If there'd been some inkling, some hint that Tiki Barber had so missed the game of football that he needed to go back for more, it would be one thing. But to see the greatest running back in Giants history suddenly decide he wants to play again after four years out of football, at the age of 35, after a failed marriage and broadcasting career . . . well, it all seems sad.

Especially because Barber figured to be one of the last guys you'd ever see on the ignominious list of pro athletes who came back, many for all the wrong reasons. When he retired after the 2006 season, he seemed so self-assured that he was right to go out on top after 10 NFL seasons. He'd just rushed for 1,662 yards. His last regular-season game was that epic 234-yard rushing performance in Washington, where he led the Giants to the playoffs and helped save Tom Coughlin's career.

Barber was one of the most intelligent, well-read and interesting players I've ever come across. His ability to speak as comfortably and knowledgeably about early 20th century American fiction as how to know when to make a cutback made him such a unique presence.

He talked openly about wanting to go into broadcasting, and the plan seemed to make sense: go out on top, strike while the iron is hot, and make the kind of career transformation to which so many athletes aspire.

But his post-NFL career reality wasn't what he'd expected, and his scorched-earth policy about commenting on his former team saw him alienated from the Giants' franchise within a matter of months.

He ripped Coughlin for being too tough on players. He tweaked Eli Manning for not being a good enough leader, chiding the quarterback for making uncomfortable locker room speeches that Barber called "comical." Even the mild-mannered Manning took a shot at Barber. "I guess I'm just happy for Tiki that he's making a smooth transition into the TV world,'' Manning said. "You know, I'll be interested to see if he has anything to say [about a team] besides the Giants, and what his comments will be.''

Meanwhile, another of Barber's former teammates, Michael Strahan, was going through his own late-career challenges. Pondering retirement, he stayed away from the team for the entire 2007 training camp. He returned only days before the start of the regular season.

That season turned out to be one of the most special in franchise history; the Giants won the Super Bowl, defeating the 18-0 Patriots in the title game. Barber was on the field, too; he was in a suit and tie interviewing former teammates for NBC. Even though Barber said he was still at peace with his decision, it was still uncomfortable to watch.

The post-career spiral continued, with Barber's marriage dissolving and then losing his gig at NBC. SI.com reported Barber left his wife of 11 years, Ginny, for 23-year-old Traci Johnson, a former NBC intern. The network terminated Barber's contract. Barber reportedly has had severe money problems since. Neither Barber nor his agent, Mark Lepselter, returned calls Tuesday.

Another low moment came at last year's Ring of Honor induction ceremony at New Meadowlands Stadium, Barber was the only player booed.

So now he hopes to return to the NFL, with no certainty he'll be invited to play. The Giants waited only minutes before announcing that they would release Barber from his contract and not ask him back. It's sad to see it all unfold this way. For a player who seemed to have it all together after going out on top, the unraveling has been painful to watch.