Zoom Says Goodbye

LAKE FOREST - Jerry Azumah recalled his arrival at Halas Hall, when the Bears converted him to cornerback after an award-winning career as a Division I-AA running back at New Hampshire.

That's when he told the media at a mini-camp that the last time he played defensive back was on a "Playstation" video game.

"I remember Walt Harris and Tom Carter, some of the older guys that kind of took me under their wing . . . Tony Parrish," Azumah said. "Because when I first came in here, I didn't know how to backpedal. I didn't even know what a backpedal was.

"They kind of threw me in there and then all of a sudden I was covering Randy Moss. Those guys that I mentioned really took me under their wing and they really built a foundation."

It was a foundation that took Azumah from 1998 Walter Payton Award winner as a running back to seven NFL seasons at cornerback and a Pro Bowl as a kick returner, and it came to an end Thursday when the player known as "Zoom" to teammates announced his retirement due to injuries.

"It's about being healthy and moving forward and moving on with your life," Azumah said. "Chapters end in your life and other chapters open, so I'm not looking at it like I'm missing out on something because I'm really not missing out on much.

"I'm going to walk away with my head up high and there's a lot of things on the table for me now. I'm looking forward to the future."

Azumah started 49 of his 105 games played, made 384 tackles, 10 interceptions and 6 1/2 sacks as a cornerback and nickel back. He became a full-time kick returner in 2003 and eventually returned more kickoffs (119) than any Bears except Glyn Milburn and Dennis Gentry and is fifth all time in Bears kickoff return average (24.2).

"It's been a great, great ride, a great experience, going to the Pro Bowl and playing with guys like (Mike) Brown, Brian Urlacher, Rex Grossman, Peanut (Charles Tillman)," Azumah said. "I mean, the list goes on and on and on.

"Being coached by Lovie Smith has been great. It's been wonderful. I'm just happy to be blessed and fortunate enough to be with a franchise for seven years, which really doesn't happen too often."

Azumah underwent hip surgery more than two months ago. He had arthroscopic hip surgery last preseason to allow him to play out the rest of the 2005 season in pain.

"I decided to go in and get the surgery done, get cleaned out and just basically just play until the wheels fall off because this is what I love to do," he said.

Azumah felt pain in the hip again as the Bears prepared for their Jan. 15 playoff game with Carolina. Azumah left that game after aggravating a neck injury he'd suffered in 2004.

The combination of the two injuries caused him to retire, but the neck injury was more of a threat because he felt Thursday that he could run again like he had before surgery.

"It got to the Carolina game and I just wasn't feeling good," he said. "My body was talking to me and I just think it's time for me to start listening to my body and move forward.

"I feel like I can go out there and I can perform at a high level, definitely at a Pro Bowl caliber level that I was at. Right now I just feel like I need to take a different road in life. I played seven great years for the Bears and it's time for me to move on."

Azumah was supposed to be an unrestricted free agent receiving a big payday, but the injuries prevented him from getting one.

"Yeah, it would've been a huge payday, but sometimes it's not all about that," Azumah said. "It's about quality of life, it's about doing things that you've always wanted to do."

Azumah plans to work closely with his Azumah Student Assistance Program (ASAP), charities and in private business ventures.

He said the thing he'll probably miss most is leaving an 11-6 team that he sees on the rise.

"As time goes by this team is really going to be great," he said. "It's a little hard because I'm going to be gone from it, but I'll be up in the skybox watching, if not the sidelines."

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