After 16 seasons, Ronde Barber has decided to hang up his cleats. Those who knew him best reflect on a storybook career.
His voice quivered at times, but he was smooth and maintained composure for nearly all 11 minutes of his retirement speech, reflecting on a prolific 16-year NFL career which officially came to an end Thursday afternoon.
It was all so surreal, yet at the same time, the moment and the heartfelt words, none of which were rehearsed, could have ever been so right. Ronde Barber knew it was time to move on.
He came to that realization one morning about a month ago, when he woke up and decided it “wasn’t worth it” to put his bruised and battered body through yet another grueling season. So he got to say goodbye on his own terms.
“Turn enough chapters in one book, and you finally get to the end, you shut it, put it on your bookshelf, and pick up another book,” is how he put it.
Buccaneers co-chairman Bryan Glazer called it “a bittersweet day” for the organization. There were numerous changes during the 16 years that he played. Glazer called Barber the “one constant.”
“He [was] a once-in-a-lifetime player,” said Glazer. And his impact was immeasurable.
You could see it in the people who came to celebrate his career – from his first head coach Tony Dungy, to Donnie Abraham, Super Bowl teammates Dwight Smith, Jermaine Phillips, and Shelton Quarles, current head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik – Barber transcended many eras of Buccaneer football.
“It’s special,” said Mark Dominik on Barber’s career, all spent with Tampa Bay. “You get a chance to witness a guy put on the first uniform in orange and creamsicle and end it in pewter, and it really changed the whole dynamics of this team.”
He survived four different head coaches, numerous defensive coordinators, and even a position change during his final season. But no matter what the situation was or the circumstance, he always found a way to keep making impact plays.
Just when a frustrated fan was contemplating an early exit or was about to turn off the TV, when all hope seemed to be lost, Barber found a way to breathe life into the moment, and suck everyone right back in it.
Who can forget Barber’s magical night in Philadelphia? In the frigid cold at Veterans Stadium, the most miserable of all places to play, where the team had left dejected so many times before, and he picked off Donovan McNabb, sending Tampa Bay to its first Super Bowl?
“I tell people all the time, ‘If you want to see a defensive player take over a game, you just watch that Philadelphia game, and just watch the plays that he made,” said former teammate Jermaine Phillips, who was a rookie during that 2002 season. He studied Barber’s every move.
Former Bucs safety Dwight Smith remembers that moment well too. He saw it up-close, probably closer than anyone.
“[I was] the one running right behind him, following him into the end zone, so, I [was] thinking, ‘We’ve done it!’”
“Fumble recoveries, [he] caused fumbles, interceptions – whatever it [was], he found a way to make a play to change the tide of many games that we were part of together,” said Smith.
Some would say Barber was blessed with an extraordinary-knack for being around the football.
“Big-play guys know how to make big plays. Ronde was blessed with that,” said former head coach Tony Dungy, who selected Barber in the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft.
But Dungy believes it took more than ability to propel Barber into one of the league’s all-time greats at cornerback, a position predicated not only on skill, but on instincts and learning to read people.
“The preparation and the work and the determination, [and] I think he said it in his press conference, the perseverance — that to me is what defined him, and he did that as well as anybody.”
It required long hours of film study in a place that became ‘his office,’ also known as the ‘Ronde room.’ There he made the daily commitment to better himself and master his craft. Dungy took notice. So did his younger teammates.
“He [was] a blue-collar worker. He [brought]s his lunch pail to work every day,” said Phillips. “[He was] going to do a job. He epitomized being your ‘very-best self’ every single day.”
Barber admitted his favorite day of the week wasn’t Sunday, when the TV cameras were around, and the opportunity was there to put highlights up on Sports Center. It was Monday.
“I couldn’t wait to get into the building,” said Barber, who was eager to discover all the things he had done right and all the things he had done wrong.
“He’s something special. There will never be another one,” said Phillips, who believes Barber is not only a Hall of Fame player, but should be elected on the first ballot.
“When you see it every single week, and you watch every single week, sometimes you could take for granted what you were watching,” said Glazer.
Greg Schiano didn’t take the one season he coached Barber for granted. He said having the veteran’s support in his first year as an NFL head coach was “huge.”
He ran the mandatory 16 110-yard sprints, part of Schiano’s conditioning test, without complaint and accepted a new position, even if it meant stepping outside of his comfort zone. Barber later admitted he felt like he had to “prove [himself] all over again” under Schiano.
“The fact that he supported new ways…a lot of times when you try to come in and change some things in a situation, you have to go a little bit overboard, and he understood that,” said Schiano.
He described Barber as a model player that younger players could emulate. “He walked the walk. Some guys can talk it, but behind the scenes, that isn’t the guy. But Ronde is the guy you think he was,” said Schiano.
He was one of a kind.
“I look at it this [way]. We’ve played football in Tampa Bay for over 35 years. And there’s been thousands and thousands of snaps, and thousands of games and everything. And you think, the one play that everybody remembers — it’s Ronde Barber,” said Dominik.
“That sums up everything in terms of what your career is. If you’re the one play, the one player that when everybody thinks about one thing, they think of that one play — I think that makes it special.”