The abandonment of Tiki Barber

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Who remembers the last time the Giants played the Saints at home?

I do; I went to that game. It was on Christmas Eve in 2006, and the weather was unseasonably warm. These unexpected tastes of spring can be rejuvenating sometimes, but that day it had the opposite effect. Absent a winter chill, torpor prevailed, both in the stands and on the field.

The Giants played like they were underwater, and lost 30-7. It was their sixth loss in their last seven games. They had been 6-2 not long ago; now they were 7-8. After freefalling for weeks, they had finally gone splat, their ill-fitting pieces scattered and laid bare.

Towards the end of the third quarter, I joined some 70,000 other Giants fans in a vitriolic repudiation of the head coach, who, it seemed quite obvious, had lost this team. “Fire Coughlin,” we chanted in that “Let’s Go Yankees” singsong, with its cadence conveying a taunting inevitability.

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Somehow, after all this, they were still in a position to make the playoffs if they won the following week against Washington. But those Giants didn’t deserve the honor. Most of us just wanted those guys out of our hair.

Except for one guy, that is. That Christmas Eve game was Tiki Barber’s final home game. He was the last Giant introduced during pregame introductions, and received a profound ovation.

He returned the love by blowing a kiss toward the crowd, his signature gesture, performed after touchdown he scored. See, Tiki was a different kind of Giant: A brutish manly man, or an LT-style crazed dog he was not. His style of play was consistent with how he liked to think of himself off the field: refined and evolved.

About that running style: It’s beyond my ability as a writer to do it justice, to do the Roger Angell thing of structuring my sentences with the flow and counterintuitive pivots to mirror how Tiki ran.

The standard descriptive words don’t help much either. Elusive, sure, but that wasn’t the half of it. Shifty, yes, although that description applies to millions of running backs, none of whom had Tiki’s subtle, low-gear brand of shiftiness. Roach-like comes close, as it aptly describes his knack for darting in a direction that had occurred only to him, with a single cut forcing eleven defenders to recalibrate their spatial assessments. But even this is flawed because it casts him as a lower-order creature. Really, the defenders were.

I go back to two quotes when thinking of Tiki, both from flattering magazine profiles from that 2006 season, during which he announced his plans to retire at the end of the year.

The first, from Ben McGrath’s piece in The New Yorker: “Recently, he said, ‘I don’t run fast anymore when I’m on the football field.’ He did not mean the comment to be self-deprecating.”

The second, via his twin brother Ronde, from David Amsden‘s piece in New York: "Some people play for fun, but I think Tiki played the game so he could master it."

It’s not exaggerating to say that Tiki played the game in a way that approached some kind of genius. That’s why he was and still is my favorite player of all time.

I GET WHY TIKI HAS BECOME PERSONA NON GRATA, why he was booed at the Giants’ ring of honor ceremony two years ago, let alone whenever his highlights appear on the stadium big screens.

He made his own bed here, the theory goes: He badmouthed Eli and Coughlin, then watched them become improbable Mount Rushmore Giants the very next year. He purported to be a family guy, but then was revealed as an adulterer. He held himself apart as a renaissance man, but turned into a bungler who kept putting his foot in his mouth. For all of his instinctive grace as a player, he’s been the opposite kind of retired player.

What seems to have made his crime unforgiveable to some was simple bad timing: Had the Giants not won the Super Bowl the year that he set himself against Eli and Coughlin, his comments would have had the chance to die down, and be shrugged off as a crass stumble for a newbie broadcaster. But the “controversy” was still fresh when the Giants won, and thus, the Manichean fault lines were etched in stone between Tiki and Coughlin, the bratty 2006 Giants versus the triumphant champions of ‘07.

Presented with the choice between the Super Bowl-winning coach and the guy who was rapidly bombing his way out of broadcasting, we chose the coach, conveniently forgetting that we were on the exact opposite side the year before. All the vitriol that had been directed at Coughlin during that 2006 Saints game was shifted onto Tiki. “Scapegoat” is the word for this.

The second Super Bowl canonized Coughlin, consequently making look all the worse the player who once said Coughlin had been “outcoached” and who wrote that he had “robbed me of … the joy I felt playing football.”

To be sure, Tiki has exacerbated things. He seems unable to help being grating, or clueless, or kind of a dick. But just as sure, his missteps have been gleefully met at each turn by collective false outrage, schadenfreude and thoughtless piling on.

I accept that Tiki’s an unlikeable face on television and flawed guy, but I don’t root for athletes on my teams based of their Q ratings. As for moral judgments, I’ll only say that like every other Giants fan, I venerate a certain defensive player from the ‘80s whose behavior has been far worse that Tiki's.

Ultimately, we have a choice when it comes to Tiki, between remembering the beautiful football player we were lucky to watch and joining the feeding frenzy. It’s not a hard choice for me, and it’s confounding and upsetting that more Giants fans don’t feel the same way.