh …. ummm … I think you sit on them. Because it’s only proving your point that your story already proved.

• Better voice—Johnny Gill or Daryl Hall?: I say Johnny Gill. I love Hall and Oates, but I go Gill.

• Three memories from living in New Rochelle, N.Y.: Three memories? I was only there for eight months. OK, one—it was my first time in my life living in a house and my basement flooded because the sub pump was broken. Two—I met a woman and her kids down the street who have become the best friends of my life. And she’s the Godmother of my youngest daughter. And the third—the house was so poorly designed and they had lofty ceilings. My electric bill, with minimal usage, was about $1,000 a month. It was bad.

• Do you let your kids play tackle football?: I do let my kids play tackle football because they have a passion for the sport. I think it’s more because of Uncle Ronde, because Daddy retired when they were young. However, my oldest son, A.J., had a concussion in his first year and I told him if he had another concussion before reaching high school he wouldn’t be able to play until reaching high school. He’s 12 now. He was 10 when he got the concussion. We didn’t know, but it was in Scarsdale, and there was a doctor. He played the next week and got sick. That’s a sign you’re suffering from post-concussion syndrome. We pulled him. Nothing since.

  • Cameron

    I appreciate this Quaz. Like many NFL and Fantasy Football fans, I had a lot of admiration for Tiki as a player and wished him good luck in his post football life. How things fell apart was shockingly quick and decisive. It’s good to know he’s doing well…. But you were very easy on him, Jeff;)!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life