By Andrew Ramspacher, email@example.com
Blessed with superior arm strength and a fearless attitude, Aaron Brooks lived for the UVA football practices when he got to challenge the Cavaliers’ best defensive players.
In the mid-1990s, this meant Brooks, a quarterback, would try to complete passes to a receiver who was covered by Ronde Barber (McIntire ’97), an All-American cornerback.
“Every time we’d go one-on-one and Ronde was up,” Brooks said, “I just wanted to really go at him.”
While the desire was admirable, the results were often predictable. Barber, Brooks said, “proved time and time again that he was nothing to be messed with.”
Following the 1996 season, Barber departed for the National Football League, where he was drafted in the third round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brooks, who left UVA third all-time in passing yards, would eventually become a division rival of Barber’s as a member of the New Orleans Saints.
And on Dec. 23, 2001, during a game against Barber’s Bucs, Brooks made the unfortunate choice of trying to relive his college days.
“We were depleted, we were down, and I had to take chances,” Brooks said. “So I just wanted to go at that old Virginia Cavalier matchup from back in the day.
“And Ronde was able to pick me off a few times. I really learned my lesson from that.”
Barber intercepted his fellow Hoo three times that afternoon, one off the NFL’s single-game record. It’s one of the many achievements attached to Barber this weekend as he becomes just the third former UVA player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining “Bullet” Bill Dudley (who played for UVA from 1939 to 1941) and Henry Jordan (whose UVA career ended in 1957).
Barber, who made five Pro Bowls over a 16-year career in Tampa Bay, will be enshrined Saturday during a ceremony in Canton, OH. He’ll be presented by his twin brother and former Cavalier teammate, Tiki (McIntire ’97), himself an outstanding running back in the NFL.
As Brooks can attest, it’s a well-deserved honor.
“He’s a Hall of Famer for a reason,” said Brooks, who was again intercepted three times by Barber in a 2005 game. “And I’m proud to say I was a teammate of his and I was able to play against him.”
Barber dropped hints of greatness on a number of other Cavaliers during his time on Grounds.
Joe Crocker, a cornerback, was entering his third year with the UVA program when Barber, a three-sport star at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, arrived in the summer of 1993.
“My first time seeing Ronde move,” Crocker said, “I tapped someone on the shoulder and said, ‘He looks like he’s riding a motorcycle.’ He was that fast and that fluid and that smooth.”
After a redshirt year in ’93, Barber made his college debut against defending national champion Florida State University on Sept. 3, 1994, in Tallahassee, FL.
On FSU’s first possession, Barber cut in front of a Seminole receiver to make the first of his 15 interceptions in a UVA uniform. Crocker, who saw the play happen from the opposite side of the field, called it “Ronde’s announcement to the world.”
“They were throwing a hook (route), and Ronde slipped, got up, and broke on the hook and got the pick,” Crocker said. “I was on the Florida State sideline, and I turned around to [FSU player] Rock Preston and said, ‘You got four more years of that!’”
Barber made an Atlantic Coast Conference-best eight interceptions that season en route to being named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year.
Playing among older players in the UVA secondary, Barber was initially ribbed by his teammates for just happening to be in the right place at the right time.
“But then we realized that was a testament to him understanding the game, understanding leverage, understanding angles, and being sound with assignments,” former Wahoo safety Paul London said.
Barber’s talent grew to the point where he might have even received special treatment from the famously stern George Welsh.
Joe Williams, another defensive back who came to UVA in the same recruiting class as Barber, remembers a pre-practice stretch session when Welsh, the Cavaliers’ legendary head coach from 1982 to 2000, came up to Barber and asked how he was feeling.
The day before, the Wahoos had trained on an artificial surface, and Barber, according to Williams, told Welsh, “Coach, when I’m on the turf field, it kind of bothers my knee the next day.”
“And,” Williams recalled, “Welsh says, ‘All right, next time we go on the turf, we’re gonna hold you out.’”
Stretching nearby, London, who missed games the prior season due to knee surgery, piped up: “Coach, it’s bothering my knee, too.”
“And Welsh looks at Paul and says, ‘Turf is turf,’ and just keeps going,” Williams said with a laugh. “It kind of let you know that Ronde was someone he wanted to protect.”
A grinning London confirmed the story. Welsh, who died in 2019, would likely be proud of his role in molding a future Hall of Famer.
Barber’s induction feels like a win for an entire era of UVA football.
“There’s always a sense of pride because you played with someone who has impacted the game so much and has achieved a level that not many people achieve,” London said. “He’s a Hall of Famer. I can say that I played with a Hall of Famer! And we didn’t just play on the same team, we played alongside each other. I watched him grow and develop.”
“You probably couldn’t fit my pride in a room right now,” Crocker said.
“It’s almost like watching a family member succeed,” Williams said. “You’re so happy for him.”