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Does football want Tiki Barber back?

By Shaun Powell, Special to CNN
Tiki Barber would like to return the National Football League four years after he retired.
Tiki Barber would like to return the National Football League four years after he retired.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tiki Barber is looking to return to the NFL four years after retiring
  • Barber retired at the top of his game to pursue a TV career
  • His contract wasn't renewed by NBC, and he also left his wife
  • Barber made headlines off the field with comments about his teammates and coaches
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Editor's Note: Shaun Powell is a columnist for NBA.com and covered Tiki Barber when he played for the Giants.

CNN -- He was a guy who, with a football under his arm, had more moves than U-Haul, a Pro Bowl running back who could change directions enough to make you suspect his helmet hid a navigation device.

Tiki Barber had a talent for avoiding violent collisions, which is surprising when you see him now, a beaten man who looks like he ran full-steam into Ray Lewis in a foul mood.

He is woozy, flattened by a series of personal and professional blind-side hits, desperate enough to attempt a return to football at 36 and four years away from the game. His is a cautionary tale of someone who was the smartest guy in the locker room and flaunted it; who thought he was beyond football and soon regretted it; who gave the impression that life was solid until it he helped shatter it.

An athlete who was seemingly charmed was racing all alone toward the end zone and fumbled on the 5, and now we ask: Is this a comeback story worth rooting for?

With the NFL lockout over and training camp beckoning, the greatest running back in the long history of the New York Giants would really love to be puking on a field in 100-degree heat right now. Two-a-days never looked so good to a player who, either bored or arrogant or both, walked away from the game and millions of dollars while still in his prime. He claimed he lost his desire, although in his final game, he rushed for 137 yards against a tough Eagles defense. In his final season, he rushed for 1,662 yards and over five yards a carry. Most likely, he left football because the voice inside Barber's head called him the next Bryant Gumbel.

Well. Look what happened. Has anyone in football fallen so fast and so hard without committing a crime? OK, besides Brett Favre?

He was chewed up by the cutthroat world of network television. Barber might be the only regular in the history of the "Today" show who didn't make it to "tomorrow." His chair on the set of NBC's Sunday night football show was unceremoniously removed from the set, too. The Giants won the Super Bowl the year after he retired.

On the home front, a nasty and public divorce followed, and the bloodthirsty tabloids then found the other woman, a 23-year-old intern. Without a TV career, a stable family or football, Barber disappeared from sight, certainly humbled, definitely hurting.

He says he's coming back to football because the desire has returned. But after a pricey divorce, and the lack of income recently, don't you suspect money is the greatest motivator for someone who just lost a bundle?

The dagger then twisted again inside his gut when he was booed last fall by Giants' fans during a stadium ceremony inducting him and others into the Ring of Honor. Barber would've been treated better had he run out in a Redskins' uniform.

In an HBO interview this spring with Gumbel, of all people, Barber revealed he was depressed.

"I crafted this career, right?" he said. "And then I had gotten to the point where I was right where I wanted to be and then I failed. It's hard to deal with."

Even before he became the No. 22 all-time leading rusher with 10,449 yards, life got complicated for Barber. He torpedoed his coach, Tom Coughlin. Barber said the Giants were "outcoached" in the 2005 playoffs, a 23-0 loss to the Panthers, and after retiring, said Coughlin's demanding style wore on him. And while at NBC, Barber said Coughlin was "in a crisis because of the perception that he is losing the team."

Before, Barber stuck his nose in Michael Strahan's contract negotiations. Barber said Strahan should've taken the Giants' initial offer and helped the club get under the 2002 salary cap ("Michael's not thinking about the team. He's thinking about himself.").

Later, in his final days with the Giants, he took a shot at Eli Manning, saying the quarterback's motivational speeches were "almost comical" and questioned Manning's leadership skills. (Manning led the Giants to that Super Bowl win the first season after Barber retired). Some of Barber's teammates weren't sure whether to throw him the football or a punch. He was loved for what he could do on a Sunday and often loathed for what he might say or do the rest of the week.

He had it all: rugged looks, a rich contract, intelligence and a thriving football career, in addition to a wife and kids. A Renaissance man in New York; what could be better?

"Tiki always thought of himself as being much more than a football player, and that was the problem," says a former teammate. "It kind of rubbed people around here the wrong way, because we were football players first and foremost, and this was his way of saying he was better than us. Well, isn't it strange how he's now saying he wants to be a football player again?"

Yes, it is strange how the unraveling of Tiki Barber wasn't due to dogfighting or some other crimes we've seen committed by too many football players. He didn't cheat his teammates or coaches out of an honest effort on the field like Albert Haynesworth.

Barber's "crime" was reaching for a pass thrown far over his head, for being too smart for his own good, for thinking he could be better discussing world events on TV than playing football. And for someone who enjoyed the perks of fame, it wasn't too comfortable when he ditched his wife -- pregnant with twins at the time -- for a young girlfriend and experienced the flip side of celebrity in the big city.

So, what's left, at this point?

The idea welcome mat was pulled from under him when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his twin brother Ronde's team, said this week that Tiki wasn't in their plans. There's an outside chance with the Steelers because Barber is friendly with coach Mike Tomlin. Wherever Barber's name is raised, there will be questions about his locker room presence, which was an issue with the Giants. And of course, whether he's still durable and effective after not taking a hit in four years.

There's no chance with the Giants, who'd rather take another shot (excuse the pun) with Plaxico Burress than reunite Barber with Coughlin.

Anyway, at 36 and playing a position that wears out 25-year-olds, his days of getting 20 carries a game are likely gone, along with the ability to generate big money. This is not the direction Tiki Barber thought he'd travel when he walked out on the Giants four years ago.

"I need the game," he says now.

But does the game need him?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shaun Powell.