Postscripts: Mike, it's OK to leave

Mike Alstott's move to the IR ends his 2007 season. In the latest edition of Postscripts, Matthew Postins writes that, despite the enormous goodwill Alstott has built in Tampa Bay, he should take the hint from his body and walk away knowing that he had a wonderful career.

I admit. I was fooled. For about two hours I thought Mike Alstott was retiring.

You're only as good as your sources, and this time my sources were wrong. I don't feel so bad. At least I was in the herd with everyone else. Even ESPN reported he was retiring before the news conference.

My source called me about 11 a.m. to tell me the news, saying, "I knew something was up when (Jon) Gruden kept saying he was sore."

So I suppose that means we should warm up for a Luke Petitgout press conference any day now.

I debated about writing an appreciation — you know, the long-winded salute to Alstott's accomplishments that surely everyone will write in Friday morning's papers — because he left the door open, like many athletes do. He might come back. He never really said that, but he didn't say he was retiring, either.

But the fact is that this is Alstott's second neck injury in five years. The first one required surgeons to remove a disc, replace it with one from a cadaver and fuse the two together with titanium. It's, frankly, a marvel that Alstott came back the way he has the past couple of seasons.

But this is an injury to a different part of his neck. He wasn't specific, but did state that it was higher than the earlier injury. His medical team told him not to play in 2007, and it's probably a wise decision.

But is it wise for Alstott to play ever again? These injuries are warnings, if you ask me. Alstott said that "you don't mess with neck injuries." He already has once. Why tempt fate again?

You don't usually get warnings like this in football. It usually happens suddenly. Remember Dennis Byrd? He's lucky to be walking. Remember Mike Utley? He's still in a wheelchair. Remember Darryl Stingley? His career ended in an instant, and now he's gone.

All suffered major spine injuries, and their careers and lives were forever changed. Alstott can walk away scot-free, if he chooses. He has a wife and three children. He owns Tampa Bay. He can do anything he wants in this town.

Why tempt fate? Alstott's maxed out to the nth degree what anyone expected from him in 1996, when he was a second-round pick.

His Purdue numbers — 3,635 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns, along with 1,075 yards receiving — hinted that he had talent. He actually finished as Purdue's all-time leading rusher. But you know how it is in the NFL. Running backs — true running backs — are not 245 pounds. They're more like Cadillac Williams, who is 217 pounds. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. But not 245 pounds.

Alstott broke the mold from the start. The guy ran like a bowling ball. He invited punishment as if he was your well-to-do brother offering to let you crash on his couch until you got back on your feet. He proved far more productive than your standard NFL fullback. In fact, Alstott was a fullback in name only. They don't have a position for a player of his size and skill. They have nicknames, like the A-Train.

Mike Alstott was moved to injured reserve on Thursday, potentially the first step toward the end of the fullback's pro football career. (Getty)
Or Thunder, to Warrick Dunn's Lightning, for five years from 1997-01. You could say the pair helped usher in the new desire to have two quality backs to run the football. Tampa Bay had a tandem backfield long before it was fashionable to do so. They were the perfect contrast in skills — Dunn, the scatback and Alstott, the battering ram.

Dunn went away in free agency, but Alstott stayed and helped Tampa Bay win a Super Bowl ring in 2002, the ultimate prize for a franchise that, for the most part, had been a lumbering mess. Alstott helped usher in a golden age of Buccaneer football that his teammates are trying to reclaim — punishing defense bolstered by a ball-control offense.

His numbers would never be described as prodigious. Maybe for a player of his size, but certainly never for a running back. He never had a 1,000-yard season. He only had nine 100-yard games. Alstott found his niche in scoring and winning. The Buccaneers were 44-14 when Alstott scored, and no position player scored more in franchise history than Alstott's 71 touchdowns.

In truth, Alstott has always been a situational player. It's just that, for the first seven years of his career the situation suited Alstott. That is, until his injury in 2003.

That neck injury changed a lot of things, but most of all it changed his role. Alstott was no longer seen as a back that could give you 150 carries per season, as he had from 1996-2002. When Alstott went on injured reserve in 2003, Michael Pittman and Thomas Jones carried the load. In 2004 it was Pittman again, and Alstott — healthy most of the year — received only 67 carries.

Alstott understood what most fans couldn't. The Bucs were now losing. They were 7-9 in 2003 and 6-10 in 2004. Losing teams throw the ball more so they can try to win. A passing offense doesn't suit the grind-it-out quality of Alstott's game. So he sat. He became, in part, sort of like one of those fraternity legacies — you know, the pledges you have to take in because their dad or their granddad was a frat brother? Alstott's legacy kept him in uniform.

Then came Cadillac Williams to steal the rest of his carries, and Alstott's transformation was complete. He was no longer a ball carrier. He was a blocker who could run and catch in certain situations. That's what he has been for the last two years.

I admit, I came late to the party. I've only covered the team the past two and a half seasons. But I saw what I would think most fans would consider one of his greatest moments. In fact, I was about 50 feet away, standing on the sideline.

Nov. 13, 2005. Washington at Tampa Bay. I think you know what I'm talking about.

I always considered that the defining moment of that season. Imagine if the Bucs had lost that game? It would have been their third straight. The tail spin might have been too much to control at that point, with Chris Simms at quarterback and still finding his way.

Faced with less than a yard — thanks to two absurdly-timed penalties by Washington — and a one-point deficit, Jon Gruden left it to Alstott to get him a two-point conversion that would win that game.

You know the rest. I was right on the goal line, and Alstott did get in. That I know for sure. But it was by the slimmest of margins. And his legs didn't stop after the first, second or third hit. He just kept driving those legs until that ball crossed the goal line.

It was a defining Alstott moment. It was deafening in Raymond James Stadium that day. The crowd's adoration washed upon him like a late afternoon shower — pleasant, refreshing and oh so brief.

Alstott's connection with the football fan is simple. He's what we wish we could be if we could play — tough, unrelenting, humble and successful. He was raised by a working man and has a working man's demeanor. He brings that proverbial lunch pail to work every day and doesn't leave until he puts in a full day's work. That's why fans love and respect Alstott, and why this is such a sad day for them.

This is likely the beginning of the end for Alstott, a slow march into the sunset that will end, one day soon, with an announcement of his retirement.

He should obey his body and, this time, move to avoid the hit. Take a knee and call it a career, Mike. No one blames you. You've done all you can do, probably more than anyone expected.

It'll be hard, but don't worry. You have thousands upon thousands of Buccaneers fans to lean on to get you through. It's the least they can do. They've been leaning on your broad shoulders for 12 years.

Let them return the favor.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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