Tiki Barber, Giants Running Back, Is Another N.Y. Culture Maven

It was a Thursday night at the cavernous Park Avenue Country Club in Manhattan, and Tiki Barber, the New York Giants’ rising star and the leading rusher in the National Football League, was seated at a back-room table, picking at a plate of nachos and taking little sips from a slushy pink drink. At Mr. Barber’s side was his wife, Ginny, who works as a publicist for Ermenegildo Zegna, and a group of friends including Mr. Barber’s hyperactive marketing agent, Mark Lepselter.

The mood at the table was giddy, optimistic. The plucky Giants were undefeated at 2-0, and Mr. Barber’s play was one of the main reasons why. Three days later, they would improve to 3-0–the first time a Giants team has done so since 1994–as Mr. Barber would score a game-winning touchdown against the Chicago Bears.

That night in the restaurant, Mr. Barber was oozing the quiet confidence of a man on the verge of conquering the toughest town in professional sports. But the 25-year-old running back and punt returner–who is chiseled and muscular but, at 5-foot-10, not especially physically imposing–is far from the typical New York jock. While most of his teammates seclude themselves in sprawling abodes in the New Jersey suburbs, mastering Nintendo on their big-screen TV’s, Mr. Barber and his wife live a comparably cosmopolitan life on the Upper East Side.

He is one of only two Giants who live in Manhattan (backup quarterback Jason Garrett, a Princeton grad, is the other). Mr. Barber regularly strolls in Central Park, reads The Times, eats his breakfasts at EJ’s and, when asked to name a favorite city experience, recalled a picnic on the Great Lawn with friends, where they took in a concert by the New York Philharmonic. A Broadway fanatic, Mr. Barber has seen Les Misérables four times; two winters ago, he acted in an off-Broadway play himself. The last bar Mr. Barber and his wife checked out wasn’t a celeb-jock haunt like Spa or Veruka, but Half King, journalist Sebastian Junger’s new lit-scene watering hole in Chelsea.

Mr. Barber, whose catchy first name is a nickname for his given one, Attiim Kiambu or “Fiery-Tempered King,” admitted that his Giants teammates know very little about his off-the-field life in Manhattan. “I don’t think that a lot of them know me as well as they think they do,” Mr. Barber said reflectively. “I’m myself with them, but there is so much more to me that they never see.”

The rest of us, however, figure to see plenty more of Mr. Barber, since he is evolving into one of the most television-savvy pro athletes in recent New York sports memory. For four months this winter and spring, in fact, Mr. Barber awoke at 3:30 a.m. to work as the weekday-morning sports anchor at WCBS, the CBS flagship station in New York.

In the annals of jocks-as-broadcasters star turns, Mr. Barber’s TV gig hardly qualified as a publicity stunt–by and large, it was a generally unglamorous assignment, with low ratings and tough hours to boot. When most of his vacationing teammates were in deep REM sleep, visions of 36 holes dancing through their heads, Mr. Barber was trudging around his apartment in the predawn dark, picking out a suit and tie, and then lumbering over to the WCBS studio to deliver the previous night’s scores.

Mr. Barber was offered the morning sports anchor job following a promising stint as an NFL playoff analyst after the 1999 regular season. A business major at the University of Virginia, Mr. Barber had never fashioned himself for a television job. But WCBS-TV New York general manager Tony Petitti thought he might make a good fit for his morning sports anchor vacancy. “The big issue was whether the schedule would be okay with him, because this is a guy that, obviously, is an athlete–he’s got to stay in shape for the season and do all these things–and this is a morning shift, where you’ve got to get up at three o’clock in the morning,” Mr. Petitti recalled. “And he said, ‘Listen, I’m up for it, I can do it.’”

It was not an easy transition, however. By Mr. Barber’s own admission, his early-March baptism as a sports anchorman was tough. Lines were stepped on and garbled, and the first time a producer whispered into his earpiece, Mr. Barber said he froze. But as winter turned to spring, Mr. Barber was able not only to capably deliver his lines and banter with his co-hosts, but also ad-lib when necessary.

“Sometimes the TelePrompTer would just stop,” Mr. Barber recalled. “And when it first happened, I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ But you learn to read your notes beforehand, know what is happening next, and then just ad lib it from the highlights.’”

Mr. Barber also became more proficient in his knowledge of sports besides football. Mr. Barber had played baseball and basketball, but trying to sort out soccer, women’s basketball and hockey were not as easy.

“I was looking it up–’What’s the red line, what’s the blue line?’” Mr. Barber said of his hockey shortcomings, laughing. “What are they talking about–’between the pipes?’”

By the end of his sports anchor stint in late June, Mr. Barber had not only distinguished between the red and blue lines, he had also become an accepted part of the WCBS crew. Mr. Petitti said that, far from behaving like a pampered athlete, Mr. Barber’s work ethic was “absolutely outstanding.” “He never even asked for a day off,” Mr. Petitti said. Another WCBS staffer said that Mr. Barber “never complained once” about his hours.

“At first, it was a novelty-type thing,” Mr. Barber said of his WCBS job. “But then I wanted to get to the point where I was actually good at it. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Hey, that’s Tiki Barber the football player, he’s just there because he’s a football guy.’ I wanted them to say, ‘He’s pretty good at it.’ And I think, over time, I started to get the hang of it.” (Mr. Lepselter, Mr. Barber’s agent, told a story about a kid who spotted Mr. Barber on the street and said, ” Hey, isn’t that the guy from CBS? “)

And Mr. Barber is branching out. He is also a sometime personality on radio station WFAN and on Monday, Sept. 25, begins a stint as a co-host alongside Joe Benigno. WFAN program director Mark Chernoff said it was rare to find an athlete with such an appetite for broadcasting in the midst of a productive career. (Tom Seaver being the only one that immediately came to Mr. Chernoff’s mind.) This winter, Mr. Barber also logged an appearance on MTV’s Say What? Karaoke , where he gamely belted out his own version of “American Woman.”

Add this résumé to Mr. Barber’s budding prowess on the football field–he has already accumulated more yards rushing (326) than he did all of last season–and there’s little mystery as to how Mr. Barber has tamed the New York sports media, a high-pressure hurricane that sucks in and spits out dozens of athletes each year.

The Times’ NFL beat writer, Mike Freeman, wrote in the Sunday, Sept. 17, paper that Mr. Barber is “one of the true nice guys in football.” And the Post ‘s Steve Serby recently gushed that a “new New York star is rising. Mike Piazza and Derek Jeter are in a league of their own, but here comes Tiki Barber. It’s his smile that lights up a room, his charisma, his class, his smarts, his good-guy persona, his gift for changing the face of any game at any time and his love for the New York stage on which he performs.”

Phewww -eeee! Mr. Barber gladly takes these compliments, but tries to put the high praise in perspective. He has not forgotten the reception he received three years ago. Mr. Barber had a solid rookie season until he hurt himself, and in his second year, his star was eclipsed by then-Giants running back Gary Brown. Injured and overweight, Mr. Barber fell into a funk, pounded by the same tabloids that tout him now.

“I came to a crossroads in my life, where I didn’t know if I could still play this game … I didn’t heal good, I wasn’t strong, I was overweight and I wasn’t happy with my life, and it came to a point where it either had to change or I’m just going to fall off,” Mr. Barber said. “And I made the decision that I was going to fight for what I am.

“There was one turning point, though,” Mr. Barber added. “It seemed like every day there was an article about me in the paper–every week, at least. I just wanted to get to the point where [I could say], ‘All right, just please, let me open a paper and not have a mention of my name at all, not positive or negative.’ And that happened about the eighth or ninth week of my second year, and I was like, ‘All right, a breath of fresh air–I’m free, I can do whatever I want, I can reinvent myself from here on out,’ and that’s when I started.”

Naturally, Mr. Barber’s growing fame on the field and his media jobs have earned him some ribbing from his NFL teammates. Asked if any Giants watched him during his early-a.m. TV turn, Mr. Barber howled. “None of them saw it … they knew about it, and they liked to tease me about it. I acted in a play two seasons ago [Mr. Barber had a supporting part in Seeing Double , a comedy which ran for 16 shows at the New Amsterdam Café in Tribeca], and they gave me crap about that, too.”

Mr. Barber laughed. Taking chances might get him harassed by the conservative behemoths in the tunnels of Giants Stadium, but he is convinced that Manhattan has made him a different person. This becomes apparent when Mr. Barber spends time with his twin brother Ronde, a defensive back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“You know how there is the whole nature-versus-nurture debate?” Mr. Barber asked. “Ronde and I were identical, with everything we thought–the way we acted, the way we dressed–until I came to New York and he went to Tampa. It’s completely different [now]. I own like 10 suits. He has none, just two blazers in his closet … he just plays golf and chills at home.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Mr. Barber said. But he wonders what his life may have been like had he not come to New York City and plunged in head first, like a third-and-goal in the Meadowlands.

“There are so many things about this city that you just have to experience,” Mr. Barber said. “The way I look at it, I could have been drafted to Green Bay, for instance, and never had any of the cultural experiences that I have had, or met any of the connections that I have met. You have to take advantage of it while you have the opportunities.”

Tonight on Tiki Barber’s home station, WCBS, Big Brother . Only 2,376 more episodes to go! [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 21

George W. Bush appears on Live with Regis today. Either he’s still trying to win the Presidency, or he’s throwing in his hat for Kathie Lee’s old job. Either way, Regis will be nice to him, said Live producer Michael Gelman. “We’re not going to ambush one of the candidates,” Mr. Gelman said. “We’re not here to make them look bad. We’re here to find out what they are about.” [WABC, 7, 9 a.m.]

Friday, Sept. 22

Tonight on Fox News, The Edge with Paula Zahn , which is not to be confused with The Grind with Eric Nies , or The Party Machine with Nia Peeples . [FNC, 46, 10 p.m.]

Saturday, Sept. 23

Behind the Music tonight profiles the band No Doubt. Turns out there was, in fact, doubt. [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 24

Sure you could watch the Olympics tonight, but then you’d miss Look Who’s Talking Too. [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 25

CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour gave the keynote address on Friday, Sept. 15, at the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s Edward R. Murrow Awards banquet in Minneapolis. If any corporate media titans expected Ms. Amanpour to pucker up and deliver a wet kiss to today’s TV news biz, they must have been disappointed. She really let ‘em have it.

“I am not alone in feeling really depressed about the state of the news today,” Ms. Amanpour declared to her Twin Cities audience. Lamenting the shrinking news budgets at network operations–which have especially curtailed the amount of international coverage shown in the U.S.–Ms. Amanpour said that “the moneymen have decided over the last several years to eviscerate us.

“God forbid they should spend money on quality,” Ms. Amanpour said. “No, let’s just cheapskate our way into the most demeaning, irrelevant, super-hyped sensationalism we can find.”

The speech was a real humdinger–good, gutsy stuff. Given the current state of the industry, Ms. Amanpour said that she and other war correspondents were concerned about putting their lives on the line for stories that might not even make it to the air. And yes, she did make reference to the tumult at her own network. Ms. Amanpour expressed enthusiasm for the changes afoot at CNN and confidence that the news operation would “regain our unique niche, stop trying to be all things to all people, and find our way again to doing what we do best, what we alone can do.”

She also challenged her TV colleagues to re-evaluate their coverage. Why, she asked, is there so much murder and mayhem on the news, when crime rates are on the decline?

“If we have no respect for our viewers,” Ms. Amanpour asked toward the end of her speech, “then how can we have any respect for ourselves and what we do?”

When Ms. Amanpour finished, the RTNDA audience gave her a standing O. The words of support haven’t stopped, Ms. Amanpour told NYTV from London via telephone.

“The bottom line is that there a lot of dedicated and great journalists, who work either in the U.S. or abroad, who, like me, are extremely, extremely worried–and that’s an understatement–about the direction of our business,” Ms. Amanpour said. Many journalists, she said, feel “it’s now or never for our profession. We’ve got to get a grip. We’ve got to start being journalists again, instead of catering or pandering to what we think the viewers want.”

Tonight on CNN, World Today . [CNN, 10, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, Sept. 26

Biography does J. Edgar Hoover, who, it can now be told, once fancied Liz Smith, too. [A&E, 16, 8 p.m.]