It’s 4:40 a.m. and Tiki Barber hops out of a yellow cab into the quiet pre-morning dark of midtown Manhattan. It’s Tuesday, the standard day off for NFL players. The New York Giants superstar running back flashes his FOX News staff ID card, clears security, then walks downstairs into the Fox newsroom. Barber settles into his corner of a cluttered, five-desk bullpen and exchanges quick hellos with his associates. A colleague brings him the day’s local newspapers to prep for another broadcast of FOX & Friends, the local morning show where Barber is a regular host. Barber’s picture is splashed all over the papers. Today, this news professional is the news.
At this moment, Ronde Barber, Tiki’s twin brother and an equally—or arguably more—successful player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is sleeping late at their agent’s home in north Jersey. It’s been a long weekend for the Barbers. Both teams were ushered out of the first round of the playoffs, the Bucs in a heartbreaker, the Giants in an embarrassing blowout. But Ronde and the Bucs played on Saturday, which left Ronde time to hop a flight to New York to catch the Giants’ effort on Sunday.
Even though they now live 1,100 miles apart, these 1997 grads of UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce continue to approach their lives as a team in many ways. And rarely has a pair of football players been so relevant, on the field and off. Together, they are pushing at the seams of the culture of professional athletics, in which athletes typically do little more than play ball, chase high-dollar endorsements and bask in gratuitous praise for an occasional charitable appearance. Ronde is the host of the “Ronde Barber Show,” a highly rated radio program in Tampa. The brothers co-host “The Barber Shop,” a Sirius Satellite Radio sports talk program. Tiki hosts “This Week in Football” on New York’s cable sports YES Network. They have even teamed up to write children’s books based on their lives. Two—Game Day and By My Brother’s Side—are already out and a third will hit stores this year. They’ve even optioned rights to create a cartoon based on these books.
The similarities in the brothers’ lives and personalities are remarkable, even for twins. Both are exceedingly genteel, thoughtful, attractive and charismatic. Ronde is a cornerback and Tiki a running back, but both are among the very best to have ever played professional football. Tiki has 16 pounds on Ronde but both—at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 200 and 184 pounds—are tiny by NFL standards. Both are coming off of career-best years and are better now, at age 30, than at any time in their careers. They talk on the phone three or four times a week and have begun to spend summers working out together in New Jersey. They share an agent, are married and have two children each, and still have the same best friends. Each was the best man in his brother’s wedding. Oh, and they’re physically identical. “Actually,” says Tiki, noting that Ronde is slighter and has a thinner face, “we don’t look anything alike.”
The similarities between these twins overwhelm the differences. But a few things stand in stark contrast. For one, while Tiki seems to already be decided on a post-football career in broadcasting, Ronde “has no idea” what will engage him after his playing days. “When plan A stops working, plan B will make itself very apparent,” says Ronde. “But I’m not the kind of guy to sit around and do nothing.”
And the Barbers’ contrasting schedules on this particular Tuesday spotlight one other important departure in the brothers’ personalities, albeit perhaps only a difference of degree. If Ronde can be considered an overachiever on and off the field, Tiki is a freak of NFL nature. His multiplicity of interests outside the game and his unflinching, unselfconscious ambition are unrivaled by perhaps anyone in the league’s history. The high school valedictorian has boiled his fascination with politics, history and broadcasting into what is perhaps the most rigorous regular “day off” of any NFL player. These Tuesdays are a crucible of his interests: Sports on YES and Sirius, and, with today’s FOX & Friends broadcast as an example, discussion of everything from Supreme Court confirmation hearings to abductions in Iraq.
Tiki and his co-hosts have just finished interviewing FOX News Supreme Court expert Tim O’Brien, and the network cuts to commercial. The formality dissolves instantly and O’Brien regresses into a fan. “You know,” he says to the group, “most of Washington would rather have Tiki Barber in the Senate than beating up on our Redskins.”
Politics has a way of coming up in conversation when Tiki’s around, though not because he has any overt ambitions. It’s partly because he is so genuinely interested in political matters—he’s currently reading a book on the U.S. Constitution; David McCullough’s John Adams is up next—and partly because he, like Ronde, is so universally likable. But would he consider a run for public office? Maybe not. “As soon as you run for office,” says Barber, “half the people hate you. And I like being liked too much.”
While both live in big cities, Ronde is Country Mouse to Tiki’s Town Mouse. Ronde lives outside the bustle of Tampa in a secluded area on a golf course, where he takes his down time the old-fashioned way—playing with the kids, spending time with friends, taking some swings on the links. Having dinner every week or so with Bucs quarterback Chris Simms and their wives is about as hob-nobby as Ronde gets. Tiki, on the other hand, lives in the thick of New York City’s Upper East Side, where his every sortie from the apartment is an encounter with the public. This kind of proximity to the world at large has opened up doors of all kinds. Tiki was at a restaurant on the night of his son’s birthday when he was summoned over to a nearby table to meet former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Peres asked for Tiki’s phone number. Just six weeks later, Tiki was on a plane to Israel as Peres’ guest. He attended Dick Cheney’s Christmas party at his D.C. home, an invitation extended by Lynne Cheney, who shares a literary editor with the Barbers. And Tiki will even be attending an intimate sit-down with one of the people he admires most, Condoleezza Rice, at the State Department in May.
But if it is Tiki who spends the most time out in the public eye, it’s Ronde who actually enjoys being out. For Tiki, public time amounts to work. For Ronde, it’s play. “Where they live fits their personalities,” says Chris Vaughan, a high-school teammate and still a best friend to the Barbers. “Tampa is sunny and has a party vibe. And Ronde is the perfect Floridian. He goes out on the town and hangs with friends more. Tiki will go out on appearances, then come back to the house. Even the way they dress now: With Ronde, it’s Florida clothing, with everything untucked. You go see Tiki and he’s wearing suits and ties.”
The twins were born prematurely, on April 7, 1975, in Roanoke, Va., Ronde (Jamael Oronde) seven minutes before his little brother, Tiki. 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, Ms. Barber 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 then I’m going to come out and kick your butt.’ And that’s still how they play football.”
As with most preemies, survival was never a given. And, like a lot of twins, the Barbers leaned on one another to get by. “We had fun growing up,” says Tiki. “We looked out for each other.” Growing up in a single-parent home with a mom who worked several jobs meant sharing clothes, helping each other out with homework and making sure not to cause Mom any undue grief. The twins were extremely shy. “We just weren’t comfortable with people,” says Tiki. “We wouldn’t look people in the eye.” The brothers developed their own private mutter-speak that still surfaces today—a quiet way of communicating that not even Geraldine or close friends can understand. By junior high, Tiki had taken on a leadership role. “Tiki is definitely a foot-forward kind of guy, an initiative type of person,” says Ronde, fondly. “He’s always kind of done things first and often a little bit better. If we were doing calculus or something that was difficult, he’d read it one time, have it figured out and I would be like, ‘Okay, what did you do there? Help me out!’ His common sense meter runs pretty high and he never panics with things.”
And Ronde loosened his younger brother up a bit. “Ronde was the one that wanted to sneak out during high school and go see his girlfriend,” remembers Tiki, “and I was the one who wanted to go do my homework. He’s loose and he likes to have fun. I’m always concerned about responsibility. We rub off on each other.”
Since those formative years, the Barbers have cultivated a dynamic that’s as subtle as it is powerful. The brothers are fueled by fraternal competition, all the while taking pains to avoid competing head-to-head. “I don’t like him to outdo me and he doesn’t like me to outdo him,” says Tiki, quite seriously. “It is competitive, but in a friendly way. When he has success, I want success. But it’s not as if I want success at his expense.”
That competition continues in textbook fashion today on the football field, with both players competing for similar honors but from different positions and for different teams. And either can quickly give an accounting. “Ronde’s got a Super Bowl ring,” says Tiki with a smile, “and he likes to remind me of that. He’s been All-Pro three times and I just got my first. In the same breath, I did something that no other player’s done in the history of the NFL—rush for 1,800 yards and have 500 yards receiving.” Perhaps it’s by design that these two gentlemen can’t conclusively compare apples and oranges.
It’s hard even for an objective analyst to establish the better player. The two have been wildly successful and even more so with age. Tiki owns almost every New York Giants career offense record. He has the most rushing yards in a season (which he set again this year with 1,860). He led the NFL this year in total yards from scrimmage (2,390, rushing and receiving), the second-greatest performance in league history. He led all major running backs in the NFL this year with his average of 5.2 yards per carry. He’s even the Giants’ all-time leading receiver, despite the fact that he’s a running back. He’s been to two Pro Bowls and is a first-time All-Pro this year.
Ronde is a three-time All-Pro selection and three-time Pro Bowler. He has logged better than 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons. This year, he became the first cornerback ever to register both 20 interceptions and 20 sacks in a career. But, in classic Ronde fashion, the real impact of his achievements is less immediately discernible than Tiki’s. Simply put, Ronde Barber plays the game of football like no one else in the game. He’s smaller and quicker than most NFL cornerbacks, which allows him to cover the field in ways that are constantly surprising to offenses. To become the first-ever cornerback in the 20/20 club is an almost bizarre achievement that demonstrates a de facto redefinition of the role of that position. Asking a cornerback to be in position to intercept or go for a sack on a given play is to ask a player to be in two very different places at once, roughly akin to asking your pitcher to play first base also. But, says Ronde, the key to his ability boils down to something simple: “I just do things that not everyone else is willing to do, like hitting guys who are 150 pounds heavier than me.”
Their styles on-field are also indicative of their personalities. “Tiki helps people up after a play,” says Vaughan. “Ronde likes taking people’s heads off. He’ll stand over a tackle. Ronde wants you to think twice about going across the middle.”
Between 1994 and 1997, Tiki played four, and Ronde three, outstanding seasons of Cavalier football. Tiki remains the second all-time and single-season rushing leader. Ronde is third on the career interceptions list despite having been redshirted his freshman year. The brothers helped carry the team to four consecutive bowl appearances. As the 1997 NFL draft approached, the question of where the brothers would end up was electrifying and a little bit terrifying. The twins had been roommates for their first 18 years and housemates for the next three, and they were about to be spun—albeit in the best possible way—to parts unknown.
The brothers played draft day low-key, playing golf with friends and waiting for the phone to ring. It finally did on the 17th green. It was the announcement that Tiki had been taken by the Giants in the second round. Not long after, in the third round, Ronde got the Buccaneers’ call. The Barbers celebrated with friends over dinner at the Hardware Store restaurant in Charlottesville.
Following graduation, the twins finally faced that moment of the first long-term separation in their lives. There was so much to look forward to and so little doubt that they’d remain tight that there was no formality to their departures. Tiki was leaving on his six-hour drive to New York a day before Ronde pointed his truck south. “I remember thinking,” says Ronde, “‘Wow, I’m not going to see him every day anymore. The dude is gone.’”
The twins talked almost every day for some years after. Only more recently, as both have had families of their own, has the frequency of their conversations dropped to a few times a week. “You feel lost if they’re not around you,” says Tiki of the relationship shared by twins. “He’s literally a part of me. For some reason—I don’t know if it’s from being together our entire lives or from some genetic connection—we need each other all the time.”
The sun has risen and fallen since Tiki wrapped up his FOX job and he still has hours to go. Today turns out not to be a normal Tuesday. He’s bumped his Sirius and YES network gigs to make way for an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and a two-hour talk at a cultural center uptown to follow. He is scheduled to be on stage with David Letterman in 15 minutes, but Barber is focused completely on his Sidekick portable computer. “It wasn’t Jefferson,” he says. “It wasn’t Adams ...” Tonight’s guest is fetching the name of the third author of the Federalist Papers. “John Jay, James Madison and … ,” says Barber, shaking his head, frustrated to not know this cold. Finally Google replies. “Alexander Hamilton,” Barber announces. “Of course.”
A producer comes upstairs to fetch Tiki for a pre-interview gag. He marches him down to the Green Room and has Tiki don a Buccaneers cap, smile and wave into the camera. “Is this ‘Stupid Twin Tricks?’” asks Tiki with a laugh. A little while later, Tiki takes the stage. Letterman greets him warmly, offers him a seat. “You know,” Letterman says to the audience, “Tiki’s twin brother, Ronde—Ronnnde! Ronnn Debarber!—is backstage.” The camera cuts to the earlier tape of Tiki in a Bucs cap. The crowd loves it.
But Ronde is now far from this glitz. He landed in Tampa a few hours ago with time enough to make his way, with a little less fanfare, to the radio broadcast of his own show, the “Ronde Barber Show.”