Barber quietly assuming place among the best

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Three years ago, Tiki Barber sobbed on the sidelines of Giants Stadium. He cried because he had played the best game of his football life, rushing for 203 yards, and he cried because he had played the worst game with three fumbles. It was a late December game at Giants Stadium, a victory over the Eagles that would get the Giants into the playoffs in 2002, and Barber bawled.

Barber wouldn't stop running with the ball, wouldn't stop fumbling and no one could tell if he was destined to be a star, or destined to keep dropping the ball.

Through it all, Barber wouldn't be sure how to remember this game, except that the Jim Fassel-led Giants had won. They were going to the playoffs, and his magnificent Giants career wouldn't be stained with the shame of a lost season.

All around Tiki, his teammates danced and hugged and screamed, and the son that Geraldine Barber named Attiim Kiambu -- "Fiery-Tempered King" -- because of the way he had come into the world screaming his head off, sat with his face buried in his hands and sobbed.

"I called him the next day," the great old Giants back Frank Gifford was saying the other day. "I knew he was sick about it."

Gifford told Tiki his own story of fumbling in a bigger game, with the NFL championship on the line. Saturday, Gifford watched Barber rush for a franchise-record 220 yards, and thinking back over a long line of great performances at Giants Stadium, he wouldn't hesitate to call it the best he had ever seen. There were a couple of runs Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs during which Barber bounced like a pinball through the defense, breaking five and six tackles and never, ever going down.

"I was on the field," Giants receiver Plaxico Burress said, "and I caught myself being a fan."

Barber is the oddest back at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, a lesson in physics whenever the ball is wrapped under his arms and his legs are on the move. He always is trying to explain this to people, even if its execution still defies our eyes. He has rushed for 1,577 yards this season, second in the NFL to Seattle's Shaun Alexander. He has obliterated the Giants' single-season rushing record two straight years now. It's amazing how he does it too. Just something to see.

"Just pick your feet up a little bit," Barber said. "They're going to hit you, you're going to transfer your energy, stand on your feet. It's about understanding angles, how they're going to hit you. It works well for me."

Yes, something has happened with Barber. Against all odds, he has transformed himself into one of the NFL's best players. Suddenly, he's standing shoulder to shoulder with Alexander, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as a candidate for the NFL's MVP. As Eli Manning grows shakier as the Giants' quarterback, Barber's footing as their most important player grows surer.

At 10-4, the Giants are one victory from clinching the NFC East championship. If they could just get the kid quarterback to grow up faster, they could be Super Bowl contenders out of this conference. Everyone keeps waiting for Barber to wear down at 25 and 30 carries a game, but it never happens. He's built to last.

Out of nowhere, the 30-year-old Barber is running for Canton. He has come so far in the NFL, a second-round pick out of Virginia targeted to be a third-down back, too small, too slight to take the pounding. He turned into a workout fool, a Jerry Rice-esque regimen that he shares with his identical twin, Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber.

Barber has never been out of the fray this season. He was one of Wellington Mara's favorites, a player sent up to his 89-year-old owner's bedside in Westchester County to be with Mara in his final days. He spoke at co-owner Robert Tisch's memorial service.

"Tiki is what Mr. Mara had in mind for his players," Gifford said.

He has television and radio gigs with the YES Network and Sirius Satellite. When he's done playing, he's going to be one of the big studio analysts. He's the man about New York now, and he'll get to get to do whatever he wants. He's that smart, that golden now.

Of course, when Barber was fumbling too much in the past -- an average of five per season from 2000 through last year -- he was ripped for trying to do too much. Now? It makes him a renaissance man, of course. He's the kind of self-made star who just keeps coming and coming, bouncing here and there, and forever staying on his feet, and holding onto the ball -- he has fumbled just once this season while carrying the ball more than in any previous season. Out of nowhere, yes, Tiki Barber is running for Canton. No one could've seen that coming, no way.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.