TAMPA — Ronde Barber is well-aware of the reality of football mortality.
The four-time Pro Bowl cornerback can remember a time not long ago when he was the freshest face in the Bucs defensive backs meeting room, working in the shadow of an icon in John Lynch. Today, he's the graybeard of the group, though his performance hardly indicates as much.
Where have all the years gone?
"I don't think of myself in those terms, but the facts are what they are," said Barber, about to embark on his 12th season in the NFL.
"I'm 33, and there's a dude sitting next to me in the room who's 22. That's beyond the whole high school-junior high gap. That's significant."
But the longer Barber plays, the more time there is to appreciate the many facets of his game: the unprecedented versatility, the unmatched savvy, his ability to transcend the cornerback position.
And nowadays, he can add a few more lines to his resume: teacher, counselor, role model.
Consider all of the youth around him. Rookie cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Elbert Mack are 22. Second-year safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli are 23 and 25, respectively. The average age of players in the defensive backfield excluding Barber is 24.9.
"I remember when I came in (1997) and John Lynch and Melvin Johnson were the older guys," Barber said. "I was under the radar for so long that I wasn't really considered a leader because we had so many other leaders on this team. When I finally kind of assumed the role, I kind of wasn't ready for it.
"You find yourself having to get up and speak in front of the team and having guys look up to you and follow your example. That's a lot of responsibility. But what I found is that when I say something, people listen. It's because I don't say much. I let my example be my guide."
Apparently, it's a good example.
"He keeps us grounded when you have someone like that in the room teaching and showing up ready to work every day like he does," Jackson said.
Said Talib: "I'm real fortunate to have a chance to come in here and pick the brain of a guy like Ronde. That's why I sit right next to him in the meeting room."
But Barber commands respect from his younger counterparts for reasons beyond age.
Have you seen the guy play? Have you scanned the NFL's record book, which says he is the only cornerback to record 20 sacks and 20 interceptions?
Barber has come miles since those days when he sat sheepishly in the corner of the room. He has redefined the slot cornerback position by giving quarterbacks fits at the line of scrimmage as they attempt to predict his intentions.
Ask Barber about his legacy, and he can sum it up nicely.
"A guy who made plays and did all of the nitty-gritty things and kind of made the position my own," he said. "You can argue it, maybe. But you can ask (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin), and he'll tell you it's a fact. There are things I've been able to do … that weren't getting done before."
He's reminded of the uniqueness of his game each time he and former Bucs secondary coach, now Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin discuss prospects.
"Me and Mike T. joke a lot around draft time," Barber said. "I always mess with him saying, 'Who are you going to draft this year?' He always says, 'I'm going to take whoever is a Ronde Barber-type corner.' Well, before I got to Tampa, there were no Ronde Barber-types."
The Bucs don't yet need another Ronde Barber. They still have some time to enjoy the one they already have.
"When people say you're year to year, that makes it sound like at the end of the year, you're asking yourself, 'Am I going to play?' " Barber said. "I'm not doing that. Something would have to jump up and grab and pull me out of here.
"Right now, I don't even know what that would be."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]