Tonight Tiki Barber was featured on HBO's Real Sports where he discussed his motivations for making a comeback at the age of 36 after 4 years away from the game. If you missed it and have HBO, it's worth watching especially if you enjoy foul mouth agents waxing poetically. In the piece, Barber chronicles his last 4 years as a football player, television personality, Paparazzi target, and his last year as a depressed, unemployed media personality trying to start a new life with "the other woman". After a year of "sitting on the couch for 10 hours depressed a day", which is what we bloggers consider "the good life," Barber has been busting his butt in an attempt to make a comeback at the age of 36.
Given none of last year's top 18 rushers were over 30 years of age, only three running backs in the top 50 were above 30 (Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, Ricky Williams), and only Williams is within three years of Barber's age of that group, you could say Barber certainly has his work cut out for him. With the time off you also have to take into consideration how much he's lost in those 1000+ days away from from the game. On the flip side his twin brother Rhonde seems to be maintaining a high level of play so there seems to be some data that the Barber twins don't fall off a cliff athletically after 34.
While Barber's time away from the game and his comeback are both unique stories, what's not unique is his departure and transition from athlete to broadcaster. In fact it's become an annual thing and was even foreshadowed all the way back in 2003 on ESPN's Playmakers. The story goes something like this:
An aging likeable and well spoken star begins to think about life after his playing career. Maybe their agent is pushing them out the door or just whispering it might be good to look at broadcasting options if they're available. Suddenly with no contract in place for next year and sagging interest from teams or maybe prospects of lesser playing time to finish out an existing contract, a broadcasting opportunity presents itself and then without warning that athlete's playing career is over. Major broadcasting jobs are HARD to get and now agents are pushing their clients towards these secondary careers. In fact they're going beyond looking for these jobs on behalf of their clients but are often grooming their clients, making them do side-work in the off-season, and networking on their behalf years in advance of any retirement.
When the offer comes, it's decision time. In some cases players may feel like they have a few years left in the tank and probably have grandeur of going out the right way. A heroic performance, in front of your home fans, maybe even a championship. It's an unlikely ending for any athlete but it seems like a happy ending worth chasing.
But when the money is on the table from ESPN, Fox, NBC, etc. it seems athletes are hanging them up and going the safe route. Rather than 1-3 years of grinding and a future which is to be determined, the bird in the hand of launching a lucrative secondary broadcasting career seems to be winning out.
In the case of Barber it was $2 million a year, a fraction of his NFL salary, but a nice salary to launch what was thought to be a long-term career on television.
Aaron Boone, Marshall Faulk, Keyshawn Johnson, and Normar Garciaparra are other examples of guys who had the same day headline that read something like "Yeah I am retiring AND OMG I have a job on ESPN now". Others have had a little time in between like Michael Strahan and Mark Mulder to officially wind down before announcing their new gigs.