TAMPA — Ronde Barber was at his best when he felt his worst. He told very few besides his partner in prime, safety John Lynch, that he had torn the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee prior to the Bucs' NFC title game against the Eagles on Jan. 19, 2003.
So when Barber returned an interception 92 yards for a touchdown with 3:12 left to seal the victory and send the Bucs to Super Bowl XXXVII, his rare blend of ability and durability became etched in history.
"I think (defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and trainer Todd Toriscelli) knew and no one other than that," said Lynch, a former Bucs safety now an analyst for Fox Sports. "If you go back and watch that video of his interception return, he wasn't striding. It was a gallop. We laugh about that. He was one tough SOB."
Barber, 38, decided Wednesday it's time to ride off into the sunset, ending a 16-year NFL career many believe will be immortalized one day in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Barber appeared in more games (241) and made more starts (232) than any player in Bucs history. He ended his career with 215 consecutive starts, the longest active streak in the league. But it's not just repetition that forged his reputation. Barber will be remembered for not only playing every week, but playing so well.
Barber told Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, "I've had a better run than I ever could've dreamed of having."
In a text to the Times, Barber said he will announce his retirement at 7:20 this morning on the CBS radio show hosted by his identical twin brother, former Giants running back Tiki Barber. The Bucs will have a news conference with Barber at 2 p.m. today.
"You have to look at his career and it's one of the most remarkable of all time," said former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy, who drafted Barber in the third round out of Virginia in 1997.
"To play 16 years and predominately at corner, it's hard enough. But to play at that level and make all those big plays and be so productive in a lot of different ways and be a team leader and all the things he has done, it's really been special."
The Bucs met with Barber in March and offered him a chance to remain with the team for what would be a reduced contract and, likely, a smaller role. As an unrestricted free agent, Barber signed one-year contracts before each of the past three seasons.
Last year, he was asked to move from cornerback to safety by first-year coach Greg Schiano. But he was his old, tormenting self. He led the team in interceptions with four, including one he returned for a touchdown. The five-time Pro Bowl player was an alternate to the NFC All-Star team.
But while Barber decided whether to return, the Bucs made other plans in the secondary. First, they took away his starting position by signing 49ers free agent safety Dashon Goldson. Then they signed cornerback Eric Wright to a restructured one-year deal, filled the other cornerback position through a trade with the Jets for Darrelle Revis and used their second-round pick in last month's draft on Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.
"This should be a big day of celebration for a tremendous, tremendous football player," Lynch said. "And how rare is it in this day and age that he gets to finish his career in the same place it started? And the fact that he still had something left in the tank. He's not being forced out. He's making a decision. I know from talking to (the Bucs), they wanted him back in a specific role. To be able to make that decision on your own terms is a really exciting thing for him."
Although only 5 feet 10, and 185 pounds, Barber racked up 1,428 tackles — second in team history to linebacker Derrick Brooks — and had a club-record 47 interceptions, including eight returned for touchdowns. He also had 28 sacks — seventh in franchise history — becoming the only player in NFL history to have 40 interceptions and 25 sacks.
"Ronde is synonymous with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, establishing himself as one of our franchise's iconic players over a 16-year, Hall of Fame-worthy career," said Buccaneers co-chairman Joel Glazer in a statement. "When anyone thinks of Ronde, they think of a true professional and leader. He approached every day the same, giving everything he had to make himself and his teammates the best they could be. We will miss him."
Barber revolutionized the slot cornerback position in the nickel defense against three receiver sets, allowing him to blitz, disguise pressure or drop into coverage.
"It's funny, people used to put their third (defensive back) there (in the slot)," Dungy said. "The two starters would play on the outside and whoever was the third guy would come in. Well, then you had so many people putting their good receivers in the slot and matching them up on that third corner. … Ronde just had the best anticipation and the most feel for the game in there. So even when he became a starter, he was the guy who had the feel for it. He kind of defined the position, really.''
Barber played in only one regular-season game as a rookie until then defensive backs coach Herm Edwards decided to start him in an NFC playoff game at Green Bay.
"He came into the first training camp so out of shape,'' Edwards said. "I said, 'Are you kidding me?' People are looking at me like, 'You signed off on this guy?' I was on him but in a good way, because I knew Ronde was going to be a good player."
"It was a good run," said Brooks. "It was an honor to play alongside Ronde for 14 years."