- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

When the freshman running back came plowing into the defensive line, Virginia’s defenders welcomed him to college two-a-days by pummeling him until coach George Welsh yelled at his veterans to leave the undersized kid alone.

“This guy’s going to be a big part of our future,” former Cavaliers and current New York Giants defensive tackle Ryan Kuehl remembers Welsh saying. “That was pretty rare for coach to be so protective of a freshman, so we knew he must be pretty special.”

Thirteen years later, Tiki Barber could conclude a special career as early as tomorrow’s regular season finale for the Giants against the Washington Redskins. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Barber became the 20th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 career yards earlier this season and ranks 11th all time with 15,373 yards from scrimmage.

That’s not too shabby for a player whom former Giants coach Jim Fassel envisioned as a third-down back/return specialist when Barber was drafted in the second round in 1997.

“I just wanted to get Tiki 15 to 20 touches a game from special teams, third downs and regular downs and go from there,” Fassel said.

After a decent rookie year, Fassel didn’t let Barber go too much as a runner during the down years of 1998 and 1999, playing him behind the now-forgotten Gary Brown and Joe Montgomery. The Giants drafted running back Ron Dayne in the first round in 2000, and Barber responded by running for 1,006 yards, helping lead New York to the Super Bowl.

“Coach Fassel encouraged me … to be the best third-down back, best punt returner in the league,” Barber said. “My focus was on doing those things very well, [but] then [former Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton] found a different niche for me, and it took my expectations of myself to a whole other level, and I started to become the player that I am.”

The starting job has been Barber’s ever since. The only running back with more rushing yards than Barber’s 7,409 over the last five seasons is San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson. And yet Barber, healthy and at the top of his game, is walking away at 31 for a television career, likely on a network morning show.

For the commerce major from Roanoke, Va., there always has been more to life than football. Barber has written two children’s books with his twin brother, Ronde, a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has had weekly television and radio shows for years. But a conversation he had during the offseason with Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, who stunned the NFL by retiring at 31 in the summer of 1999, also had an impact on Barber’s decision to retire after 10 seasons.

“Barry said, ‘After a while I realized that this is a young man’s game and … you start to lose your passion a little bit,’ ” Barber said. “That resonated with me because I had experienced some of the same things with football and wanting to go do the other things that I’d been preparing for for so long. On [game days], I’m as competitive and as passionate a person as there [is], but during the week I’m sitting in a meeting, and instead of being fully focused on the Washington Redskins, I’ll start thinking about other things.”

Barber already was a proven starter when running backs coach Jerald Ingram arrived in 2004 and prodded him to become something even better. Ingram questioned Barber’s strength, which prompted the running back to hire strength coach Joe Carini, who pushed him beyond what he thought were his limits. Barber who had only one 300-carry season to that point, has averaged 327.7 carries since while playing in every game.

“I have been amazed by Tiki,” said Redskins assistant head coach Gregg Williams, whose defense was shredded by Barber for 206 yards last season at New York. “It’s a testament to any player coming into the league that through hard work and continued improvement in skill development that you can get better with age. Tiki can do it all. He can hurt you in so many ways. He is a very versatile athlete in his receiving game and in his rushing game. He is deceptively fast and quick. He is more powerful than a lot of people would give him credit for.”

Barber agreed that he has improved with experience.

“Over the years my vision has slowed down, meaning I see things better and I’ve gotten more patient,” Barber said. “I used to try to run as fast as I [could] to get to the hole as fast as I [could]. I realized that I’d take a lot of shots. So I started to slow myself down, let things happen in front of me and then try to find a way to explode through a hole.”

And whether his football career ends tomorrow or after a Giants playoff game, Barber will be satisfied.

“I’m so excited to get involved in the next level of my life,” Barber added. “We live in a culture where sports is paramount in a lot of people’s lives. They see us on Sunday afternoons, but they don’t see us Monday through Saturday when my body is broken down and I can barely walk and I can’t play with my kids. This game chews up players and spits them out and tells them when they’re done, whether it’s by injury or your talent wanes. In some ways, it’s an ego play on my part to be able to walk away when I want to and go out on my own terms.”

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