Panthers DE Mike Rucker announces retirement
By MIKE CRANSTON
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A tearful Mike Rucker said goodbye to football Tuesday, retiring from the Carolina Panthers as the team’s second-leading tackler and one of the franchise’s most beloved players.
The defensive end broke down several times as he thanked scores of people, from owner Jerry Richardson and coach John Fox to the trainers, security staff and equipment managers he befriended after spending all nine seasons of his career in Charlotte.
“I just want you to know that I gave you everything I got,” Rucker told Fox. “The tank is empty. It’s empty.”
More than two dozens of his current and former teammates attended the news conference. His wife, gripping tissues, watched from the front row as Rucker reversed a decision made 10 weeks ago when he announced plans to play for at least one more season.
“One of the hardest things to do is to not be in those trenches with my boys,” Rucker said.
Rucker said it became apparent that h is body was spent after years of chasing down quarterbacks and running into 300-pound offensive linemen.
“I’m done. I have to let it go,” Rucker said, his voice cracking.
Rucker, who played college football at Nebraska, was Carolina’s second-round pick in 1999. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Rucker had the combination of size and quickness that made him one of the anchors of the Panthers’ defensive line.
Rucker helped Carolina reach the Super Bowl in the 2003 season and the NFC championship game in 2005, and he ranks second in the team’s 13-year history with 553 tackles and 55O sacks. He was also involved in numerous off-field charitable activities and business interests in the Charlotte area, including a day-care center he opened several years ago.
Rucker suffered the first major injury of his pro career, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, near the end of the 2006 season. Determined to stay in the game, Rucker underwent a grueling rehab ilitation and was back on the field for the start of training camp seven months later.
Rucker got off to a slow start last season, but his numbers picked up once he shed the bulky brace on his knee. Rucker returned to his starting spot on the defensive line and finished with 57 tackles and three sacks.
But Rucker started wondering if he was close to retirement near the end of last season, having played for the year without his close friend and teammate, safety Mike Minter, who had retired during training camp.
Rucker was in tears after what turned out to be his final home game in December, but he told reporters he would wait a couple of months before making a final decision on his future.
Rucker said in February his body felt good and he planned to play in 2008. Rucker also wanted to be in the NFL with his younger brother, Martin, a tight end from Missouri expected to be taken in this weekend’s NFL draft.
But Carolina, looking to get younger on the defensive line after being next-to-last in the NFL with 23 sacks in 2007, chose not to re-sign Rucker. Third in team history with 139 games played, Rucker started to question whether he wanted to try to play for another team.
He said he told his brother of his decision Tuesday morning.
“I just told him that I loved him and I’m passing the baton to him,” Rucker said.
The Panthers could turn to the draft to find Rucker’s replacement, who will play opposite defensive end Julius Peppers. But it was clear from the tears in the eyes of Richardson, Fox and the numerous other employees that it will take a long time to replace Rucker within the franchise.
“He is in the perfect place in his life,” Richardson said. “He’s been with one organization. He’s contributed. He’s been a role model for the organization and for the community.”
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