By Jason Keidel
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Tiki Barber has the bona fides of a broadcast star and football legend. Yet he managed to become neither, thanks to his colossal arrogance, foolishness, and infidelity.

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Barber, four years removed from his last football game – and perhaps even longer from his prime – is returning to the NFL. Not for the love of play, but in need of pay. Saddled with spiritual and financial debt, he hobbles back to a game he can’t win.

When Barber returns, it will be nearly impossible to root for him. He retired with ample egg on his face after insulting his coach and quarterback, announcing his retirement in the middle of his final season (when there’s absolutely no advantage in doing so), and found his teammates gleefully embracing his departure. The Giants, with karmic beauty, won the Super Bowl right after Barber’s odious exit.

Football is a game fueled by emotion, played with almost symbiotic energy. Each part depends on another, and it will be hard for Barber – assuming there are any yards left in his geriatric legs – to find a team that trusts him.

Many have argued that the very coach he vilified (Tom Coughlin) was responsible for saving Barber’s career, which was sputtering because he fumbled the ball as though it were on fire. Coughlin taught him a new grip and made him a gripping player for a few more years. For his efforts, Coughlin was constantly questioned by his star player.

Fumbling became a metaphor for Barber’s post-retirement life. NBC jumped on the chance to sign Barber – a handsome and articulate man – to a broadcasting contract. Barber wore many vocational hats on his slick dome, from “Football Night in America” to the “Today” show, before he wrecked his second career.

Barber left his pregnant wife for an NBC intern, was fired for it, can’t afford to pay alimony and child support to the woman he abandoned, and now must crawl back to the game he bashed, stumbling around a field among younger, faster, and stronger players who will find him exponentially easier to tackle.

Barber is not the first celebrity to act like a fool. But few players had a career so sublimely arranged once he hung up his cleats yet was so sordid in losing it. And few were so arrogant before they hit the door. And perhaps someone should remind Mr. Barber that he left the game that made him very rich with no Super Bowl rings. Hubris is the luxury of winners.

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We would like to link Barber to the ancestral refrain of his predecessors – from Joe Louis to Joe Namath to Willie Mays to Muhammad Ali – who tainted transcendent careers by languishing for a few years too many. There is a long, sad montage of the icon in repose, his sagging body stumbling across the canvas, outfield, and gridiron.

But there was a vivid charm to their legacy, and they were loved. Barber, by contrast, couldn’t even get applause when the Giants etched his name and number into their ring of honor, in front of his home fans.

New Yorkers love a comeback when done by the right man for the right reasons. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, the two faces of two New York baseball empires, equally talented and similarly tormented, were cherished by New Yorkers because we saw through the disease and found decent men.

Doc Gooden is teaming with Doc Drew for a theatrical round of rehab. And when he leaves, he will find our town most eager for a healthy recovery. It takes a lot to ruin your legacy when you perform well in New York. Patrick Ewing is still liked by the bulk of the fan base, despite his thorny persona and hollow promises to bring New York the long-lost Larry O’Brien Trophy

It’s doubly daunting to be disliked while your skills decay. For the pro athlete, age is a poison with no antidote. But at least the athlete with a good heart will find good-hearted patrons ready to catch him when he crumbles.

Tiki Barber won’t find that, because he reeks of corporate refinement, a walking billboard fueled by cash and vanity. And thus Barber has engendered no sympathy because he has no decency. He went out on his terms, and returns on new terms, fumbling yet again.

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