“I gotta go out the way I gotta go out.”
These words, drawled by an aging, time-beaten Sylvester Stallone in the 2006 series finale “Rocky Balboa,” reflected the pride of a former champion who desperately craves one more moment in the spotlight. The world learned on Tuesday that it also applies to the attitude of former (and maybe soon-to-be) NFL running back Tiki Barber.
Barber, who retired after the 2006 season, was one of the most underrated running backs in the league during his ten-season career with the New York Giants. He posted six 1,000-yard seasons, including five in a row to end his career. He was also a weapon out of the backfield, finishing with over 500 yards receiving in six seasons. Quite simply, he could run, he could catch and he rarely got injured. You can’t ask for much more out of a running back.
However, after only seeming to improve in the twilight of his career, Tiki called it quits prematurely at the age of 32, in favor of what appeared to be a very promising television career. Suffice it to say, that career has lasted about as long as the “Friends” spinoff “Joey” (and if you’ve never heard of it, that just further proves my point).
As it turned out, for Tiki the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. A Sunday Night Football analyst job, “Today Show” correspondent gig and two books later, Barber is looking for a way back into the NFL. The problem is, however, that I’m not sure the NFL is interested in a 36-year-old running back with four years of considerable rust.
The hard truth is that there is very little room in the NFL for a running back in his late 30’s, especially one who just enjoyed a football-free four-year hiatus. The league is stocked to the brim with talented runners, and every year better athletes show up the veterans who had enjoyed prior success.
Yes, Tiki was once a very skilled running back. But consider this. The NFL’s four greatest running backs of all time, in my humble opinion, were Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. All four of these players were no longer in the NFL by age 36. Not only were they no longer playing at an elite level, they weren’t even in the league. Running backs, like pieces of gum, just don’t last as long as we’d like. Yet, despite having history as a deterrent, Barber is moving ahead with his comeback.
"I'm really looking forward to the challenge of seeing if I can get back to the level of where I was,” Barber said Tuesday, according to espn.com. “I started working out again recently. It kind of shocked myself. I still had a lot of the strength I had before. I'm really looking forward to making a return."
I hate to sound negative, but I’ll have to see this return to believe it. I’m not saying I want him to fail. Barber is a borderline hall-of-famer if he never plays another down, and if he were able to make a comeback it would undoubtedly be one of next season’s great stories (if, indeed, there is a “next season”). And if there’s one thing I learned from “Rocky Balboa,” it’s that you should never count a guy out. The odds are against him, but Tiki Barber has a puncher’s chance.