He has made the trip before. Once he lines up in the tunnel, Ronde Barber knows how to find his way home.
In the moments before kickoff, he will stand in the corridor, the way he has for 230 previous games, and he will wait for his name to be called. He will jog out, the colors blurring around him. Fans will call his name, and teammates will slap his palm, and once again, Barber will think about the possibilities of the day.
So many afternoons have started like this for Barber, the last vestige of the franchise's golden days. So many games, so many fields, so many cheers. So many plays, so many moments, so many memories. Together, they have added up to a legacy that has made Barber among Tampa Bay's most admired athletes.
This time, however, there is a difference.
This time, you cannot help but wonder if this might be the last time Barber runs onto the field at Raymond James Stadium.
Barber will not say largely because Barber does not know. For several years now, it has been the same. Barber plays out the season, and he unplugs his body for a while. Later, he will meet with Bucs coaches and officials, and he will talk about his role, and he will decide if there is another year in him or if he should schedule 365 tee times in a row.
For now, however, there is a game to be played. This time, it is against the Rams, and Barber has spent 37 years and 258 days waiting to play it.
He has aged well, Barber, and in his latter seasons, he has finally reclaimed his reputation in his city. It seemed to have disappeared for a while — Barber has said he felt it, too — but once again, people see him as a graceful, instinctive player worth remembering. There are five names on the Bucs' Mount Rushmore: Lee Roy Selmon, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch … and Barber.
Still, this has been a mixed season for him. For the first time, Barber played safety which, on this defense, is like renting an apartment in the eye of a hurricane. All around Barber, there has been the chaos of the league's worst pass defense
So here's a question:
Given that pass defense, does Barber deserve to make this year's Pro Bowl?
Some might say no. After all, the Bucs are last in the league in pass defense. It's easy to wonder how much excellence is in that secondary. (Of course, the Packers were last in the NFL in pass defense last year, and Charles Woodson was named to the Pro Bowl anyway.)
Some might say yes. After all, Barber led the fan balloting for the free safety position. And if you talk to the smart guys of the league, the ones who can separate good safety play from bad cornerback play, they will tell you that he has played good enough overall to deserve the trip. (Barber, like many Bucs, struggled against the Saints.)
Besides, when you get down to it, the Pro Bowl is such a silly exercise that the notion of putting a longtime great in it to say his farewell (perhaps) sounds kind of nice. If you remember, Barber was robbed of a Pro Bowl berth in 2002 (he was second team All-Pro, for crying out loud), and you could make a good argument for him in 2000. Frankly, the NFL owes Barber one or two.
That's the thing, though. Nationally, Barber has never quite gotten his due as a player. In Tampa Bay, fans see his 47 interceptions and 28 sacks as a testament to his versatility. Nationally, many seem to see it as a gimmick statistic. In Tampa Bay, we know of Barber's greatness. Nationally, they only suspect.
Someday, this same conversation will elevate, and we won't be discussing whether Barber deserves to be in the Pro Bowl. We'll be asking if he deserves to be in the Hall.
The simple answer? Yeah, he deserves it. The complex answer? I'm not sure if enough voters have paid close enough attention to the Bucs over the last decade to be convinced.
On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn't worry. Barber may play long enough until the current set of voters all retire.
In the meantime, Tampa Bay knows all about this guy.
Around here, his legacy will always be that he was a hard-working player who turned every drop of his potential into production, and what more can be said?
Around here, he will be the proud competitor, one who will admit to thinking he was among the cornerbacks who defined his era, one who will suggest he has outworked his competition to gain everything he has received.
Around here, he will be the feisty, trash-talking player who changes personalities on the field.
Around here, he will be the instinctive player whom the football seems to love.
Personally, I don't think he retires after this season. I'm not sure he will retire after any season.
Just in case, however, give Barber's career some thought today. If this is the end, then appreciate every drop of greatness along the way.
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.