The emptiness paralyzed Tiki Barber to the point where getting out of bed to face the day was overwhelming. One of the greatest New York Giants of them all barely could move.
There was no drive, no incentive, no reason to go anywhere, be anywhere. No real purpose to serve. Tiki Barber, his football exploits ended by his own accord, his marriage dissolving and his television career in tatters, was melting down.
"I thought, not that I had it all figured out, I thought that I had the right plan," Barber said yesterday in an exclusive interview with The Post. "The problem with thinking and believing wholeheartedly that you have the right plan is if you're wrong, you've gone all-in. And then when that falls by the wayside, you're stuck, like I was. I won't say depressed, but it's kind of like I was depressed. I was still social, interacting with people, but I didn't FEEL anything."
The man who believed to his very core that he had squeezed everything he ever needed out of football is now pulling an end-around, for the sake of feeling something again. Four years removed from his last NFL rushing attempt and light years removed from the seemingly perfect life he had designed for himself, Barber at age 36 and admittedly humbled some, is again putting his body through the grind to prepare for another season.
"The goal is to be back where I was, back as a football player, because that's where I was happiest, when I was successful at something," Barber said.
Success at the moment is measured in the tonnage Barber lifts at Carini's House of Iron in Pine Brook, N.J., a spartan, no-nonsense facility run by Joe Carini, who years ago helped catapult Barber into elite running back status with his grueling weight-training regime. Ever since he announced in early March that he was coming out of retirement, Barber has made the trek six days a week from his apartment in the Riverdale section of The Bronx to re-hone a body that was supposed to be done with such torture.
He wears black bicycle shorts, a white long-sleeve thermal shirt with a rip in the back and is accompanied by his girlfriend, Traci Johnson, dressed in workout gear. Johnson in another room runs on a treadmill but often pops in to give Tiki a peck on the cheek. Their two frisky King Charles Cavalier puppies scamper back and forth, making zig-zag cuts similar to those Barber once displayed on a weekly basis for the Giants.
"I'm not worried about the age or people [saying] I'm out of touch or too old," Barber said. "The worst that can happen is that they're right. More than anything, this is something very personal to me to prove I can go forward with my life. Even if it's for a year, two years, three years, even if it's for four months. It gets me back engaged in living life."
It wasn't long ago when Barber was successful at everything. He completed 10 storybook years as the leading rusher in Giants franchise history and then walked away from the final year of his contract, which would have paid him $4.125 million. He irked Giants fans by criticizing coach Tom Coughlin's player relations and Eli Manning's early attempts at leadership, but didn't seem to care. He was so assured he was going to make it big in the TV world that he turned down considerably more money (a four-year, $13.2 million deal) from FOX to take a three-year, $5.7 million offer from NBC. Barber figured he would more than make up the difference as his star-power grew.
The dual sports-and-entertainment role carved out for Barber at NBC never fully clicked. His contract with NBC Sports last year was not renewed, during the summer he was dropped from his contributor's role on "The Today Show," and recently he was canned when the network cited a morality clause that barred Barber from involvement in any public scandals.
Controversy and innuendo swirled as reports surfaced that Barber was divorcing his eight-months-pregnant wife, Ginny, because of an affair with the then 23-year-old Johnson, an NBC intern. Barber insists his relationship with Johnson has been inaccurately portrayed.
"It was the negative publicity, I think," Barber said. "Everybody goes through something negative, it's just a matter of how big it gets. I didn't have a relationship with Traci when she was at NBC. We were friends when we were at NBC. She had left, graduated college and was in graduate school when we became close, but that's not the perception because of what was written."
Other than working as a correspondent for Yahoo, Barber's world was crashing in around him.
"What happened? Life at NBC didn't work out, for whatever reason," Barber said. "I went through and am going through a divorce, and as much as you want to put on a brave face, it gets hard. There were times over the years where I didn't even want to leave my house. I was literally sitting around doing nothing. I couldn't motivate myself to do anything."
This was not the man Johnson fell for.
"When we first met, he was completely motivated. He wanted to have an influence on everything, wanted to make an impact," Johnson said. "And so it was a complete shock just to see him basically disintegrate."
Covering games for Yahoo, hanging out with twin brother Ronde -- still humming along as a cornerback for the Buccaneers -- and interviewing Steelers coach Mike Tomlin at this past Super Bowl slowly got Barber's mind racing. A few months ago, he sent a text to his manager, Mark Lepselter, stating "I'm on a mission of redemption."
Instantly, it was assumed that he needed the money.
"Let's face it, everything is about a job," Barber said. "Everything is about money but it's not the sole reason why I'm doing something. I'm not going to go play for free. Everybody needs to make a living."
Asked about his financial situation, he added, "I am OK. It's rough. Every divorce is rough. I'm going to come out with half of what I had. But that's just how it is. That's life, and I don't begrudge Ginny or the divorce process for any of that."
Barber's divorce still is pending in Manhattan Supreme Court, with no out-of-court settlement on the horizon, or likely at this point, according to a well-placed source.
Out of the depths of his failures, Barber is trying to rise again.
"I'll be the first to admit, I've made mistakes. I'm not infallible. I'm not perfect," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm gonna quit and give up and be resigned to being a pariah or however people want to paint me."
Re-sculpting his body is the first challenge. Barber through a decade in the NFL never felt the need or desire to get a tattoo but in the past year has sprouted two. A flaming crown signifying "fiery-tempered king" -- the meaning of his given name Atiim Kiambu -- is emblazoned on the left side of his chest, and down his right side it says "Play Proud," which is what his mother reminded him before every game.
"I'm looking forward to her saying it to me again," Barber said.
In his four years away from the game, he traded hard workouts for yoga and lifted weights "maybe five times." He dropped to 192 pounds, but getting back in with Carini has bulked Barber back up to 206 pounds, almost exactly where he was when he played his last game for the Giants.
Carini says Barber "is stronger now than he was then" and has the numbers to prove it. Barber is lifting 1,200 pounds on the front squat (up from 1,100 four years ago), leg-pressing 1,300 (up from 1,100), safety squatting 805 (up from 755) and hoisting 305 pounds on the incline press (up from 275). Sweat pours off Barber's face as he moves from station to station, Carini barking orders, small dogs narrowly escaping heavy iron plates being thrown around.
In his final season, Barber rushed for 1,662 yards and caught 58 passes, and though he was remarkably prolific, he knew he was on the downside.
"The 50-yard runs were 20-yard runs, the 180-yard games were 120-yard games," he said. "I felt myself slipping."
If he was in decline at age 31, what can he possibly expect now?
"I don't know what's going to happen, I'm not saying I'm coming in and being an every-down guy or going to rush for 1,800 yards again, but I know I can play this game and be a contributor," Barber said. "I'm not trying to be who I was."