Giants RB Tiki Barber (left) is grateful for the support of his twin brother, Buccaneers CB Ronde Barber, during Super Bowl week
In hectic times, with strangers in every corner begging for your attention, it helps to have a familiar face nearby.
That's why New York Giants running back Tiki Barber is one of the most fortunate players in this year's Super Bowl. He's a visitor here in Tampa but he has an ace in the hole, a face so familiar it's almost like looking in the mirror.
Barber's twin brother, Ronde, plays cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which means he stopped playing on December 31, when the Bucs were bounced from the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles. A week later, Tiki extracted a little revenge for his older brother (Ronde greeted the world first by seven minutes back in 1975), helping the Giants eliminate the Eagles. New York then demolished Minnesota in the conference championship game to earn a trip to Tampa, home of Super Bowl XXXV.
That means Tiki will spend one week inside the most concentrated maelstrom of media and public attention known to an American athlete. The annual Super Bowl week is run with impressive precision by the National Football League, which organizes but can't quite mask the outside pressure coming to bear on these hundred or so athletes.
But if the day is long and the pressure is high on Tiki Barber, he can simply go home.
Okay, that would actually be Ronde's place, but it feels like home to Tiki. The two are taking full advantage of their opportunity to see each other this week.
"He hasn't really said anything to me to motivate me or anything like that, but I think he's helping me because he helps keep things normal," said Tiki of Ronde's hospitality. "It's relaxed. It's almost like I'm home. This isn't like a road trip for me, in some respects, because I can go out of this hotel and not be 'out'. I can be home somewhere. That makes it feel special."
The Giants have only been in town for a few days, but Tiki has already retreated to Ronde's house several times. "I saw him last night and his fiancée cooked us dinner," said Tiki on Monday, describing Claudia's pasta-and-shrimp entrée appreciatively. "It's kind of cool having him down here because I can get away. No one can find me when I go to his house. He's got a gate, so if anyone follows me…"
The gate, and the front door, are always open for Tiki, according to Ronde, who wants to help his brother however he can, even if it's just providing a surrogate family environment.
"Whatever he wants to do, he's welcome," said Ronde. "He can come over and relax, whatever, watch TV, get away from the hotel. You know how that environment gets when you stay in it too long.
"He says it's so much hype, it's so overblown, that sometimes you forget you're just playing in a game. He says he's just trying to keep it normal, keep it as routine as possible this week."
That really shouldn't be a problem, not for Barber. Either Barber. Ronde and Tiki deal with the media in similar fashions: relaxed, confident, upbeat. Tiki described his brother's place as a getaway on Monday, but didn't suggest with his body language that he was desperately in need of one. He's an aspiring broadcaster after all, one of great promise goes the conventional wisdom, and he's used to the media crush in New York.
"There's so many of you guys anyway in our locker room, and now we're kind of locked away in some respects," said Tiki. "A lot of people can't get to us. Like I said, I have my brother's house that I can go to and kind of get away from everything that's going on. I think it's going to allow me to focus and concentrate in on the task at hand."
Meanwhile, Ronde can stay close to the action, even if it's not quite as exciting as being in the game itself. He joined his brother in the Giants' locker room after the NFC Championship Game and is now getting a good look at what the Super Bowl athlete experiences during the final week of hype and preparation.
Ronde and the Bucs were within a few minutes of making it to the big game last season before a painful NFC Championship Game loss in St. Louis, so this is his most direct relation to the Super Bowl yet. It's difficult for him to tell if he's getting the full experience.
"I guess you could say it's close, but I've never been to a Super Bowl so I can't say," said Ronde. "It's still a pretty exciting time. I'm happy for him and getting to see some of the things that go on firsthand is pretty cool. I'm having a good time with it, probably much more than he is. I get to be involved in all of the activities whereas he's kind of just chilling out."
He would trade roles with Tiki, of course. Let's just describe Ronde as supportive, helpful, accommodating, sympathetic…and, oh, maybe just a smidge envious.
"He's a little jealous," said Tiki, needling his twin. "No, it's cool. Everybody expected them to be here this year, but we surprised some people this year and have taken on that role."
Ronde doesn't exactly have the media forum his brother is currently enjoying, but he could deny Tiki's 'accusation' if he so desired. So is his brother having a little good-natured fun at his expense, or is Ronde actually jealous?
"Probably a little," he admitted. "It's worn off a little bit since we first got ousted out of the playoffs. When I was in their locker room after they beat Minnesota, it was a pretty strong feeling. I was thinking, I was in the opposite locker room last year. I was in Minnesota's locker room (figuratively) after they had a chance to go. The elation on the other side is a lot better feeling."
Had the Buccaneers won the NFC, as many predicted in the early going, the roles would have been reversed and you can bet Tiki would be on hand to support his brother. After years of excelling together at the University of Virginia and, before that, at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, the twins were forced to part ways in the NFL. It now seems destined that one will be forced into a cheerleader role whenever the other is playing for a title.
Or is it?
In another example of their parallel lives, both Ronde and Tiki are scheduled to become free agents in March. Both had what could be called breakout seasons in 2000, even if their careers had been progressing nicely since 1997. Could a scenario exist where the two end up on the same team? Would Tiki like Ronde to join him in the Big Apple?
"I would like him to do whatever makes him happy," said Tiki. "I think he wants to stay here, he's happy down here. But if circumstances don't work out and he's got to make a move, I think New York would welcome him with open arms.
"I'd love to play with my brother again. That would be a dream. But he's got to do what's best for him."
Ronde could be re-signed by Tampa Bay before the free agency period begins, and the Bucs have repeatedly shown a desire to retain their core players. In 2000, Barber put together an impressively varied stat line: 97 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, 20 passes defensed and two touchdowns and was an unsung linchpin on the Bucs' impressive defense. You might think he would avoid tipping his hand before possible contract negotiations, but Barber isn't hiding his desire to stay with the Bucs.
"I don't think there's any doubt," he said. "There's no inclination any other way than that I want to stay here. I've grown to love the area, and the defensive works for me, which is the main thing. I have fun in Tampa. I like playing for the team, I like my teammates. Barring financial reasons, I don't see any reason that I would leave."
Well, then, what about Tiki, who finished eighth in the league with 1,725 combined yards in 2000, leaving New York?
"I'm pretty confident that we'll get things worked out here," said Tiki on Monday, though he wanted to keep the conversation on the task at hand. "My goal right now is to win the Super Bowl. It's not worrying about where I'm going to be next year."
Added Ronde: "He's New York through and through. He's as big a fan of the city of New York as I think there has ever been in sports. He knows there are all kinds of opportunities for him up there and he doesn't want to give those away."
But surely two burgeoning NFL stars, two brothers that talk almost nightly about life, have discussed the happy coincidence of their similar career paths, right?
"We've talked about it, but he's trying not to deal with it until after the season," said Ronde. "I don't think our agent has even approached him yet. He's just trying to let this week play out and see what happens, then address that issue from there. The fact that we've both been successful this year is probably going to be a huge help for the whole process. You get your name out there, and that never hurts."
Besides, playing on two separate NFL teams has it's advantages. Two teams, two chances to make it to the big game. Plus, this week, Ronde is there to provide sanity and balance for Tiki. Next year, they can engage in another spirited race to see which, if either, is playing in the big game and which is providing the support.
"The competition stays there, in that sense," said Ronde. "We were both lucky this year in that we both made it to the playoffs. With him making it this far, it makes it a reality that one of us can make it this far. It's a good feeling."