Geraldine Barber and her twin sons, Ronde and Tiki, celebrate their shared success and special relatioship.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published November 23, 2003
[Courtesy of Barber family]
A family photo of Ronde and Tiki in 1984.
Geraldine Barber was getting ready for work one morning when she went to check on her twin sons, less than a year old. She peered into their cribs and was horrified.
One of the babies was seizing.
This was 1975, before the 911 emergency system, so she tore through the phone book looking for the number of the local hospital, dialed the seven digits and asked for an ambulance. The nurse taking down information asked, "Mrs. Barber, which twin is it?"
When she turned to look, both were seizing, their little bodies jerking uncontrollably. Geraldine Barber told that to the nurse, who thought the young mother was hysterical.
"Mrs. Barber, calm down. Which twin is it?"
"You don't understand me," Geraldine Barber replied. "It's both of them."
More than 25 years later, Ronde and Tiki Barber are NFL stars about to seize the spotlight on Monday Night Football. At some point, Ronde, a cornerback for the Bucs, likely will tackle Tiki, a running back for the Giants.
How strange it will feel.
Identical twins, Ronde and Tiki shared the same egg, and just about everything else growing up in Roanoke, Va. Their mother's words to the nurse that morning just as adequately describe their entire childhood.
Always, it was both of them.
"I used to encourage them to be true to themselves and to take care of each other," Geraldine said. "I told them, "Somebody might be able to take down one of you, but the two of you together, can't anybody handle you. Always look out for your brother. Friends may come and go, but you will always have an identical brother."'
They have grown into very different men, but the inexplicable, unshakable bond between twins remains. So, too, does the bond between a mother and her sons, who rendered adversity powerless with their unwavering devotion to one another.
"She was the rock of our little family," said Ronde, born seven minutes before Tiki on April 7, 1975. "She is the reason we are where we are, plain and simple. We're basically humble, appreciative people. We approach life in a certain way because of her. She struggled; we struggled. Life's a grind sometimes, and she taught us to use that grind to sharpen our character."
Shy and inseparable, Ronde and Tiki did everything in tandem, even seize. Born one month premature with underdeveloped immune systems, they were unable to cope with any elevation in body temperature. If they were outside playing or in the sun, they would seize. If they caught the flu or a cold, they would seize.
Most often, at the same time.
"When they were born and spent the first three days in incubators, the pediatrician said they would probably never play contact sports," said Geraldine, 50. "And when we started with the seizures he said, "Now remember, they will probably never play contact sports."'
The seizures stopped when they were 4.
In grade school, they began playing football.
"I'm not one of these people who believes you go through life being afraid to live," she said.
* * *
Geraldine and James Barber divorced when Ronde and Tiki were 4, the father distancing himself from his sons. A single mother, Geraldine could not afford much beyond the basics, but nourished her babies with basic principles:
Be careful what you accept from others; there usually is a string attached. Whatever you work for and get for yourself, no one can take away. Brain power is something you can never lose. You cannot get around what's happening in your life, so figure out the best way to deal with it. And, foremost, your brother is your ally.
"A lot of brothers had spite for one another when they succeeded," Tiki said. "Our mom raised us to always be there for our brother and mother because it was just the three of us. When we succeeded, it motivated us."
"Sibling rivalry is a delicate thing when you are growing up. Sometimes, it can border on jealousy," Ronde said. "That was never the case with us. We always were more proud for each other."
Once, Ronde and Tiki took unity a bit too far. The boys were in elementary school when Geraldine came home one night, eager to spend time with her precious sons, only to be challenged by a matched set of precocious, independent thinkers: "We don't see why you get to make all the rules when there's two of us and one of you."
"I got really frustrated with them and I said, "Look, when you make more money than me, you can tell me what to do,"' Geraldine said. "That comes back to haunt me at least once a week."
* * *
Geraldine, who had a business degree from Virginia Tech, worked for nearly 20 years for the local Girl Scout council, starting as office manager and leaving as assistant executive director for financial services. Looking back, she is not sure how she made ends meet.
She probably could have had higher-paying jobs, but none with such a family-oriented organization. This job gave her the freedom to attend afternoon track meets.
"Every night it was, "Lord, thank you for this day, help me get through the next one,"' Geraldine said. "There were many times where I'd sit back and say, "You know, I'm sacrificing my career.' And then I'd look at what I had in exchange for that sacrifice and it's like, "Who cares?' I'd like to think those lessons and trials the three of us went through together when they were younger are paying off now. They can see beyond what's slapping them in the face."
Ronde and Tiki became standout students and athletes at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, sharing state Male Athlete of the Year honors their senior year. They received football scholarships to the University of Virginia, where Ronde was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference corner and Tiki an All-ACC running back.
When her boys went off to college, so did Geraldine. She had given up working on her Master's when she divorced, but as Ronde and Tiki worked on business degrees at UVA, Geraldine completed her Master's in business administration at Averett University.
She was a star pupil.
"Only one time did I call them and say, "I have straight A's. What are you doing?"' she said, breaking out in rich laughter. "Only once did I do that, I promise you. But that did feel good."
Ronde and Tiki started as redshirt freshmen at Virginia, and Geraldine never missed a game. Not even during their final season, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer less than two weeks before the opener. Geraldine had surgery on a Monday and was in the stands that Saturday. Too sore to move around much, she merely enjoyed the atmosphere and sun-soaked afternoon.
Monday, she reported to the doctor's office with one side of her face sunburned. She proceeded to schedule chemotherapy treatments around the UVA schedule.
"Tiki and Ronde were wonderful," she said. "Tiki would call and say, "Take it easy; don't overdo it; get your rest.' Ronde would call and say, "Mom, you feeling okay? Get up, talk and walk and quit being a wuss. You'll feel better if you get out and do something.' And that's what I needed to hear."
Today, she is a proud, seven-year cancer survivor.
* * *
Other than the time she fed the same newborn twice and didn't understand why the other kept crying, Geraldine never has confused her sons. She did not use tricks such as painting a fingernail or color-coding their baby clothes to tell them apart.
She always knew, always saw their differences.
Though they dressed alike until they got to high school, Ronde and Tiki were too shy to pull typical twin pranks. They never swapped identities, never switched girlfriends, never tricked their teachers. Mostly, they stuck to themselves.
"We only talked to one another growing up," Ronde said.
For their first 21 years, they shared a room. When they decided to leave UVA after their junior seasons, both with business degrees, they hoped to be drafted by the same NFL team. Tiki was drafted in the second round by the Giants, Ronde in the third by the Bucs.
For the first time, they faced a future apart.
Seven years later, their names and virtually identical faces are recognized in households nationwide. Playing in the media-saturated New York market, Tiki was famous first. He also was first to play in the Super Bowl, his Giants losing Super Bowl XXXV to the Ravens. When the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII last season, Ronde's popularity grew, and last season the two starred in a Visa commercial playing off the fact they look just alike.
But the boys who clung to one another as children are now very different men. Tiki lives a big-city lifestyle in Manhattan; Ronde a relaxed lifestyle in Tampa Bay. Tiki goes to the theater; Ronde plays golf. Tiki wears suits; Ronde goes casual.
"It's the nature versus nurture argument," Ronde said. "You look at me and Tiki and you realize it's definitely nurture. When we were living together, we carried the same friends, took the same classes, played the same sports. We liked to do the same things with our free time. But as we got older, as we left college, "Wow, I don't know this guy anymore.'
"We have really different personalities. If you sit down with us for five minutes, it's easy to see that. I think most twins are like that. It's easy to say, "Oh, they look alike; they should be similar.' Of course we are. We grew up together. But, without a doubt, we're individuals."
With a mystical, genetic bond.
Ronde and Tiki are writing a children's book, By My Brother's Side, to be published next fall.
"The bond of a twin is something that you can't really express," Tiki said. "It's like a bond of marriage, but it goes deeper than that. You know it's never going to end, never going to be a situation where you feel this person is distrustful to you. I know I am always going to have someone who is telling me things I need to hear and not what I want to hear. And that's why it's so special and so hard to explain."
Even to a mother.
"I'll be honest with you, even I don't quite understand it," said Geraldine, who now works as the assistant director of finance for the County of Roanoke. "Growing up, there were things that brother could say to brother that no coach, no teacher, me, nobody else could say. But if brother said it, it carried meaning."
* * *
Now, the sons have children.
Ronde and his wife, Claudia, have two daughters, Yammile Rose and Justyce Rosina. Tiki and his wife, Ginny, have a son, A.J., and another due in April. And Geraldine, who still hops on planes to see her sons play football, is in awe.
"It's like the passing of the torch," she said. "You can see that circle of life. They say in every family, the generations repeat themselves. I can almost see that circle starting over again.