Neil Best leaves no stone unturned in the world of sports media.
Tiki Barber, unabridged
I first wrote about Tiki Barber’s career-altering decision to start visiting Joe Carini’s House of Iron back in 2004, as he was launching the most productive three seasons of his career with the Giants.
Friday and Monday, I finally visited the now famous gym in Pine Brook, N.J., where I spoke to Barber, Carini and Barber’s agent, Mark Lepselter.
As Barber lifted spectacular amounts of weight with his arms and legs Monday, his two King Charles Cavaliers, Charlotte and Bernice, scampered about.
I wrote an 800-word story for the Tuesday newspaper about Barber, but that only touched on all of the material I had. If you are interested in reading more, here you go.
Barber on how his return to the gym has gone after four months
“Very quickly, I got stronger than I expected to be. I regained strength faster than I thought I would. I think doing yoga made me healthier and my muscles more elastic, my joints more pliable. So lifting the heavy weights again didn’t crush me.
“Every week I come in here I make a gain in some capacity. At this point I’m probably stronger than I was back when I was playing in ‘05 and ’06. Speed I’m not overly worried about. It’s a non-linear game that we play. It’s all angles. The thing I can’t know until I actually play football again is change of direction. Do I still have that instinct and vision that would allow me to see somebody coming and make a cut behind them and throw them off balance and keep getting extra yardage?”
On how his return has gone mentally
“It’s interesting. I remember back in the ’05 offseason training there was an evolution of what I’d do. I’d come in at the end of March and pound myself until minicamp then focus on being on the field, being in cardiovascular shape. That’s kind of how it’s falling here. I came in six days a week at first. Now I’m at the point where I know I need to get in cardiovascular shape. So while I’m still making gains in here I’m pulling back from six days a week. I’m down to four days a week and as we get closer, hopefully to training camp, it’ll be down to one or two days a week.”
On working out with a local high school quarterback
“What I’ve been doing with him is a lot of wide receiver-type routes so I can get conditioning while I’m getting used to catching the ball, changing directions.”
On being anxious for the lockout to end
“Without a doubt. I think every player who is active or on a team is eager for it, but I’m especially eager for it, because there’s still that unknown. I need to prove to myself that I can still do it and the only way I’m going to do that is getting into that environment, learning an offense and getting on the field and seeing how I feel with cleats and pads and a helmet on.
“It’ll make it completely real. Let’s put it this way: Once we decided to do this back in March, I could see it, but it was way out there. I still had a lot to do physically. There still was a whole lot that had to fall into place. But once the lockout ends and I sign a deal somewhere that faraway reality accelerates right in front of me and I’m looking forward to it.’’
On what role he might play in the NFL
“It’s as a contributor. I wouldn’t do this if I was just going to be on a team and return kicks and be a marginal player. I still have a strong belief in myself as an athlete. I know I can learn an offense quickly and be useful in a lot of different ways. Wherever I go, there’s going to be a guy there who’s number one. I’m going to make him better. I hope to be able to be a major contributor.
“I think the way the NFL has changed in the last five, six, seven years, where no one guy does it all, benefits me. I’m a veteran guy who understands how to win, how to go about the business of doing a job in the NFL, but also has the physical ability to do it. I can help."
On whether LaDainian Tomlinson is a good example of the role he is imagining
“I could be exactly what he was last year. He’s a great template. My last couple of years I took damn near every carry. Nobody does that anymore. You look at a guy like LaDainian, a 200-carry-a-year guy. He’s not THE guy. He’s not going to the Pro Bowl. But he was a major contributor to the Jets last year.’’
On the Giants
“I talked to [GM] Jerry Reese right before the lockout. He said, ‘Tiki, don’t think there won’t be interest here.’ But it’s not a real feasibility. We both know that . . . As I tell people, ‘There’s a professional relationship there [with coach Tom Coughlin] that might not work out so well.'
“It wasn’t as if I was asking the Giants to activate me and put me back on their roster. Our letter to them asked them to activate me and release me. Jerry was nothing but complimentary. He was supportive. He said, ‘Tiki, I’ve known you for a long time. Anything you put your mind to you can do and I wouldn’t bet a quarter against you.’ I have a good relationship with the Giants and it in no way was going to be adversarial or controversial as it was made out to be.’’
On whether he would have come back even if a prominent NFL person he trusts had not urged him to do so during Super Bowl week
“My brother [Ronde] said I should have never left. Joe said it. But it just wasn’t the right time for me emotionally or mentally. Now I’m at a point where it feels right. The unfortunate thing in the NFL is when most guys leave they don’t get the chance to come back, either because they let themselves go or there’s just no interest. I know there’s interest and I haven’t let myself go.’’
On whether changing his image was a motivation
“I’m not interested in rewriting the script. I’ve never been one to look backward and say if I should have I could have I would have. Just like when I’m on the field it makes no difference who’s behind me. My goal has always been, and it has to be, in front of me. Otherwise I start seeing obstacles and I get distracted and I’ll never reach the goal-line, to put it in football terms.
“For me this is what I have to do for my life going forward – one, to be fulfilled, but also to get back on that track.
“I talked to [Michael] Strahan about five months ago. We were just talking about life - divorce, kids, football. He said, ‘You know, Tiki, I was lucky, because I could change my story.’ And this is a way for me to change whatever story that exists, whatever that may be, and I can control it because it’s in front of me and it’s not the stuff that’s happened behind me. If it changes the story, great. But it’s not my goal.’’
On being widely disliked by Giants fans
“I learned over the last year that I need to have a tight circle of friends. For so long everybody was my friend. But you realize when you start taking water they jump ship quickly. People you think you can trust you really can’t trust. This has taught me that I really need to surround myself with people who really care about me regardless of the circumstances. That’s actually been a beneficial thing.’’
On whether he’s surprised by the level of hatred toward him
“I don’t understand it. I’ve never been bad to people, even people in the media . . . I think I treated everybody fairly and with respect and appreciated their job. I don’t think I got that reciprocation. I take it for what it is. I think people are trying to do their job but also I know some who have written hold personal agendas.
“All I can do is be who I am, treat people the way I’ve always treated them and go forward with my life. I didn’t get along with everybody but I was never really mean to anybody. The reason Antonio Pierce hated me is when he was blowing an air horn in [TV reporter] Reischea Canidate’s face asking him questions the second game of the season in 2007 and I called him out on the radio, he took offense to it. But he was wrong and I said he was wrong.’’
On what he might do after his second playing career
“There are a lot of things I’ve thought about. I still have friends in the media industry. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit for me in media. NBC clearly wasn’t the right fit. And I have a business degree from the University of Virginia. There are lots of things we’ve explored but haven’t pulled the trigger.’’
Joe Carini on Barber’s workouts
“Unbelievable. The first six weeks it was six days a week. This past week he did his best squats and his best dead lift of all time. Each week he’s breaking personal records. The good thing is he’s at the same playing weight as when he left the game, about 208. He back squatted 1,005 pounds for three reps. He pulled with the bar off a box 560 pounds. His bench is better than it was.
“He’s more focused than he was because it’s a point where he wants to prove he can do this to himself more than anybody else. There’s no question in my mind he’s going to succeed. Mentally he’s ready to go. I love having him here every day. He will be playing. There’s no question about that.
“Normally I would say if somebody came to me who was in his situation, they certainly wouldn’t drive themselves the way he does. Therefore you are not going to get the best of them. With him, I bleed it out of him. There’s not much he can say about it. We’ve always had an understanding that I’m not really interested in what he has to say or anyone else, for that matter.
“I have to punish him every day. He either has to get more weight, another rep or two, or show me something in the way of what’s going to make him a better player than when he left the game.’’
Carini on Barber’s comeback
“The thing that irritated me to no end was that when he decided he had had enough a few years ago there was so much more left in the tank. In three years with me he had the three best years in NFL history, all-purpose yards. You can’t look back at that now. What’s the point? We don’t remind each other of what we could have done. It’s what we’re going to do.
“I firmly believe he’s going to come back. He’s going to come back bigger, body-wise. He’s probably a little bit faster than he was five months ago. No injuries. Very self-motivated. A person like himself that’s driven to the point of where he has to go, he’s going to be highly, highly successful. I just feel that he’s going to come back and he’s going to be great. People are going to sit there and say what could have been.
“He was a little under 190 pounds when he came back. I used to break his chops, like, ‘Man, what were you doing, spinning classes? I mean, Christ, what are we doing here?’ That kind of stuff used to drive me nuts.
“Can he withstand the hits, take the shots? He’ll go back to playing the game the way he left it, where he’ll be able to dish out shots. The contact is not going to be a factor. Let’s face it, he’s four years removed. But I firmly believe the buildup he has now will carry over into the season. If he gets with the right team, which he will, and they’re a physical team, he’ll be fantastic.’’ [Barber's most likely landing spot is the Steelers, by the way.]
Carini on Barber’s image
“I love the guy. It kills me . . . Do these people who make all these comments, do they hang out with him? Are they going out to dinner with him? Are they living his life? Yeah, it bothers me, because it has nothing to do with him the football player. Judge the man for the football player. Whatever happens in your personal life, why should people have to go there and make up all kinds of things?
“I’d die for the guy. You have a truck or train stand in front of me and you tell me I have to take that shot, I’m going to take it on with him. It’s that simple. So yeah, it bothers me. It bothers me a great deal. I don’t grasp where these people come from. You know what, who are they? Their whole life has been nothing but a bowl of cherries? Haven’t they had adversity? Haven’t they had to deal with things or created their own situations?
“It’s despicable how people conduct themselves when it comes to him. I tell you the truth, it’s so comical at this point, I don’t say it to him but some days it’s like, ‘Are they kidding?’ It’ll be like, ‘Hey, did you hear that one or this one?’
“If the man comes back and he’s playing and all of a sudden boom, boom, boom, he’s doing his thing on the field, all of a sudden you start cheering for the man?”
Lepselter on Barber’s decision to return
“We joked about it but it really didn’t get serious until that call he made to me the week of the Super Bowl. He was out for dinner with some folks and someone put in his ear that he really should think about coming back. Someone relevant. He called me at 2:30 in the morning the Tuesday night before the Super Bowl.
“I thought something was wrong. I said, ‘Is everything all right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got something to tell you.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I just had some drinks with so and so and he said I should think about coming back next year.’ I said, ‘Yeah, and?’ He said, ‘I want to do it.’ I was absolutely all for it.
"We were on the phone for about a half hour that night. I woke up Wednesday morning and called him to make sure it wasn’t the booze talking. He had passed that individual again. From that day forward over the course of February there were some discussions internally between he and I. We didn’t say anything to Joe.
“By President’s Day I had been nervous his interest was waning a little bit. I wanted to reach out to some people for both our peace of mind and Traci’s [Barber’s girlfriend Traci Lynn Johnson] that it was 110 percent real. It was a race against the clock. He needed to get back in the gym. Fast forward to the first few days of March. Thursday I reached out to another prominent individual in the league.
“I was driving that Friday [March 4] with my wife and I get a text and it said, paraphrasing, ‘Tell your boy to get his ass in the gym. Let’s roll.’ I darn near hit the roof of the car. With that I called Tiki and I said, ‘Teek, that thing we’ve been talking about? I just got confirmation. Let’s go, 110 percent.’
“I’ll never forget: I said, ‘Here it is, what do you think?’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was very emotional after everything that’s gone on in his life, and I had felt for some time this was his best option. I called Joe. He and I had spoken about that many times over the years. That Saturday, March 5, I have the video of him walking in here for the first time in four years.
“We implemented the field work about a month ago, cardio, football drills. Five months until Aug. 1 every day is imperative. The lockout absolutely was a blessing in disguise. I would like it to end now.
“He didn’t look like an NFL player in March. Yes, you get ingratiated with your teammates [in an offseason program], which is important, but he wasn’t ready to walk in an NFL locker room in March . . . Now he’s ready.’’
Lepselter on the Giants
“I sent a letter to Jerry Reese and the commissioner’s office asking the Giants to activate him and release him immediately from their reserve/retired list. I have nothing but good things to say about Jerry and the whole Giants organization. Tiki and Jerry spoke. The Giants will happily release Tiki and we’ll all part company.”
Lepselter on Barber’s image
“A lot of guys have rectified problems in their past, whatever those were, on Sunday afternoons. Again, I have to point out, I understand people have had issues with things that have gone on, but a lot of Tiki’s problems have been personal issues. We all have them. People can live in their glass houses, but they still have them. That’s not why he’s coming back. He’s coming back because someone he has a ton of respect for said to him you should do this. You can do this. And that inspired him and relit the fire to do this.’’
Lepselter on Barber’s NFL role
“He’s not looking to go play for just any team. He wants to go somewhere he knows the coach, feels he can fit into the locker room and system. As I’ve said from Day One: He has zero interest in being a situational back. He believes he can compete for a significant role. It doesn’t have to be a starter. He doesn’t have to be on the field for the first play of the game. He feels he can contribute to a team significantly.’’
More from Lepselter on Barber’s image
“It’s unfortunate some things that happened when he first retired, things that were said about Eli and the coach. Could they have been phrased differently? Yes. Was he going gratuitously out of his way to harm anyone? Absolutely not. It is just unfortunate. The other issues, let’s be honest, no one cares about his soon-to-be-ex-wife, no one cares about his kids. He needs to take care of his kids. He needs to do right by his ex-wife. It’s no one else’s business. People who live in glass houses and make it like they ---- ice cream are delusional.’’
Lepselter on the notion of the football comeback not working out
“The league has been loaded with guys who could lift a lot of weights and couldn’t produce on the field. Fortunately the history is there that he has performed on the field. There’s no delusions here. You need to get on the field. That’s why I want this lockout to end just as much as any other fan and the players and owners and everyone else. He needs to start wearing a helmet again and shells and being in a real football environment.
“If this does not work right now I don’t have the answer for the next phase. He does have a relationship with Yahoo Sports which will continue. As far as business, other things to do, this is what we’re focused on right now. Frankly, failure is not an option.’’
Lepselter on whether Barber needs the money
“All I know is, does he have multiple seven figures in the bank still? Yes. Does he need to find a job? Yes. He has four kids he has to support. He’s going through a very expensive divorce. Yes, he needs to have income. If this didn’t work out or if it’s a two-year bridge to the next phase of his life, we’ll figure it out. We’ve always been able to figure it out.’’
More from Lepselter on Barber’s motivation
“I said to him back in March, that Friday night when we got the green light, I said to him, ‘Go finish the script on your Hall of Fame-caliber career and rewrite the script that has been your life for the past four years.' [Improving his image] would be a nice sidebar. It’s a byproduct.
“A friend of mine asked me, ‘Mark, how do you define success of what you’re trying to accomplish?’ I broke it down to this: Stay on the field all 16 games. Be a sold if not spectacular contributor to a team. And have every coach and every player in that locker room say you were a hell of a guy. Success.
“If he can do this for the next couple of years and have it be everything that I just laid out, to me the byproduct is rewriting the script that’s been his life the last couple of years. The saddest part about all this on the professional side is that his career has been extinguished. What he accomplished as a Giant is remarkable, I believe, and it’s been largely blown to bits with all the negativity surrounding him.’’
One more bit of trivia from the aforementioned quotes: Remember that line in which Carini told Barber he looked as if he had been spending his time in spinning classes rather than weight rooms?
Newsday baseball columnist Ken Davidoff can confirm that: During Barber’s retirement, he twice found himself in spinning classes with him, once in Manhattan and once on the East End of Long Island.