On the day he retired as a New York Giant, Tiki Barber planned to protect his legacy as a one-uniform athlete the same way he protected the football in the fourth quarter -- with extreme urgency and care.
He wanted to be like Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, a Giant you couldn't fathom in the colors of another team. But four dormant seasons later, at 36, Barber has no choice but to abandon the sentiment and launch his improbable comeback with another franchise -- maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers, maybe not.
The Giants don't want him back, and truth is, the greatest offensive player in franchise history couldn't rebuild a bridge to the past, anyway, not after everything that went down with Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning and a once-adoring fan base that now jeers his image or the mere mention of his name.
"But with my life stagnating, and feeling like I wasn't really doing anything," Barber said by phone, "I realized I still love the game of football. I'd lost my way, and then I realized this is what I still want to do."
After a sobering failure in his bid to become the next Matt Lauer, and after his marriage came undone in a very ugly and public way, Barber needed to go back to running the ball. But before he runs it for a different team, the man who finished his career with three straight seasons of 2,000-plus yards from scrimmage can notarize the claim that he never wanted to leave the Giants family, even as he blitzed Coughlin and Manning from the blind side.
In 2007, less than half a season after he retired, Barber considered accepting an offer to play with his twin brother, Ronde, in Tampa Bay before declining in the name of staying true to blue. "Staying a Giant in retirement was very important to me," Barber said. "Playing with my brother is something we dreamed of doing for years, but I'd been brought up and nurtured in one organization. I saw it as a sacred thing."
At the time he rejected the Buccaneers' bid, Barber couldn't imagine that Tampa would play the Giants in the first round of a postseason they would never forget. Jon Gruden, the Bucs' coach, had lost Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman to injuries, and when he phoned Barber's agent, Mark Lepselter, Gruden began recruiting Barber with more overcaffeinated passion than he shows during his QB Camp on ESPN.
Gruden, Bucs GM Bruce Allen, Tiki and Ronde Barber, and Lepselter met in a Tampa hotel suite. They talked football and drank a little tequila. Gruden came on strong, telling Barber that Tampa needed him to make a playoff run and that he could take three weeks to get back into shape before playing the second half of the season.
Ronde was all for it, and so was Lepselter, who didn't like the early vibe he was getting from his client's first months as a broadcaster.
The agent also knew Barber's criticisms of Coughlin and Manning had caused irreparable damage to his relationship with the Giants, and he figured a quick return to an NFL backfield would stanch the bleeding.
"I was pushing for it hard," Lepselter said, "because I already knew things weren't going in the right direction for Tiki."
At the close of the 90-minute meeting, Barber declared he would indeed become a Buc. The parties embraced and exchanged handshakes. Allen would speak of contacting the Giants to offer compensation for Barber's services, and Lepselter and his client flew back to New York and a brave not-so-new world.
Only by the time the plane landed, Barber was already backpedaling on the plan. He'd just started his NBC work on "The Today Show" and "Football Night in America." Even if Lepselter saw ominous storm clouds gathering in the distance, how could Barber retreat so quickly to a huddle? What about all those proclamations that he burned to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and do more with his life outside of the sports bubble?
And then there was the matter of those 10 seasons, those 10,449 rushing yards, and that one uniform. "I didn't want to ruin my Giants legacy," Barber would say. "Gruden was excited about it, Ronde was excited about it, and Lep was excited about it, but my heart wasn't in it."
The next morning Lepselter phoned Allen with the bad news. The Bucs remained persistent; Gruden sent text messages to the agent asking whether there was a way to work things out.
Barber didn't blink. Tampa advanced to the playoffs without him, and Barber went down to watch his old team face Ronde in a wild-card game.
It would've made for a hell of a story had Tiki taken the Bucs deal and lined up against Michael Strahan, Antonio Pierce and the rest. "It was a weird feeling watching that game," Tiki said, "because I was kind of rooting against my brother. I was rooting for the Giants."
Four weeks later Barber would end up with his "Today" crew on the Super Bowl field, under the confetti, in the immediate wake of the Giants' forever upset of the Patriots.
"It was a surreal experience to be a part of that as a journalist," Barber said. "But if I was on that Giants team, we don't win the Super Bowl that year because the offense revolved around me. Eli needed to be the leader of the offense."
At the most recent Super Bowl in Dallas, Barber listened as his fellow 30-something, Tony Gonzalez, told him he should make a comeback. Tiki threw himself into yoga exercises and weight training to regain some lost strength and elasticity, leaving him at 204 pounds, or four to six pounds short of his usual training camp weight.
This second time around in the NFL, Barber knows that failing as a running back is the worst thing that can happen to him. "And that won't stop me from trying," he said, "because I'm never afraid of failing."
The man who will grant Barber his release when the league's labor conflicts are settled, Giants GM Jerry Reese, told Tiki, "I wouldn't bet a quarter against you. I know you will do it."
Barber just won't do it in the colors of the Giants, the only colors he ever wanted to wear.