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Creating Value in the Community--With a Business Plan

1/22/2008 --

Former NFL star Tiki Barber creates opportunity from crisis.

Watch Tiki Barber's MLK Address

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Tiki Barber's activities off the field and off camera exemplify what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he asked that people be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. The former NFL star, current NBC correspondent, and children's author serves as a board member for the Children's Miracle Network and the Fresh Air Fund, and as a member of the Leadership Council of the Robin Hood Foundation.

In late 2007, Barber also announced a business partnership with Ross School of Business benefactor Stephen M. Ross, BBA '62, in which they will develop high-quality, affordable housing throughout the country. Their goal, says Barber, is to refurbish downtrodden communities and create value in neighborhoods hardest hit by violence, crime, and foreclosures (many of which are due to the recent subprime real estate crisis).

"At some point, the American Dream became synonymous with home ownership, how standing on your own and having this asset, a home, makes you American," says Barber. "A lot of people bought into that, and subsequently got burned by living outside their means. As a result, foreclosures are through the roof right now and people don't have anywhere they can go to live, and feel proud about it. And that's really one of the big tenets and great opportunities for [Ross] and me. We're refurbishing [existing rental housing] to give these types of families an affordable place to live - and to feel good about."

It only takes a short conversation with Barber to see that when he speaks of giving back to the communities to which he belongs, he's not talking about an extracurricular activity or an add-on. He's talking about integrating "giving back" into the fabric of his primary business and professional activities.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an extraordinary, once-in-a-generation kind of hero. But Barber's life demonstrates ways in which all people can incorporate generosity of spirit into daily life. The following comments reflect some of Barber's thoughts prior to presenting his speech, "Character Isn't an Audible: Growth with Integrity," during the Ross School's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. on January 21, 2008.

On the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is about integrity. It's about character. And it's about being principled. But I think it's also about opportunity. One of the things [King] always talked about was finding opportunity for those who are less than fortunate, whether it's because of the color of your skin, your socio-economic standing, whatever it may be.

That's something that's always been near and dear to me. The charitable foundations and organizations in New York are wonderful, and I was able to get involved with a lot of them as I've transitioned out of sports and into media and business.

On "early" retirement from the NFL

I can't tell you how many calls I've gotten about the [New York] Giants going to the Super Bowl: "Do you regret your decision to retire?" Even my wife asked me this, and she knows the answer. She said, "You have to feel some bit of regret." And I said, "Honey, I tried to make myself feel like I wish I was there. But I don't." I knew my life was going in a different direction. Personally, I wanted to be home and be with my kids. Physically, I wanted to be able to do those things a five- and four-year-old want to do, which is run around constantly. Professionally, I was looking for a new challenge. And I hate to say this, but in my final season, I started to know it was time to retire. I knew I was good and I knew that's when I had to leave. Otherwise, I would start taking it for granted. I would stop doing the things that had made me successful. I would stop working as hard, stop working out as hard, and stop paying attention to the details. So I evolved and looked for something else. This is why I can sit here and say I'm happy for the Giants, but I'm also happy for myself, because I found a new direction in my life. I'm fortunate because I've been able to think critically about myself. A lot of people don't. But I've been able to.

On life after football

I look for things that excite me, that challenge and fulfill me. With regards to broadcasting: the sports part was easy. It's a way to stay in the game and not get beat up. But the other side, the more journalistic side that I've been working on is very fulfilling. When I came to NBC the most common question was, "If you could interview anyone, who would it be?" And I used to say Condoleezza Rice. She's an African American woman and one of the most powerful people in this world. And she just seems like such an inspiration. But after being [at NBC] just seven or eight months, I find that covering the "local" person is much more fulfilling. My first story for The Today Show was on a community in Georgia that is home to a group of refugee kids [who'd escaped war zones in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, among others]. It was such a fulfilling story to do. When I think about it, I start crying because here are these kids who have seen these horrible atrocities in life and now they're looking for their American dream only to be confronted by racism and poverty in this country. And then there's this woman, Luma Mufleh, who gives her life to them as a mother figure. She forms this soccer team they call the Fugees, where they can forget their problems and just be kids. It was so inspirational. I also did a profile on a girl who has Down's syndrome and is still highly functioning. She swam the English Channel and she swam across Lake Tahoe. She's done these things that she should not have been able to do. In the process, she has inspired a whole community of kids who have Down's syndrome. I like telling these types of stories. Everybody's got a story. I like to say that everyone should write a book. It may not sell [he laughs], but it gives you the chance to explore yourself. And that's one of the most fulfilling things about doing my book [Tiki: My Life and the Game Beyond]. It let me explore myself and directed me to the things I've gotten involved with as a result.

On building character through sports

You can't teach character. It has to start at a very early age and be reinforced constantly. I grew up without a father. He left when [my twin brother Ronde and I] were four years old. It was hard on my mom. She worked three jobs. And she struggled. But she always found a way, and I think the reason she did was that she always had people supporting her in the community. More importantly, she had coaches who were my father figures supporting us in what we loved to do, which was to play sports. Coaches are role models, whether they want to be or not, because they have a power of influence. As a kid, you learn by how they interact with you, how they interact with the other players on the team, and how they interact with the other coaches. And it makes a difference. It's a huge responsibility, and one that is almost on par with parenting.

In society, we've started pulling away from each other instead of into one another. I participated in an African American journalists' symposium in Las Vegas, and one of the things they talked about is the fact that kids in sports are getting into trouble. Why aren't they being held accountable? Why don't they feel a sense of responsibility for their actions? And the answer we came up with was this: Communities don't raise kids anymore. We're stuck in our own homes. We worry about ourselves. We don't worry about Johnny down the street or Susan who's doing something wrong. A way to enhance character is to enhance our communities and make everybody care about each other once more. Because what that kid does on your block affects you in some way or another, whether he's robbing you or bringing some kind of positive discourse to the block.

On enhancing character by enhancing communities

Three or four days after I retired, I'm sitting in an office with Stephen Ross, who I know through a mutual friend. [Ross] starts talking about his life and his career and how he started in affordable housing. He told me, "If you want to get involved [in real estate], that's a good way to start." And over a four- or five-month period, this kind of plan came together. This venture gives us a chance to highlight something he's been doing for 35 years, but which people have forgotten about because he's such a titan in real estate. And it's a great chance for me to continue what I've always done, which is give back to my community. I now have this wonderful opportunity to uplift others and provide them with opportunity, while getting into business with one of the greats. It just worked out for us.

We're creating value in something that's been devalued. Research has shown that when you refurbish these communities and bring in a playground or a community center in which people can take pride, crime goes down because people will not tolerate it. They will not accept it there. In a lot of ways, not only are we hoping to give them something to be proud about, but we'll be empowering them. And that's what life's about: being empowered and feeling in control of your own life.

On leveraging connections to help others

It's great for me, because we're starting [the affordable housing venture] in my home town of Roanoke, VA. We're focusing on Virginia and North Carolina right now and then we'll just grow from there. Over my 10-year career, I've met a lot of people. We recently got a call from the mayor of Albany, NY, where [the Giants] went to training camp for the last 10 years, and weżll probably do some projects up there as well. This venture with Ross is all about leveraging what I was able to do as a player, in meeting people and making that connection, into doing good for the community. With a business plan.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,