Ronde Barber's retirement has drawn the appropriate comparisons to the best defensive backs of the modern era: Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, Ed Reed, even Deion Sanders and Darrell Green.
There's another apt comparison group for Barber: Dick Butkus, Bronco Nagurski, Jack Lambert, Carl Eller.
To many fans, Barber is known for his skill, exemplified by his signature interception return for a touchdown in the NFC championship game in 2002 against the Philadelphia Eagles. To players, however, he's known for the kind of toughness usually reserved for end rushers and linebackers.
"That's the toughest guy I've ever been around," former Tampa Bay Bucs teammate Barrett Ruud, an eight-year NFL vet, told Yahoo! Sports in December. "Never misses a practice or a game. Every extra point attempt, he's laying out for it."
The toughness goes even beyond Barber's iron man streak, which started in 1999 and ends with his retirement from the game on Thursday. Barber's consecutive starts streak stands at 224 games, sixth all-time. The players ahead of him are all linemen, with the exception of the top man on the list, Brett Favre. Barber, now 38, is 5-10, 180 pounds – about the size of the average man walking down the street – and he never missed a game due to injury.
Barber always sought the physical challenges most people avoid. Even the most dedicated NFL players don't like training camp – Hall of Fame-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez returned for another season in part because he wouldn't have to deal with the drudgery of it – but Barber anticipated it. He said last year's camp, under new coach Greg Schiano, was exceedingly grueling. It even included tackling stations, which is the equivalent of using a month to teach hockey players how to block shots.
"It was the toughest camp I've been through, by far," Barber said of the preparation for his 16th season. "But I was all about that."
Playing tough in the NFL usually comes with a downside. Maybe a player hovers so close to the edge that he behaves erratically. Maybe a player takes too many chances off the field because he's so accustomed to doing that on the field. The phrase "reckless abandon" is a compliment in football, even though "reckless" and "abandon" both indicate leaving smarts behind in favor of an admirable wildness.
Barber never cost the Bucs in that way. In addition to being so unafraid on the field, he was a perfect citizen off of it. He was a locker room leader. He was a coach's dream. He studied the game assiduously, never figuring he knew everything even though he could predict offensive plays even before they were called at the line of scrimmage. Barber was a ferocious nerd, a detail-obsessed student of the game who built shelves in his locker. How many other NFL players have made every single start for more than a decade and written eight children's books on the side?
For many years, there wasn't much acclaim for Barber. After he helped the Bucs to the Super Bowl in 2003, the team gradually faded from dominance and franchises in bigger markets took the headlines. Still, Barber went about his job, slipping from understated to underrated to underappreciated.
"I love football, I'll always love football," he said Thursday in a media conference announcing his retirement. "But football is just what I did, it's not who I am and I'm ready to move on. I'm ready to do what's next. You turn enough chapters in one book, you finally get to the end, you shut it, put it on the bookshelf and you pick up another book. That's what I'm going to do right now.''
Now, in retirement, there is a swell of love for the man. Even his more famous twin brother, Tiki, asked on a radio show this week why Ronde is so adored and he's not. That may be a question for New Yorkers to answer – at least that's what Ronde said – but the warmth for the quieter Barber comes from an appreciation of a fading part of football.
They simply don't make players like Ronde Barber much anymore. He started in one city, he worked fiercely every season and every offseason, he hit with the intensity of men twice his size, and he retired in the same city where he started without any drama. Ronde Barber was a football player's football player, even though there were parts of him that weren't much like a football player at all.
Should he be in the Hall of Fame? Yes. Absolutely yes. The Super Bowl and the streak are enough, then add the fact that he's the only player in league history with 40-plus interceptions and 25-plus sacks. But let’s steer away from the debates that sully this sports era. The debates are what caused Barber to be overlooked for so long. He wasn't controversial. He wasn't buzzy. He wasn't a celebrity. So he wasn’t discussed, and that's too bad.
When asked Thursday how he wanted to be remembered, Barber said, "I would like people to say I was the toughest player they ever saw."
Through his career, Barber played with more than 40 percent of all players who have ever suited up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here's betting they all are saying exactly that today.
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