Split personalities Twins to face off for fifth time

Tiki Barber says he is ready to retire and begin the next phase of his life. Ronde Barber says he will remain on the field until he is ready to join his twin brother.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published October 29, 2006

Ronde Barber was getting dressed in a luxury room at Le Parker Meridien hotel in midtown Manhattan on a recent Tuesday, the predawn sky still dark, when an e-mail lit up his cell phone. His twin brother, Tiki, the NFL's leading rusher and New York's blossoming media magnate, had an urgent question: Are you on your way over here yet? Tiki Barber, the Giants running back, is a Tuesday-morning regular on the Fox & Friends First news program. Ronde, the Bucs cornerback, was joining Tiki on the 6 a.m. show to promote their third children's book. The driver picking up Ronde wasn't due for another 30 minutes. Ronde: No. What, dude? Tiki: I've been here since 4. Hurry up. Ronde arrived 30 minutes before air time. The producer told him he was late and handed him a schedule with a list of talking points for the segment on North Korea. North Korea? North Korea! "So I'm looking through the packet, and I have two or three points I know I can make to contribute to this conversation," Ronde said. "And in the first two seconds, Tiki says everything that I would have said. I was like, 'Y'all go ahead.' " Later, Ronde did the weather. "This shows why I'm not ready to retire," Ronde said. And why Tiki is.

It was during this one-day book tour bonanza, somewhere among ABC's Good Morning America, ESPN2's Cold Pizza, a downtown Barnes & Noble and their Sirius satellite radio show, that Tiki let it slip to a New York Times reporter that he plans to retire after this season, to walk away at the peak of a 10-year career.

Anyone who knows the Barbers is not surprised. In an era when far too many athletes hang on far too long, the brothers are keenly and refreshingly aware how little of their lives will be spent playing professional football.

And how big their world can be.

"Football is just football," Ronde said. "It transcends some things, but it doesn't transcend everything. I tell my friends all the time, 'I'm 31 years old, and I'm playing a game.' It's a big business, and entertainment is a big business in this country. But you have to recognize the opportunity and be willing to take advantage of it."

Plenty of plans after leaving football

In addition to being superior athletes, the Barber twins are engaging, intelligent, articulate and attractive. An upcoming issue of People magazine will herald them as the sexiest twins alive. They have played in Super Bowls and been to Pro Bowls. They are rich. They have beautiful families.

They smile a lot. And why wouldn't they?

Even the prospect of running into one another, literally, when the Giants and Bucs meet today for the fifth time in their NFL careers thoroughly delights them. Despite sharing a womb for nine months and a room for the first 21 years of their lives, Ronde will tackle Tiki with every bit the ferocity he does any other ball carrier.

"He's just (No.) 21 in blue," Ronde said.

The irony in that statement is Tiki is every bit as hard to pin down on the field as he is to pinpoint off it. Tiki is not just anything, but rather all things: football player, father, husband, news anchor, model, role model, actor, businessman, spokesman, philanthropist, citizen.

And it's no accident.

Eight years ago, business manager Mark Lepselter approached Tiki with a plan to make him into more than a football player. The idea was to take advantage of Tiki's diverse interests, his varied talents and the spotlight that shines so brightly on athletes in New York. As a bonus, Tiki emerged as one of the NFL's best running backs.

Now Tiki is everywhere.

In magazine ads. On billboards. In television commercials. He has lunched with Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, interviewed Osama Bin Laden's mistress on his radio show and been to Israel as a guest of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Tiki's next career will be in broadcasting, a combination of news and events on a network morning show, plus sports. His contract with Fox expires in January, and he is in negotiations with several networks seeking a long-term deal.

"I have a lot of interests, and I never wanted to be solely defined as a football player," said Tiki, among 14 players to reach 16,000 total yards. "I wasn't that way in high school. I wasn't that way in college. And I won't compromise my ideals to be that way in the National Football League. I do my job, and I do it well. But I also know that there's other things that I can do well."

A few years after Tiki started branching out, Ronde began to participate, too. When the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII, Ronde's popularity grew. The twins were featured in a credit card commercial playing off their identical facial features.

Ronde has many of the same qualities as Tiki yet is a somewhat reluctant participant in the off-field activities that inspire Tiki to get out of bed at 3:30 a.m. on his only day off, put on a suit and tie and research world events.

For the most part, if Tiki believes something is a good idea, Ronde goes along with it.

"I don't know if it was ever a conscious decision for me," said Ronde, who has a local radio show on Tuesday evenings in addition to The Barber Shop with his brother on satellite.

"It was something to do. 'Take me down the same path that Tiki has been down.' Obviously, I don't embrace it as much as Tiki does. It doesn't drive me like it drives Tiki. But it's something I'll explore when I get closer to the point of saying, 'Yeah, this is my last year.' But I'm nowhere near that now."

No plans to leave football just yet

Football remains Ronde's passion.

The only cornerback to record 20 interceptions and 20 sacks, Barber signed a five-year extension with the Bucs in September. After picking off the 29th and 30th passes of his career last week against the Eagles' Donovan McNabb, Ronde has an eye on becoming the first 30-30 defender.

As much as Tiki's decision to retire is right for him, Ronde's intention to play several more seasons is equally right for him. Ronde's competitive streak runs deeper.

"Circumstances have made me the more popular one, and that's a relative description because of the nature of my position," Tiki said.

"But he's always been the better athlete. It's his passion. When people ask me about the Hall of Fame - 'You can play a couple more years and make the Hall of Fame' - I'll go up there and introduce my brother, and I'll be on record with him."

Weary of the pounding endured by running backs, Tiki is walking away on his terms. Ronde will know when his body no longer allows him to perform at an elite level.

"My legs will eventually give out on me," Ronde said.

When they do, he will be old by NFL standards but still a young man.

"I want to work for Tiki Inc. one day," Ronde said.

"He'll always have a place with me," Tiki said.

The boss will expect him to be on time.