Now that my friends is a good interview. Tiki Barber and Mike Francesa — two opinionated men who aren’t afraid to speak their minds — going head to head in a lengthy conversation Wednesday morning. Mark Lepselter, Tiki Barber’s agent, was also on the line to field a few questions and interject when Francesa got a bit too aggressive and combative with his questioning. Which he did by the way. Francesa insisted that Barber address the notion that his time at The Today Show on NBC was a failure, and if his shortcomings in the media and broadcasting world in any way provided the impetus for his desire to return to the NFL. Ultimately cooler heads prevailed and the conversation returned to civility as Barber talked about how and why he’s going about trying to make a comeback to the game at the age of 36, four years removed from his last gridiron appearance. I’ve transcribed most all of the interview, but I’d encourage you to listen yourself so you get the context of their heated exchange in the earlier stages of the conversation.
Barber joined WFAN in New York with Mike Francesa to talk about his lengthy interview with Armen Keteyian on HBO’s ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’ last night, where he’s at with managing his depression, if he regrets walking away from football and the Giants when he did, if financial reasons are the primary reason why he’s trying to make a return to the NFL, why he is not trying to play again because he failed in the media, why he thinks it’s unfair and wrong for Mike Francesa or others to characterize his time as a broadcaster as a failure, how there might have been things he wished had gone differently but still feeling like the experience was a valuable and productive one for him, if it bothers him that he’s so unpopular in New York, why he feels like he is booed inside Giants Stadium, how he feels he can and will be successful in his comeback, being willing and ready to accept whatever role he can carve out for himself, and what he’s learned from the long fall from grace he’s experienced personally and professionally.
How he feels his interview with Armen Keteyian:
“Well I think Armen did a great job. I respect him as a journalist because having sat in that chair many times over the last couple years. He allowed me to tell my story and not get caught up in his opinion or any other opinions. It was my words. I think that’s important when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in someones life — to let them tell it as opposed to having other opinions distort what’s going on.”
If he’s still battling depression and feeling sad:
“No I feel great Mike. The interesting thing Mike is very few times in life you stop and think about what’s going on and reflect. Having that interview with Armen, it was therapeutic in some ways because it allows you to talk about the things that are going on and arrive at an understanding of not only yourself, but other people. It’s like going to therapy in some ways, it’s good sometimes. There was a time about a year ago where I was depressed, I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I didn’t have a goal or purpose. But that changed over the last five or six months and I feel like I have a purpose again. And that’s what’s most important for me and my family.”
If he regrets walking away from the game and the Giants when he did:
“No, not at all Mike, and I’ve talked to you many times about this over the years. It just wasn’t the right time for me to play the game anymore. I had lost my passion for it, I had so many other things going on that I wanted to step away from the game and do what was engaging to me. And it was fulfilling for a couple of years. I don’t regret that I didn’t play for the Giants for the last four years. They obviously went on to win a Super Bowl which is phenomenal for them, but it’s not something that I look back on and say ‘oh this ruined my career because I wasn’t there for that.’”
If money or financial reasons are why he’s trying to make a comeback to the NFL Is it money?
“No, that’s the simple answer Mike. A lot of people get caught up in ‘oh, he needs a job, he’s going through a divorce, he needs money.’ But it’s not about that. It’s a redemption for me. I need to be successful at something, and something I’ve always been good at is playing football. I know I have the physical ability to do that, I know I have the mental ability to do it. And having been around the game for the last four years first with NBC and then with Yahoo! Sports, I see this stage that I used to love and the passions slowly started to come back as I watched the Steelers win the Super Bowl, as I went to the Super Bowl last year and saw how dynamic that was. Obviously following my brother the last few years and going to his games, I realized this is something that can bring back me. And that’s what’s important.”
Whether he opted to return to football because his time in broadcasting was a failure:
“No I think you’re going a little bit into hyperbole there Mike because I didn’t have a big failure in broadcasting. I think if you laid the stage that you and Chris tried to at the time that I would be the next Matt Lauer, then yeah it was a failure. But I had a lot of fulfillment at NBC. I did a lot of stories that I think had a lot of impact over the three years that I was there. So I don’t think it was a failure. I think it was a learning experience. It turned out to not be the direction of broadcasting that I wanted to be in, but I think it’s unfair for you to label it that way.”
Why is that unfair considering he got an incredible job with The Today Show?
“I think you’re mixing words a little bit Mike. My relationship with NBC started in a way that was very fulfilling. I was doing a lot of big stories, a lot of great stories, but the media world changed a little bit, we all know that. The way that stories are reported and filmed and budgeted is very different. You’re putting it in simple terms, and if that’s how you need to do it, Michael, fine, you put it in simple terms. But I don’t consider my time at NBC a failure. I learned a lot. Yeah, I wasn’t trained to be a network television correspondent, I was trained for doing things on FOX News for a couple of years and doing things at WFAN and WBCS, etcetera. It’s a different animal and what that I maybe I wasn’t ready for, but not one that I would say I failed at.”
Francesa then asked once more why they shouldn’t be talking about his time in the media because it might be related to why he decided to come back to football:
“Mike, your question is leading, and a lot of people would say you don’t do a good job because you badger your listeners, you badger your interviewers. You have a lot of people who don’t respect you because of the way you do things. I respect you because you have a great knowledge about sports and the game of football. Do you always do it the correct way? I’m not sure. Do you interview people the correct way? Because we’re talking about my life here…I’m not so sure.”
After some more back and forth about wanting to put that subject behind them and move on to talk about his future in football, Barber jumped in to say:
“Mike, I understand what you’re saying. You’re not wrong, but you’re also not right. Because to characterize what I had in my three years at NBC as abject failure is just wrong. It’s just not correct. The media landscape changed, and it became unfulfilling for myself and for the people at NBC. We decided to part ways, and we go on with whatever they’re doing, and I go on with whatever I’m doing. I didn’t decide to return to football in April of 2010 because I got, to use your words, ‘fired’ from the Today Show. I had so many other things going on in my life personally and professionally that I needed to sort out. After being around football with Yahoo and my brother, and reconnecting with things I haven’t connected with in a lot of years, I realized I needed something to get out of bed and look forward to. And something I’ve always done really well is play the game of football.”
If he’s bothered by the fact that he’s so unpopular in New York because of the way he left the Giants:
“Well here’s the thing Mike: I grew up in Virginia where people are cordial with everything you do. I came to New York, played in New York for ten years, and realized that every single person here as an opinion. Right? I can’t change people’s opinions about me based on honestly I don’t even know what. So does it hurt me? Yeah it does because in some ways I think people are not appreciating who I was as a player. But does it hurt me that they have a negative opinion of me? Not necessarily, because they’re all entitled to it, just like I’m entitled to my own opinions about you or Jo Schmo down the street.”
On why he thinks he gets booed inside Giants Stadium:
“You know, it’s probably a lot of things. It probably has to do with the fact that I criticized Tom Coughlin and he goes and wins a Super Bowl; or the conversations that I had about Eli Manning got blown out of proportion. Things like that, people felt like I, as someone with knowledge, was attacking someone I had just left. Well, I really wasn’t. It was just giving my opinion about things. And I’ve always been opinionated about things, you’ve always known that Mike. If you ask me a question, I’m going to tell you the most honest way that I can. I’m not going to dance around the bush. Does it get me in trouble sometimes? Yeah, but it’s just who I am.”
On not hearing him mention his kids in the lengthy HBO interview and on what kind of relationship he has with his four children:
“I mentioned my kids a lot. Obviously it didn’t make the piece. I have a very good relationship with my boys. They’re actually here with me; they’re spending the first week of summer with me before they go off to camp, and we’re having a good time. I have an unfortunate personal situation that I unfortunately a lot of people go through, and you try to deal with it the best you can. And unfortunately, being in New York, something that was very personal to me and my family got plastered on the front page of newspapers for weeks. It’s unfair in a lot of ways, but it’s not something I can complain about. Obviously my success got me a lot of notoriety as an athlete and you get held to a standard sometimes that I don’t know is attainable for anyone, not just an athlete. And when you fall or make missteps, it gets exploited.”
Does he feel strongly about his chances to make a successful return to the NFL and contribute to some team:
“Honestly I believe that I can. I feel physically strong, I mean, working out with Joe for the last three and a half months now I’m stronger than I have ever been. My mentality is right, and obviously in football half of it is up in your head — if you believe you can do something, you can. I know that sounds like hokey, cliche stuff, but it really does. There’s a lot of guys that have doubt and ultimately are unsuccessful because of that doubt. So I have the confidence, the question will be am I in physical shape to, you know, run for 50 yards and then come back and do it again two plays later. That muscle fatigue that comes from actually playing the game, I can’t know until I go out and start playing the game. But do I feel great right now? I absolutely do. Do I feel motivated and driven? I absolutely do. And do I believe I’m going to be successful? Yes. Do I know what role I’m going to be in? I don’t know. I don’t even know what team I’m going to be on. But I know one thing — wherever I go, I’m going to make the guys better because I’m not going to settle for mediocrity; I never have and I never will.”
Whether he feels he’ll be a situational back or an every down back:
“It depends on what the circumstances present. If they need an every down back, I’m going to bust my butt to be that guy. Do I have that youth that I used to where you can recover? No, I don’t. But do I have the desire? Yes. If I have to fall into a situational role, that’s what I’ll do. But we all know that the NFL has changed, it’s not the NFL of 1999 where you have one guy taking 35 carries a game and never leaving the field. Now you have one guy gets 10 carries, another guy comes in and gets 12 carries, another guy comes in to be your third down back and catch passes. So the way that the league has changed, it benefits me, especially a guy like me that can learn an offense quickly and be a smart player on the field, not just one who benefits with the ball in my hand.”
On what he feels is the most important thing he’s learned from this whole experience of falling from grace:
“Well you know what the greatest thing I’ve learned is Mike — you find out who your friends are. And even guys who you don’t think are going to step up and support you and say ‘I’m behind you, I know you’ve been through some bad things.’ Those type of little encouragements go a long way. Some people will run away and never talk to you again, and a lot of people in my life who were very close to me did that. But guys, quite honestly, like you Mike, you came up to me and said ‘Tiki, everybody goes through these things, you’ll figure it and go forward; you’ll be okay.’ Those type of things from someone I’ve had combative conversations with over the years, it means something to me. It’s why I respect you as a journalist and a broadcaster, because you say it like it is, whether you believe it or not you say it like it is. So I’ve learned there’s certain people that know me and push for me regardless of the negativity that surrounds me. And that’s gone a long way.”
On the one thing that bothers him most about how he’s perceived publicly:
“There’s really only one thing that’s bothered me. Because I’ve spent hours, countless hours, connecting with people, spending an hour and a half after practice at training camp, or going into a school and spending hours signing autographs, or I went to a baseball game with my kids a few days ago…the Rockland Boulders just opened up a new stadium…getting inundated by fans. I’ve never said no to anyone. So this perception that I’m some kind of bad person because I went through a bad personal situation in my life and professionally, it bothers me because I’m not a bad person. And I don’t think that anyone who has ever met me thinks that I am.”