TAMPA, Fla. – It should have been the perfect moment to celebrate a near-perfect career. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the franchise's only Super Bowl victory, brought the 2002 players on the field at halftime of their game against Philadelphia on Dec. 9. There was just one exception: Ronde Barber, who hasn't missed a start since that Super Bowl season, remained in the locker room with the 2012 Bucs. He's still playing. So the team put a huge photo of Barber on the big screen. And the response in the stadium was immediate:
See, the visiting Eagles fans were quite numerous and vocal. Plus, they're still upset about a certain pick-six in the NFC Championship Game that ended their season a decade ago. So when they saw the villain's face, the folks in green let Barber have it.
How appropriate. In an age where rookies are the most ballyhooed players in the NFL, a 37-year-old free safety who has a Super Bowl ring and an incredible ironman streak with one team is booed in his own stadium.
"I've been underappreciated my whole life," Barber said days after the game, shrugging it off.
There are some who appreciate what Barber's accomplished in his 16-year career, or at least marvel at his longevity. As he trotted back onto the field after halftime, Barber, the second-oldest non-kicker/quarterback in the league behind only Donald Driver, ran into old teammate Keyshawn Johnson. "How the [expletive] are you still playing?" Johnson yelled to him.
Moments later, off the field, Johnson was asked about Barber and said, "He's [expletive] old!"
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Johnson and the 2002 team returned to the press box to watch the rest of the game, and Barber proceeded to lead the Buccaneers on the field in tackles. He did so, by the way, at a new position. Barber played cornerback his entire career until switching to free safety this season. While Ray Lewis, London Fletcher and Charles Woodson are seen as Ol' Man Defense in this league, Barber is the only player in NFL history with at least 40 interceptions (43) and 25 sacks (27). He's also older than those other guys.
Barber's interception return 10 years ago in Philly was arguably the most significant play in Buccaneer history, as it vaulted Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl over a team they couldn't seem to beat. Yet Barber wasn't even selected to the Pro Bowl that year.
For the most part, Ronde is largely overlooked in the league and around the country. He was even left off an NFL.com list of the top players over the age of 35 – including the group of honorable mentions at the bottom. Even in football-frenzied-Florida, Barber is largely taken for granted even though he's been a constant in a state that is still getting to know many of its pro sports teams. Put it this way: Barber's career as a Buc is older than the entire Tampa Bay Rays franchise.
"That's the toughest guy I've ever been around," says former teammate Barrett Ruud, now with the Texans. "Never misses a practice or a game. Every extra point attempt, he's laying out for it."
Derrick Brooks, now showing a tinge of gray, found himself a little stunned watching his old teammate on the field last week. "You get spoiled," he says. "You never lose respect for him, but I don't know if he gets the appreciation he deserves. He plays inside and out, at the line of scrimmage and deep, and his turnovers for touchdowns, I remember every one. The interception in Philly was the play of our franchise."
Asked what Barber means to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, former coach Jon Gruden says, "Ronde Barber is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
And the crazy thing is, Barber is actually more valuable to the franchise now, at age 37, than he was when he helped them win the Super Bowl.
Tiki's a factor in this story because Tiki is always a factor in any story about Ronde. "I played with a more popular twin all these years," Ronde says. "He was a running back in New York, all-time everything. I'm a cornerback in a smaller market."
This isn't bitterness. It's just fact. "If anybody appreciates me, it's him," Ronde says of his twin. It's just that Tiki has always been, well, more dramatic. Tiki gets the New York Post headlines, the Deadspin mentions and the TV time. This isn't new. Consider a passage from a feature on the twins in a magazine at the University of Virginia, where the Barbers played:
The brothers spent their first days in separate incubators. Ronde slept peacefully. Tiki 'was screaming his head off,' the boys' mother, Geraldine, recalls. 'It was like he was yelling, 'Let me out of here. I don't want to be held down.' For this, she named her youngest Atiim Kiambu, which means Fiery-Tempered King. "Ronde," Geraldine says, "was more like, 'Okay, I'm going to take advantage of this moment to rest.' "
And so it's been ever since. Ronde knew how to "rest" his entire life. He's a master at efficiency and economy, with zero wasted motion. He is the only player on the Bucs who has installed shelves in his locker. "I can be anal," he says, laughing. "I like neatness."
That's the genius of Ronde, though. While he describes his brother as "big picture," Ronde is known in the Bucs locker room for one phrase: "See a little, see a lot." He is always telling fellow defenders to focus on one tiny part of the action, maybe the way a guard pulls or a tight end gets off the line, and use that to understand the entire offensive scheme. Tiki has always attacked the great big world out there, but Ronde has survived all these years in the league by focusing on the microscopic.
"You're going to know where Tiki's coming from," says Geraldine, reached by phone on Saturday. "Ronde's going to plot and plan and when you figure out what he's up to, he's having a cup of tea and watching you figure it out. You expect him to be in one spot on the field and he's in another. He's always strategizing."
Part of that strategy has been to stay in the best shape possible. "When you play that position," says former Bucs wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, "you usually slow down. I'm shocked."
Cornerback is, obviously, a physical position. Barber has to slow down or stop a man bigger than him on pretty much every play, because how many offensive players are there in the league who are 5'9" or shorter? (Doug Martin doesn't count because he plays for the Bucs.) This isn't Tony Gonzalez, a giant who bounced off smaller men for many years. This is the equivalent of a kicker playing in the secondary for 200-plus straight games.
"I think of all the players that have gone in the training room to get an ankle or an elbow taped, I just think, 'Ronde would have practiced; Ronde wouldn't have been in there with that,' " Gruden says. "Ronde set a physical toughness tone for our team."
That toughness dates far back – back to when he began in the league. His "anal" personality didn't just emerge when he woke up at 32 and realized he might be nearing the end of his money-making days.
"When I was there, he was one of the few guys that had a routine," says former Bucs quarterback Shaun King. "He'd go home on the computer and pull up 35 ways to keep your body healthy. He'd go into the cold tub, get massages. Brian Kelly and Ronde would tell me, 'We're going to do Pilates.' I was like, 'Get the hell out.' "
No one would have blamed Barber if he retired after last season. The team lost 10 in a row to end 2011 and brought in a taskmaster of a coach in Greg Schiano. The new guy would run the Bucs like a college team, right down to circuit drills in training camp with stations devoted to learning how to tackle properly. If there was one player in the league who didn't need a blistering boot camp in the Florida heat, it was Ronde Barber.
But he stayed. This wasn't Brett Favre hanging on for the glory – there isn't much glory in Tampa for Ronde anymore – and it wasn't an old pro who had no post-football plan. Barber can do pretty much whatever he wants. He has plenty of money, as well. No, it was none of the usual reasons. It was because Barber happens to like the "job" part of his job.
"It was the toughest camp I've been through, by far," he says. "But I was all about that. I'm not averse to hard work. In fact, I appreciate it."
The ironic part is that Tom Coughlin's draconian ways played a part in Tiki's departure from the NFL. Coughlin was oppressive and demanding, and Tiki called him out after a playoff loss to Carolina for uninspired play calling. The two had a nasty falling out that spilled into Tiki's retirement years.
Schiano's something of a Coughlin clone, and yet Ronde calls himself "a happy and willing soldier" in the new coach's plan. In fact, when many in the league bristled at Schiano calling for his defense to bust up the Giants' victory formation in Week 2, Barber found himself wondering why the team hadn't done that many times before. Followers of the Bucs saw that play and debated whether Ronde would buy into the Schiano system. But asked about that episode, Barber says, "It's a football play. It is what it is. You have a chance to win, so why not take it? It's not in the etiquette of the game. Well, I don't give a damn about that."
Schiano, meanwhile, reveres Barber. The former Rutgers coach, with his glare and his lantern jaw, doesn't seem like someone who would care for input. Yet he glows when asked about Barber. "He's been huge," Schiano says. "I run a lot of things through him."
The coach-on-the-field line is a cliché, and Ronde jokes he doesn't have the patience to be an assistant. But in a real sense, he already is. Asked how important it was to recruit Barber, Schiano bluntly admits: "Otherwise, it doesn't work." The two of them seem to be kindred spirits.
The loss to the Eagles a week ago is an instructive look at Barber's value, albeit in an odd way. The Eagles tore down the field at the end of the fourth quarter, needing a touchdown to win. Philadelphia moved the ball to the Bucs' 1-yard-line with two seconds to go and had one play left. Barber saw the next play a mile away, figuring Eagles quarterback Nick Foles would roll out and tuck a pass toward one side of the end zone.
"You spend so much time preparing, you feel what's happening," Barber says. "I was thinking, 'This is what's getting ready to happen.' "
And yet because he's a safety, he couldn't simply bolt across the field and stop it. All he could do was yell. "I have a job to do," he says. "I'm not that much of a vigilante." And besides, the Bucs ran that very play twice on the Friday before the game. The team was ready for it.
Of course, the Eagles ran that very play, and it worked. The Bucs blew it. They are now a seven-loss team and probably done for the season. Barber was clearly incensed, and you could all but see smoke was rising from his helmet. "In the immediacy of the situation," he says, "it's almost impossible to deal with." And still he was the first to line up for the extra point and the first to run off the field after the game ended. That's Ronde.
The 2002 Bucs would never have let that happen. Barber is training his teammates to rise to a level only he knows. And if they get there, he won't be around to see it. If he stays another year – something he might do – the Bucs are maybe a playoff team but certainly not a Super Bowl contender yet. The young Bucs he's training, the likes of Mark Barron and Ahmad Black, are talented but raw.
"I'm trying to challenge the guys," Barber says, "to own what they're doing."
E.J. Biggers is trying. "You don't want to let him down," says the third-year corner. "A loss like that eats at you. You want to do anything you can to help him win."
Leonard Johnson is trying. "He's a mentor, a father figure, a close friend, a brother. He'll give you anything you may need. He's helped me learn how to be more professional and take my game to another level. He even draws pictures on the sideline, like the coaches."
Black is trying. "He's getting me to trust my instincts," says the second-year defensive back. "Not to second guess. He says, 'If you want to be a legend, play like a legend.' I'm trying to play like a legend.'"
That legend would be Barber. "When he was in the Super Bowl," Black says, "I was in the seventh grade."
It seems at first like a bridge too far, with a 37-year-old dragging a young team back to relevance. After losses like the one to Philly and Sunday's 41-0 obliteration by New Orleans, it is a bridge too far. Yet in another way it's a perfect situation for Barber. He seems to thrive on the grind much more than the glory. He embraces it. Warren Sapp's favorite Ronde moment is when the cameras found him after his interception in Philly, and he said, "Pro Bowl my a--, baby! I'm going to San Diego, damn it!"
"From the very beginning, they were premature" Geraldine says of her twins. "There were some very critical hours after birth. Even back then it was tell 'em you don't think they can do it, and then get out of the way. At every step, somebody has told them they could not go further. They were saying Ronde was a wasted pick. He was too short, he was too small, he didn't fit in the NFL."
He still doesn't fit in the NFL. He's still too slow and too short. His team is too young and too inexperienced. His coach is too demanding and too rigid. He was booed in his own stadium on the 10th anniversary of his Super Bowl win.
All these things must make Ronde Barber very, very happy.
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