Do the math on Ronde Barber's career and one of the numbers, while certainly gaudy and impressive, doesn't seem to come out quite right.
As most Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans know, Barber played 16 seasons with the team, marking the third-longest tenure by any NFL player with one franchise. The same fans can recite one of the more astonishing facts about Barber's career: In all those years, he never once missed a game due to injury.
So, 16 years, never sidelined by injury…sounds like it should be 256 career games. In fact, the number is 241, still a Buccaneer franchise record but not what one might expect. The reason for that is 1997, Barber's rookie season and a year he hasn't addressed much in the past. He hasn't needed to – the 15 years that followed gave everybody plenty to talk about instead.
As a rookie third-round pick out of Virginia, Barber struggled to see the field in '97. He played in only one regular-season game, in Week Five against Arizona, and didn't particularly distinguish himself. He heard whispered doubts around old One Buc Place about the capabilities of this former college star. He wasn't active again until the Bucs' second playoff game, in Green Bay, where he was suddenly and very effectively thrust into the nickel back role. The rest is history…more and more history piled inexorably upon itself over the next 240 games until the doubts of his rookie campaign were well buried.
Those doubts helped Barber succeed. They put a chip on his shoulder, one that never left for the next 15 years. They molded him into the one thing that make his entire career possible, and it had nothing to do with his speed or his instincts or his mind for the game. They made him into a tough guy.
"I needed to struggle at the beginning," said Barber, when asked if he would change anything in his career, including that unsatisfying first season. "It made me work. If I wanted it bad enough, I had to work for it. I wouldn't do that over. There were people in the building at that time who [were saying], 'Oh, this guy…' I needed that doubt. I needed to have people tell me I couldn't do it, so deep down I could say, 'Well, I can do it.'"
The doubts didn't last long, as Barber started to forge his reputation as a big-play maker in just his second season. By the time he was ready to hang up his jersey, he had numbers and accomplishments that rank among the most impressive in team history and make him a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. But he was never chasing those numbers and he won't be dwelling on them now that they have been finalized by his retirement. If he could be remembered in just one way by the legions of Buccaneer and NFL fans who surely will remember him for a long time, it will have a lot more to do with what he made himself into way back in 1997.
"I would like for them to say, 'That's the toughest dude I ever saw play,'" said Barber on Thursday, the first day of his post-NFL life.
Barber runs into fans in the Bay area all the time, of course, and he is often told that he is much smaller than they expected. He was, of course, never one of the biggest players on the field. But he somehow racked up 1,428 tackles and 28 sacks, record numbers in a variety of ways, and never let an injury keep him out of action.
"I was never the biggest, never the fastest, but I figured out how to be tough and persevere, and that got me through," he said. "The guys that I played against, my peers who competed against me, I think they knew I was a tough guy. Some of them didn't like me for it, but they respected me for it. When it's all said and done, that's what I'd like to be known as."
During that tough 1997 season, Barber persevered in part because he could tell that Head Coach Tony Dungy and Defensive Backs Coach Herman Edwards believed in his talents. They were intent on finding a way to help him succeed, and he was going to make sure he took advantage of it. Dungy remembers Barber, even back then, as a player who was absolutely driven to fulfill his potential.
"That's what set him apart from everybody else," said Dungy, who attended Barber's Thursday press conference. "He wasn't going to accept being second best and he wasn't going to accept not being on the field."
Once Barber got his shot in 1998, following that 11th-hour emergence in '97, he was just determined to never let it go. Even in announcing his intention not to return in 2013, Barber stressed that it had nothing to do with the added talent in the Buccaneers' secondary, moves that he applauded management for making. Had he come back, he would have been as driven as ever to be out there on the field.
"I promise you a couple of weeks ago I couldn't tell you how many games I'd started in a row," he said. "That was never my motivation. I wanted to keep playing and I never wanted to come off the field, because I hated it. In the back of my mind, I always thought I could do my job better than anybody else. That was just my mentality."
It is perhaps that pervading toughness that also helped Barber know he was making the right decision. Had he chosen to return for another season, he would have known only one way to approach it, and it would have involved the same level of personal work that had helped him get his body ready for the grind year after year. If he wasn't ready to do that again, he wasn't going to play.
"It was time," said Barber of his decision to retire. "What it would take for me to get my body back into [playing shape] to take another pounding, a 17th-year of pounding…I woke up a month or so ago when I made this decision and it wasn't worth it. I've fought off competition for years, so it's not about that. This is what I was supposed to do because this is where I am and I'm ready to be home."