Players Say Their Goodbyes

Just because the NFL is supposed to be a tough-guy sport, that doesn't mean the players depart after the season without feelings for each other. Wednesday was a day of exchanging phone numbers and giving hugs as the uncertainty of the offseason began. See how it affects different players in different ways.

Wednesday was Getaway Day at Winter Park, as players attended the final team meetings of the 2007 season, cleaned out what they needed from their lockers and got about the business of dispersing to wherever they spend the offseason. For some, it meant simply making a trip of a few miles to their year-round homes near Winter Park. For others, it meant booking a plane flight to head back to their hometown or to where their families are. For still others, it will be their last time leaving Winter Park.

According to head coach Brad Childress, NFL rosters change by 30-some percent on average each year. Free agency takes some spots. A new rookie crop takes others. Still more have expiring contracts that aren't renewed. For the Vikings, four full-time starters from the 2006 squad weren't with the team this year and many more part-time players also didn't return for 2007. Turnover is a fact of life in the NFL.

As players packed up and said goodbye for some individual down time between now and when the first offseason programs begin in March, they realized that many of the teammates they've come to know may be saying goodbye for the last time. Attrition takes a heavy toll on NFL rosters and having teammates come and go is a way of life that players come to accept as part of life in the NFL.

"That's a tough side of the business," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "Two of my best friends when I was in Green Bay signed away as free agents. Matt Hasselbeck and I went out to dinner one night and the next morning he gets a call saying he's been traded to Seattle. You enjoy the guys when you're around them because, in this business, you don't know when they'll be gone or you'll be gone. You have to appreciate the time you have with them."

The nomadic society that revolves around football is one that sees players come and go with regularity. To some players, the NFL is simply an extension of what they've become accustomed to during their lives as football players and there comes the expectation of saying goodbyes that turn out to be permanent.

"You sort of get used to it through high school and college," punter Chris Kluwe said. "There's always a class that's graduating and moving on. It's pretty much the same thing (in the NFL). There's going to be turnover from year to year. It's not like most guys can play for 30 years in the NFL. It's something you have to get used to because it's the way things are going to be just due to the nature of the sport."

However, the bond teammates make over the years makes it difficult to see a companion they've toiled with suddenly no longer be in the picture. Players leave via free agency. They retire – whether of their own free will or the will of the organization. Players are traded. More often than not, players end up being cut.

While many players will throw up the outward façade of being the toughest of the tough, when it comes to saying goodbye to teammates that have become like family members, even the most hardened veteran feels the loss.

"It's tough," linebacker Ben Leber said. "As thick-skinned as you need to be to be around this locker room and to play this game, everybody has got soft spots and it does hurt. You can lose friends. It is part of the game, but you have to let it go. There's going to be some guys that are going to be gone that you're close to. You wish them well and hopefully you see them on the other side of the ball next year."

But just because players leave one city to ply their trade somewhere else doesn't mean that they lose touch. Many of the friendships forged with one team last for years, even when one or all of the former teammates have long since left where they spent their NFL formative years.

Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams can empathize. He spent the majority of his career with the Buffalo Bills and made strong friendships with players like Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher. While none of those players are still with the organization, they and many of their former teammates still keep in touch on a weekly basis, find time to spend together in the offseason and never completely lose touch with one another.

"I've been around a long time," Williams said. "I've seen guys come. I've seen guys go. I still talk to all my guys I played with up in Buffalo – Spikes, Fletcher, all the guys. We all change numbers, but we're still friends."

For most of the players, the friendships that blossomed through being teammates are friendships that will last a lifetime. For those who go away between now and next season, they will be missed by many of their teammates that remain. If a player has been around long enough, he's seen hundreds of teammates come into and out of organizations. After awhile, all you do is have fun with the situation and make light of it.

"I've seen these guys' ugly faces for the last six months," safety Darren Sharper said with a chuckle. "I think we need a break from each other."

And the life cycle of the NFL moves on – with some and without others.

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