Barber makes return a top story

Giants running back plans to field punts again against Ravens

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens vs. Giants

January 19, 2001|By Neil Best | Neil Best,NEWSDAY

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - An endless, teeming mass of cameras, notepads, wacky TV personalities and stupid questions awaits in Tampa. Tiki Barber is ready. So ready that his words yesterday were a jolt to the reporters for whom the Super Bowl is more cattle call than journalism.

"I'm one of you guys, in a way," the Giants running back said. "I have an understanding of what it's like to be on the other side. I think that helps me understand and appreciate what you guys do."

One of us? True enough.

Barber schlepped into the studios of WCBS-TV before dawn every weekday last off-season to do sports reports on the very early news. He has a weekly radio show on which he asks intelligent, pointed questions. He has written guest columns for a weekly newspaper that covers the team.

And yesterday, Barber taped his interview session in preparation for the daily video diary he will file for a New York station from the Super Bowl next week.

So it is no surprise that Barber actually is looking forward to the daily, hour-long interview sessions that are the stuff of Super Bowl lore. "With all the masses of media, it'll be interesting," he said. "It'll be good to tell a story. I don't mind telling stories. We have a lot of stories on this team.`

And what is Barber's favorite story? "The story of me," he said. "It's the one I know best."

The giveaway to the latest, most dramatic chapter was on Barber's left forearm. Sure, his smile and smarts have made him a popular media figure since he arrived in 1997. And sure, he gradually has evolved from a small, allegedly fragile third-down specialist into a versatile force who has been the team's offensive MVP.

But look at that cast. It is the latest in a series he has worn for the past four weeks to protect a broken bone, and he says it is "killing" him to have to keep wearing it to protect an arm that is weakened from atrophy.

"I hate having to worry about anything other than playing and just being myself," he said. "I'm praying it comes off this week."

Coaches and teammates have noticed. Sure, they believed Barber was tough before he played in three consecutive games with a broken arm. Now they're certain. He might act like a broadcaster-in-training, but at heart he is a tough, resilient football player.

"Make no mistake, that's no little thing he's got," Coach Jim Fassel said. "But there was nothing that would keep him out of this game or the last two games."

Defensive end Michael Strahan said: "It's amazing. The guy has a broken arm and he goes out there every week. You have to admire a guy like that."

Barber appeared tentative in his first game with the cast, against the Eagles Jan. 7. But he used a smaller, lighter carbon graphite model against the Vikings and had no problems. He has not decided whether to use the cast in the Super Bowl, but Fassel seemed to be leaning in that direction.

Whether or not he does, he hopes to return punts for the first time in three games. Barber has fielded about 10 in practice. "I'm reestablishing my confidence," he said.

Barber's broken bone has largely healed, but he continues to use an electronic stimulator for 20 minutes a day that is designed to increase blood flow and promote healing. Undergoing season-ending surgery or even sitting out a week never were options he considered.

"There is so much at stake," he said. "This has been a dream season for me. To have to sit out the most important part would have been too much for me to take."

With Ron Dayne struggling and the Ravens almost impossible to run up the middle against, Barber's speed and versatility could be pivotal for the Giants' offense. "I'm just going to try not to get my head knocked off," he said.

Playing well with a broken arm would be a good Super Bowl story, and would cap Barber's rise from a role player to a team-record 2,085 all-purpose yards. He hopes to add a championship next week to conclude the latest episode in the Story of Him with a flourish.

"This is the longest chapter so far, with so many ups and not many downs," he said. "It's one that makes you smile. Hopefully, I can put a great ending to it."

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