During Monday’s pre-game coverage of the Giants-Cowboys game on ESPN, the majority of the time was spent talking about two players who are about as different as professional football players can be. On one side there was Terrell Owens, the motor-mouthed, pill popping, coach-berating Cowboys wide receiver. On the opposite side of the spectrum was Tiki Barber, an educated, well-spoken, running back for the Giants.

While Owens is always in the news, Barber made headlines last week by announcing that he would retire at the end of this season. Although running backs have a traditionally short shelf life, it was still somewhat shocking to learn that the 31-year-old Barber – the NFL’s leading rusher this season – would walk away from the game at the peak of his career. Instead of praising Barber for retiring while his body is still in one piece, Michael Irvin, a former Cowboys receiver who’s no stranger to controversy (just Google Irvin + crack pipe) accused Barber of “quitting, not retiring.”

Sadly, Irvin is not alone in his view that Barber is making a mistake and quitting on his teammates. Many fans and columnists across the country have wondered why a man would retire at the top of his game, but what they don’t realize is that for Tiki Barber, football is only a passageway to the rest of his life.

Instead of bashing Barber, ESPN and the rest of the sports world should praise him for what he is – a role model for athletes at every level. Barber was his class valedictorian in high school and went to the University of Virginia on an academic scholarship. Instead of hanging around the NFL for a few more years while his body slowly deteriorates, Barber is smart enough to know that he has made enough money to last several lifetimes. Look around the league and you’ll see plenty of aging players who will limp away from the game and live the rest of their lives dealing with one ailment after another. Barber is walking away with his health intact, a fact that his young sons will no doubt appreciate when they are old enough to start playing their own sports.

For most professional athletes, life will never get any better than those few precious years in the limelight. For Tiki Barber, the NFL is just the beginning. He’s been a frequent guest host on New York’s morning shows and he already has a weekly radio show where he’s interviewed John McCain and John Kerry among others. The second he hangs up his shoulder pads for good, Barber will probably have his choice of which pre-game football show to join, which might explain why Michael Irvin would prefer to have him continue playing.

Because of his athletic abilities and his foresight, Barber has put himself in a position where he can walk away from a career that most of us can only dream about, and not even give it a second thought. While this might make most sports fans jealous, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s making the smart decision. In a league where controversial figures like Randy Moss and T.O. steal all the headlines, Tiki Barber has shown that you can be a star and still be well rounded. Come to think of it, maybe he should stick around a little while longer to show others how it’s done.

Daily Nexus columnist Alex Pavlovic briefly considered retiring from this column to take Tiki’s old job, but apparently the only team he’s good enough to play for is the Raiders.