Last summer would've been a good time for Michael Strahan to quit football. He was under a lot of stress. His marriage was in a shambles. His wife had been throwing out details of their personal life to the news media like an angry girlfriend tosses her cheating boyfriend's belongings on street out the window of their fourth floor apartment. It was public, embarrassing and loud. Was another bone-bruising NFL campaign something he really needed? He'd already played 14 seasons and the Giants weren't expected to do much. Plus the team had some young defensive lineman who looked pretty good. He floated the idea of retirement, sat out training camp and then, perhaps deciding the football field was his only sanctuary from domestic strife, joined the team just before the first game of the season.
Five months later, Strahan led the Giants to an improbable, story book Super Bowl triumph that captured the imagination of football fans everywhere. In year 15, he got the ticker-tape parade, the adulation, the canonization. He got the ring.
Yesterday, the NFL record-holder for most sacks in a single season announced his retirement. The shower of praise from teammates, the Giants organization and the New York media has only just begun.
And for Tiki Barber, the karmic kickback continues. Strahan's announcement yesterday underscores yet again the gracelessness of his former teammate's retirement a year earlier.
Barber, unable to win that elusive Super Bowl, and unwilling to believe it was possible with his Giants teammates, announced his retirement early in the 2006 season. He was looking forward to career in television broadcasting. (But not just about sports. There was more to life than that, he condescended.) Forget that his team was a playoff contender. It was all about Tiki. Many of his teammates didn't appreciate it. The Giants organization didn't appreciate it at all. Barber had already crossed the line, publicly blaming his coach Tom Coughlin (the now venerated Tom Couhglin) for the Giants playoff loss the season before. You got something to say, you say it to a man's face. Not like Tiki did.
But apparently, that's the way Tiki rolls. In his very first broadcast last season on NBC Football Night in America Live, Tiki said Eli Manning (now Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning) didn't have the necessary leadership skills. This was a guy Barber sweat with, bled with, won and lost with. The characteristically taciturn Manning responded, and Tiki took it even further on his Sirius Satellite Radio show "The Barber Shop" yukking it up with his twin brother Ronde about Eli's "testes finally dropping" As a TV guy, it's part of his job to be "controversial," Tiki said.
Five months later, the Giant's shocked the football world, beating the undefeated and heavily favored New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Manning became a hero. Strahan elevated his status to Giants icon. As for what the Giants lacked in previous seasons - what was the missing piece? Apparently they simply needed Tiki to go missing.
In a delicious moment of providential retributive justice, The Today Show dispatched Tiki to cover the Super Bowl, and who was he forced to interview post-game, none other than Eli Manning. Oh how the wheel turns. How Tiki must've been shrinking with every critical road victory the Giants notched on their march to the playoffs. Shrinking again after they won their first playoff win in Dallas, then in Green Bay, then at the big dance.
Just a year apart, the retirements of Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber leave very different legacies. Strahan retired a football hero. Tiki left as, well, something else.
For the rest of his life, every time Michael Strahan visits Giants stadium he will receive a standing ovation. He achieved what every athlete, at the end of his playing days, deep down truly, truly craves and without it, really never feels finished. It's not something more money or a host seat on The Today Show will ever give you. It can't be manufactured though media or marketing. It comes only from what you did when you played. It is glory. Strahan earned it. Tiki fumbled it away.