TAMPA — The most famous football in Tampa Bay rests in Ronde Barber’s game room, under glass and under-appreciated.
It was returned 92 yards for a touchdown to seal the Bucs’ 27-10 win over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game more than a decade and a half ago.
It sits in the same case as 60 other game balls, collectibles from his interceptions, fumble recoveries and one punt return for a touchdown.
A piece of Veterans Stadium turf is entombed with it. Otherwise, it receives no special treatment.
“You know, I don’t look at it very often,’’ Barber said. “Don’t worry. It’s safe and sound, under lock and key.’’
As Barber’s right arm carried that football into the end zone, a play which carried the Bucs to Super Bowl 37, his left thumb pointed to the name on the back of his jersey.
Only the week before, in the Bucs 31-6 win over San Francisco, Barber borrowed an idea from receiver Reidel Anthony to point to his name.
“It became a respect thing, just in case you don’t know me," Barber said. That’s why I was always pointing to my name. That arrogant (bleeping) Ronde.’’
That name will be adorned atop Raymond James Stadium Sunday at halftime of the Bucs-Giants game when Barber is inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
From Blacksburg to Tampa
If you’re looking for symbolism, consider the Bucs’ opponent Sunday is the team his twin brother played for during his 10-year NFL career. Tiki Barber, who is in the Giants Ring of Honor, will be part of the Fox broadcast team for the game.
If you’re looking for serendipity, the Bucs will be coached by Bruce Arians, who was a roommate of Barber’s father, James, when they both played at Virginia Tech. Arians and his wife, Christine, used to babysit the kids from the time they were born pre-mature. “We always babysat Ronde because Tiki was always in the hospital,’’ Arians said. “(Tiki) always had convulsions, so we had Ronde just bouncing around and playing. He’s got some really ugly pictures of me with some bad hair.’’
If you’re looking for the person most responsible for his success, it’s a mother who worked several jobs to support her sons, determined they would not pay for a failed marriage.
In 1970, Arians and James Barber were the first integrated football roommates on the Blacksburg campus. After their senior year, they were part of the Hokies coaching staff for one season.
“He was the best dude in the world,’’ Arians said of James Barber. “He had the best clothes in the world and a hell of a sound system.’’
But when the boys were three, James Barber took off. His life spiraled with drug and alcohol abuse.
“I had what I call my Damascus road experience at 30,’’ James Barber said. “It changed my life. The next thing I know I’m Dr. Barber and I’m teaching at Oral Roberts University.’’
He offered no financial support to the family but the boys knew of him. Ronde met his half-siblings at a preseason game in Oklahoma in 1998. Tiki has reconnected. “I believe the healing will come with Ronde as well,’’ James Barber said.
Geraldine Barber-Hale made sure her boys never needed anything. At the NFL draft, they paid her the best compliment.
“They told me they didn’t know how poor we were when they were growing up,’’ she said.
She is looking forward to the reunion with the Arians Sunday.
“Are we really coming from Blacksburg, Va., 1974 to Tampa, Florida 2019?" she said. "Is this really happening?’’
Barber’s career as an NFL All-Decade and five-time Pro Bowl player was fueled by a disastrous rookie season.
A third-round pick from Virginia, he reported to off-season workouts out of shape, played in only one game in Week 5 and was awful. Cardinals receiver Rob Moore abused Barber with eight catches for 147 yards and a touchdown. Barber didn’t see the field again until defensive backs coach Herm Edwards decided to start him a nickel corner in a divisional playoff loss at Green Bay. The Bucs lost but he played well and his career was launched.
Listed generously at 5-foot-10, 184 pounds, Barber became known for his toughness and ability to not only cover receivers but play the run and rush the passer. Only he and Charles Woodson have at least 40 interceptions and 20 quarterback sacks.
The year before his signature play, he led the NFL with 10 interceptions. He was snubbed for the Pro Bowl and made a point to mention it after his game-sealing pick.
“That (ticked) me off. I’m not going to lie,’’ he says now.
He refused to take a game or a practice off unless it was unavoidable. In the Super Bowl season, he broke his thumb in a game against Carolina. After the game, the team doctor determined Barber would need surgery and miss at least two weeks.
“I said, ‘You’ve got two days,'' Barber said "I’m going to practice Wednesday.’’
Barber had surgery on a Monday, recovered Tuesday, practiced Wednesday and intercepted Brett Favre with his bad hand Sunday.
“I could be certifiable,’’ Barber said.
Barber learned how to study film and identify 10 or 12 plays to exploit.
“I created my own opportunities,’’ Barber said. “I went in prepared knowing when those opportunities were going to be. Then it was just a matter of making the damn play.’’
But Barber made the play, arguably the biggest in Tampa Bay sports.
Aside from perhaps the puck that Marty St. Louis netted in double overtime to win Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final in Calgary, or the ground ball pocketed by Akinori Iwamura after he stepped on second base for out to send the Rays to the 2008 World Series, no local artifact approximates the value of the football Barber baited Donovan McNabb into throwing toward Antonio Freeman by faking a blitz with just over three minutes left in the 2002 NFC title game.
The interception capped an incredible performance that included four passes defensed, a sack, a forced fumble and three tackles — all while playing with a torn ligament in his knee.
Barber started 224 consecutive games, more than any defensive back in NFL history.
He played 16 seasons, longer than any Buccaneer.
But in that moment on a frozen night in Philadelphia, he had validation.
“It was to be able to say, ‘(Bleep) you,’ to everybody who said I couldn’t do it,’’ Barber said. “Everybody has a chip but that chip kind of goes away. What’s your edge? What’s making you get up and go to work angry every day to make yourself better?"
At an August press conference, when it was announced he would become the 13th person and ninth player honored in the Bucs Ring of Honor, Barber began with a perceived slight.
“Finally,’’ Barber said. “Sixteen years seemed short compared to the seven I had to wait for this.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud.