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So What Do You Do, Tiki Barber, The Today Show, Correspondent?

The former New York Giants' star running back opens his playbook on his plans to score big in broadcasting

By Diane Clehane - January 2, 2008
Successful second acts for star athletes who've grown used to the cheer of the crowd can be a dicey proposition. Many, like the former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, turn to television, the medium that helped secure their stardom. For the majority of players turned broadcasters, the results are decidedly mixed. Instead of the graceful great fans were accustomed to seeing on the playing field, often times this familiar face in unfamiliar territory assumes the role of nervous rookie. As a novice broadcaster approaching his first anniversary on NBC's Today show, Tiki Barber is playing to win. He began planning for his post football career long before he announced his retirement in October 2006. In the months leading up to and directly after hanging up his helmet for the last time, Barber seemed to be everywhere from ads touting The Wall Street Journal to slick spots as a celebrity shill for Cadillac. Last fall he made headlines when he revealed in his memoir, Tiki: My Life in the Game and Beyond, that he still might be playing football if Tom Coughlin weren't coaching the team. But Barber isn't looking back now. Today, he says he's concentrating on reporting the news instead of making it.

Name: Tiki Barber
Position: Correspondent, Today; analyst, Football Night in America
Resume: Joined NBC in February 2007 after retiring from a decade long career in professional football with the New York Giants; started his broadcasting career in 1999 at WFAN radio in New York; the following year added morning sports anchoring to his resume for WCBS-TV; served as a correspondent on Fox News Channel's morning show Fox & Friends and hosted a radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio; currently hosts a weekly football show on Sirius NFL with his twin brother Ronde, The Barber Shop
Birthdate: April 7, 1975
Hometown: Roanoke, Virginia
Education: University of Virginia, B.S. Commerce
Marital status: Married to Ginny; two sons AJ, 5 and Chason, 3
First section of the Sunday Times: "Probably the front page. It depends on whether I'm up to date on what's going on for my Sunday job [Football Night in America]. If I'm up to date, I'll read the front page. If I'm not, I'll read the sports section."
Favorite television show: "24 but it's not on anymore. I don't really watch television because when I come home my kids are watching GeoTrax on demand, so I guess it's GeoTrax and there's only one episode so I end up having to watch it over and over again."
Last book read: "The seventh book of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. It's great. My brother got me into reading fantasy escapism books."

What will the Giants do without Shockey?
[Laughs] That's a great question. Yet to be seen. They have a young kid named Boss who they're high on. He's going to have to pick up a lot of the slack because a tight end in the playoffs when it's cold and windy plays an enormous role. That's why losing Shockey is such a big deal.

Do you watch all the games?
Of course. It's my job. But I enjoy it. People ask me all the time what's it like working on Football Night and I say it's a sports fan's dream. They pay me to sit and watch nine football games in the morning and four or five in the afternoon and then go talk about them.

Do you miss playing?
No. I don't miss playing at all. I miss the stage a little bit -- going out there, performing and knowing I was good at my job and doing it in front of an audience, but I get that in some ways by being on television. I don't miss the poundings and the grind and the way I felt on Mondays, the agony of losing and everything else.

You started your television career long before you retired. Did you always know you were going to wind up in television?
I'm always the kind of person who looked for options. I think it goes back to when my mom used to say, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" and "You have to be great at school because you never know when sports or football are not going to be there for you." That logic kind of ruled my life. To be quite honest, my third year into the NFL I wasn't that good of a football player and so I was looking for options for the next thing. Fortunately, I got better as a player. Congruently, my opportunities in television grew.

I've always been fascinated by watching athletes -- particularly very celebrated ones -- transition into broadcasting. It seems like they fall into two camps: Either they are very natural or other guys, who were so skillful in the game, are so painfully wooden. What's the key to making the switch successfully?
[Laughs] It's interesting you say that. The same thing that made a lot of these athletes great as players -- whether it's baseball, football or whatever -- they don't take the same philosophy going into the next career, which is practice. You get comfortable when you feel confident about what you're talking about. If you go look at my first few tapes when I was working at WCBS back in 1999, I was griping the podium as if my life depended on it -- I wasn't comfortable. But over the years, it just became more comfortable and I became more natural, so that eight years later when I decided to retire and go into television, it was like second nature to me.

Athletes are so venerated by fans that there's such a high expectation level on the field and off. It's almost like if you're a star athlete you have to be a star at whatever else you do in order to be considered a success.
You're right. People always ask, "Is it easier to do sports or television?" I always say sports because you can hide behind your athleticism. You can let something that is God given to you hide your mistakes and that happens in football. I made a lot of mistakes and I was able to make up for them by being aggressive or giving that little extra "oomph." It doesn't work that way in broadcasting. It's like golf in that way -- if you try harder, it messes you up.

What's been the biggest adjustment you've had to make in your new career?
I guess finding the fit. It's the same thing I went through in sports. I learned a lot of lessons in sports. For a long time with the Giants I didn't know what my role was: Was I starter? Was I a third down back? Now, I'm still new in this profession -- I've only been here seven or eight months -- it's about finding exactly where I fit in. That will come. I just know I have to be patient but I'm enjoying it because it's so diverse. I'm getting a lot of opportunities to do tons of different things. Football Night in America and the Today show are just two of them. I've been appearing on Morning Joe and I did Project Runway.

What the best part of your Today show gig?
I get to do so many different things. There's no monotony. That's one of the reasons I got away from the NFL. I got less and less challenged by it and interested in it. The grind was the same every week -- when you're losing it, isn't as easy to feel excited about what you're doing. My body was getting beat up and I wanted to do something else.

How does your sports background translate specifically into doing television?
I guess it does translate. For me it was about being honest. I always toed the line when I was a player. I would get asked a question and there was a certain quote-unquote code that you're not to step over. I toed the line as close as you can toe it without breaking the confidence of my teammates and the organization because that's what I felt like I should be doing. So it translates into morning television because if you're dishonest or you lie on television, it comes through. There's a saying in sports: "Everything is taped." So if you mess up on a football play, you'll get caught because, "The eye in the sky doesn't lie." The same thing happens on television. You can try to fake it but the eye looking right at you doesn't lie. That's one of the lessons I've learned: Be as honest as you can be, because people can tell when you're being fake.

As a Today correspondent who's the one person you'd like to interview?
It's an interesting question -- before I started I would have said Condoleezza Rice. What I've found is that every day people in this country are interesting. I did this story on these refugees down in Atlanta. There was this girl, a Jordanian immigrant -- she was affluent growing up. She came to the United States and decided to stay and her family subsequently cut her off because they wanted her to come back. Meeting her and hearing her story -- how she found these refugee kids and has been a mother figure to them is inspiring and uplifting. Being able to meet someone like that who most people would never even think about was more fulfilling to me than doing an interview with somebody that people already know.

You should have empathy for guy like Michael Vick even though he was blatantly wrong.

What do you think of the coverage in the media of the steroids story? Do you think it will evolve into a bigger story inclusive of other sports?
I think the coverage was needed. The unfortunate thing is that there is too much hearsay and too much misinformation, so people have been desensitized to it. When the real story comes out I don't know that people care. I think there is a little bit of a disservice done by the need to be first. The same thing happened to Sean Taylor when he passed away. Everybody was jumping to conclusions about why he was killed when it was just a random act of violence. Not only do you hurt his legacy, you desensitize people to what the truth is.

In New York, there was a lot made of how disappointed fans were to see some names on Mitchell's list. Athletes are perceived as living icons in this country. Do athletes have a responsibility to live up to fans' high expectations?
They do have a responsibility. It is a responsibility that is probably one of the most challenging things any person can be asked to do. When I talk at schools or groups, I talk about athletes and how we're so venerated because of what we're able to achieve. But at the same time, parents are the key to anything in life, so if your son is a fan of Michael Jordan, you better be a fan as well because should he fall, you need to be there to catch the effects. It is a great responsibility and it's something a lot of athletes aren't cognizant of until something extreme happens to someone close to them or to someone big in the industry, a la Michael Vick.

Speaking of Michael Vick, what's your take on that story?
I saw something from Michael right before sentencing. It made sense to me from his perspective -- and I think that's something a lot of people lack when they look at situations like this. You should have empathy for guy like this even though he was blatantly wrong.

I don't know about that. When a grown man abuses animals in such a horrible way -- for profit no less, I can't go there and think most people would agree with me on that.
I agree with you but when I listened to what he says, I believe him.

Which was what?
[Paraphrasing] "I grew up in the hood basically and I saw people doing drugs and guns and they would get arrested for it. People were fighting dogs and nothing would happen to them." So even though he probably knew it was bad, he didn't know it was bad because you associate bad with going to jail. The perception [of dogfighting] is changing and it's a good thing this happened because it does shine a light on this. The thing I worry about is after he goes to jail, do people forget? Are they on to the next story now? Was anything accomplished or was he just made an example of?

Do you think his sentencing was fair?
I think it was fair. He was egregiously involved in the slaughtering of animals. My question is what is the real result of this? Are we going to keep following this or are we on to the next thing?

What is the appropriate next move in covering the story?
I think you keep telling it. I think you give him the opportunity to tell his story. People go through things in life and they either learn from it or they rebel against their lesson. I think you find out. I think it's valuable to see what he does going forward.

So would you want that first sit-down with him?
Absolutely. Obviously, it's not happening until whenever he gets out.

On a lighter note, fess up -- what did you really think of those ridiculous outfits those contestants on Project Runway made for you?
They were horrible. To their credit, they didn't do men ...

That was obvious.
[Laughs] But they were horrible. They were very kind on the editing because we weren't as nice as they made it seem. My wife is a publicist of [Ermenegildo] Zegna and I know she wasn't as nice as they made her out to be. [Laughs]

How did you wind up on the show?
I was in the elevator at 30 Rock and one of the producers said, "I was looking for you. I want you to do Project Runway." I literally gave him one of those, "Yeah, sure. Whatever." It came back around a few months later and he said, "No, I was serious." It was really light lifting for me. It was fun. Every female I've talked to since then has asked me about it.

You've got great personal style. Your clothes look like they're sewn on to you. Were you always into clothes?
I was always into my wife. When we were in college we loved New York City and she always wanted to be in fashion and serendipitously I got drafted by the New York Giants, which meant she came to New York and started working in the fashion industry.

So she's your personal stylist?
She is. I was my terrible dresser in college. Whatever I had was mismatched. It was horrible. Once she started working at Zegna, my wardrobe became filled with these Italian suits made to measure.

They make them just for you? I guess you can't wear off the rack.
I can't wear off the rack because my waist is to skinny and my shoulders are too broad. They let you do your own style -- things that people don't notice like the lining in the jacket or the stitching.

What's an average day like for you?
It varies depending on the day. On Sundays, I go sit and watch television all day. Today I did Morning Joe and I had a meeting with our producers about a documentary I'm going to help with called Meeting David Wilson and talking to you. I'm going to pick my son up at 2 o'clock and take him to karate class. Then I have drinks with Carson Daly's producer because I'm doing his New Year's Eve show and then dinner. Tomorrow will be similar. Some days, in full disclosure, I literally don't leave my house. I take the kids to school, go back to sleep, or do nothing. I have great flexibility, so it's great.

What do you consider your greatest professional success thus far?
I don't know. I don't think I've achieved it yet.

What's been your greatest disappointment?
If it happened, I probably forgot about it.

Do you have a five-year plan?
It's always a work in progress. Right now I don't know exactly where that plan might lead me. There are a couple different tentacles that can branch off. I'm enjoying the ride.

So how would you say you've gotten to where you are?
[Sighs] I surrounded myself with great people, one being my manager -- Mark Lepselter -- who told me when I was struggling as a football player, "Here's what we're going to do Tiki: we're going to divorce you from the game of football because you have greater interests and you're bigger than that." I was getting criticized -- roundly criticized -- I think it was necessary. It helped me become a better football player. I have this theory -- if you try too hard at something you can't focus enough on it. Once it loses a little bit of its importance, it becomes more important. It worked for me. The other people that have helped me are my wife because she's been so supportive of everything I've done. During football season I never had any free time and she was understanding because she knew I was working towards something. I always took her on great vacations. My brother has always been the guy who told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear because a lot of times we surround ourselves with "yes" people. I never wanted that.

Do you have a motto?
I do. Always treat people with respect, because you never know when that foot you step on is connected to the ass you have to kiss.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

[This article has been edited for length and clarity.]

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