Mike Alstott had his family in the front row - and at the top of his priorities - on Thursday
Let it be said for the record that Mike Alstott, whose emotional connection to the game of football obviously runs deep, maintained his composure rather well during his retirement announcement on Thursday. With family, friends, teammates and a packed auditorium on hand for the 45-minute press conference, Alstott succeeded in his goal of thanking the many people who had helped him succeed in the NFL.
There were three occasions during his speech, however, on which Alstott choked on his words a bit, not counting his heartfelt, "Thank you for the memories," signoff.
The first two, not surprisingly, came when Alstott contemplated what he was giving up. It was difficult for him to confront the fact that he wouldn't be on the field again with his teammates, that he wouldn't run through the tunnel again or hear the roar of the crowd.
The third time Alstott's emotions overtook him, however, put into sharp focus the reason he was giving up those pleasures for good. Near the end of his speech, he looked over to his three children in the front row – son Griffin and daughters Hannah and Lexie – and explained that he simply couldn't risk losing the most important job in his life.
"I feel so fortunate to be a father and have my kids experience my career," said the six-time Pro Bowl fullback. "They see me as 'Daddy,' not a professional football player. They've kept me grounded my whole career. At the end of the day, nothing is better than getting home to them and having their hugs and kisses allow me to forget all of the day's stresses associated with football.
"I'm relieved to know Daddy still gets to be Daddy and [I will] be there for my children as they grow up."
Alstott's retirement, while rumored for years, might still be several seasons off if not for the threat of serious injury. Thursday's announcement was precipitated by a second neck injury that was discovered near the beginning of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2007 training camp. Alstott had previously recovered from a significant neck ailment in 2003, and had actually proved very effective in 2005 and 2006, but there is no chance for a comeback this time.
Alstott didn't come to that conclusion simply, nor without some emotional resistance. With a supportive wife in Nicole Alstott, a still-fanatical fan base, a Buccaneers team on the rise and a love for the game that never waned, he had plenty of reasons to go on playing. But he had three more important reasons to hang it up, and they were all in the front row during Thursday's press conference. Alstott simply couldn't absorb the physical risks of the game anymore after his most recent ailment.
"Though mentally I feel like I can continue, physically I can't," he said. "The second injury to my neck will prevent me from playing football forever.
"Today is definitely a day of mixed emotions. I am very sad to be walking away from this game I love, but at the same time I'm excited and I'm blessed that it has taken me this far. Ever since I was a kid, I always dreamed of playing in the NFL. That dream came true the day I got the phone call from Jill Hobbs telling me Coach [Tony] Dungy wanted to speak to me."
That call came in the second round of the 1996 draft, and on the other end was a team that hadn't posted a winning season in almost a decade and a half. But it was also a team that was in its second year under new ownership – Malcolm Glazer had purchased the Buccaneers in 1995 – and its first year under Dungy.
By 1997, the Bucs were back in the playoffs, in no small part due to the powerful running game built around Alstott and his "Thunder and Lightning" partner, Warrick Dunn. By the end of the decade the Bucs were a perennial postseason contender, and in 2002 Jon Gruden arrived and shepherded the team to its first Super Bowl title.
The Buccaneers went to the playoffs three times in their first 20 seasons. During Alstott's 12 years with the team, they made seven postseason trips. For a man who always put team first, the franchise's complete turnaround during his career will stand as his most lasting memory.
"I can truly take something from each and every guy I've played with," said Alstott. "But looking back on it, I have now realized that there was a core group of players that really impacted my career. We came together and changed the view of this organization and the way people perceived the Buccaneers as a football team. We in that locker room established a chemistry that was like no other. We were united and we stood strong for one purpose, and that was to win conference championships and Super Bowls. Together, we are a huge reason of why the Bucs are an elite team in the NFL today. I am honored to be a part of a group of guys like [Warren] Sapp, [John] Lynch, [Derrick] Brooks, [Ronde] Barber, Jeff Christy, Shelton Quarles, Brad Johnson, Warrick Dunn, Brian Kelly, Michael Pittman, Dave Moore and others. And there are a lot of others; I would be up here all day [listing] them. Together we put the Buccaneers on the map."
Executive Vice President Bryan Glazer, who introduced Alstott for his speech, recalled two Alstott touchdown runs that held special significance for him. One came near the beginning of that historic franchise turnaround, a 31-yard touchdown run that sealed the team's playoff victory over Detroit in 1997. That was the Bucs' first postseason victory in 18 years, as well as the last game ever played at Tampa Stadium.
"It signified the beginning of a rebirth of this franchise, a moment that we'll never forget at the Old Sombrero," said Glazer. "If you needed a yard, Mike got you two. If you needed to grind out a game at the end, Mike was the man for you."
Glazer said the Buccaneers will devote one of the Buccaneers' 2008 home games to honoring Alstott, who is the Bucs' all-time leader with 71 touchdowns and their second-leading rusher with 5,088 yards. Glazer also introduced a new and very impressive stat regarding Alstott that underscored the significance of Thursday's retirement announcement.
"Since 1990, 7,325 players have played in the NFL – 7,325," said Glazer. "In that span, only 17 players have played over 11 years with the same team and retired with the same team. The 18th is sitting right next to me. It's an amazing figure for an amazing man."
Indeed, Buccaneer fans have found Alstott's efforts to be amazing for the last dozen years. Considering he began nurturing his dream to play in the NFL way back in the third grade, the experience was amazing for him, too. In fact, he called it a "a great ride, an unbelievable ride."
The ride came to an end on Thursday, and – with a few tears mixed in – Mike was thankful for it.
"The hardest thing is standing up and saying that you can't play," he said. "But I hope I thanked everyone…everybody in this room and this building, in the community…that is what I wanted to get accomplished today. I wanted to say thank you and close this chapter of my life, so I hope I did that."