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Fennelly: Barber played, leaves game proud


Published:   |   Updated: May 9, 2013 at 12:14 PM

TAMPA - As long as there is Bucs football, he'll be racing down the sideline in cold, dark Philadelphia, icing the NFC title, punching a Super Bowl ticket, closing that mausoleum stadium and most of the potty mouths inside it — simply the biggest play in franchise history, all the way to the house, now and forever.

As long as there is Bucs football, there will be Jamael Oronde Barber.

He stepped away Wednesday, after 16 seasons of records and memories, so much more than that one play.

Maybe the handwriting was on the wall, the Bucs having signed big names to their secondary. I'd still like to think Barber wrote this himself. It was time. If these new guys, with their big contracts, if they have close to his career, well, good luck with that.

There some astounding Barber numbers, Hall of Fame numbers: The only man in NFL history more than 25 sacks and more than 40 interceptions; most games played in Bucs history; a league record 200 consecutive starts at cornerback, 15 touchdowns, on and on.

But it was more than that. Ronde went everywhere and did everything. He had the knack. And something else, too.

“That guy had a heart the size of eternity,” Derrick Brooks said.

Barber was the last connection to the Super Bowl Bucs, and he just kept on lasting and lasting.

His career was his job, his business, and he approached it that way — he was feeding Claudia and the girls. Here was one of the great professionals in Bucs or any franchise's history.

“I'll be as proud of my last game as I was of my first,” he once said. “My mom tells me the same thing every time I play: Play proud.”

He came to prove himself. At times, he was even overlooked in his own family. He was drafted in the third round in the 1997 draft, a round behind his twin brother, Tiki.

Three pillars of what would become the legendary Bucs Cover 2 defense were already in place: Sapp, Brooks, Lynch. Simeon Rice would follow.

But it wasn't a sure thing with Ronde. Tony Dungy wasn't convinced Ronde would make it at first. He just didn't know. Rich McKay, the GM, wondered if Ronde was a swing and a miss. “Ronde was actually de-activated a few times early in his career,” Brooks said.

Now look, now and forever.

“His sustainability was second to none,” Brooks said.

“He was overlooked on our own defense,” John Lynch once said. “You talk about a guy who used a chip on his shoulder to his advantage. He isn't the biggest guy. He didn't have blazing speed. When people ask me who was the toughest football player I ever played with, I think it's Ronde. Pain tolerance, mental toughness, he's so tough. That's why I love him.”

Go back to the game in Philadelphia, frozen in time. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb threw a slant into Cover 2. Barber had been showing blitz.

And then he was galloping, on a bad knee, a torn posterior cruciate ligament. Hardly anyone outside his team knew. Barber hadn't made the Pro Bowl that season, though he deserved it. Now the Bucs were NFC champs, and Barber came up to 99, Warren Sapp — Sapp Daddy. Barber told Sapp: To hell with the Pro Bowl. “I'm going to the Super Bowl,” Ronde said.

I want to believe he wanted to retire. Lynch was released. Sapp was traded. Simeon went away, too. Brooks, in an unconscionable Bucs act, was dumped without so much as a meeting. The Bucs learned from that. They met with Ronde. I want to believe this was Ronde's idea first.

“He's stepping away feeling good about what he's done, without any regrets,” Brooks said.

So the last of The Unforgettables on the great Bucs defense is gone. Wednesday, Derrick Brooks talked about Ronde Barber, not about Philadelphia, but some game during some season, some receiver, reported to have a 4.29 40-yard time, running for a score.

“Ronde ran him down,” Brooks said. “He tackled him at the 5. Two plays later, Tampa 2 got a turnover, and we won that game. I could relate to that. Ronde, he never gave up on anyone or anything. He wanted to be the best every single day, every game, every practice, every play.”

As long as there is Bucs history, that will be Ronde Barber — playing proud, with a heart the size of eternity.

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