CHARLOTTE -- Mike Rucker said he was going to try to "hold it together," that he didn't want to cry.
He didn't last long, and neither did most of the people around him Tuesday.
It's hard to keep a dry eye when a person's worked the way Rucker worked, lived the way he lived and meant as much to an organization as Rucker did. Goodbyes are supposed to be hard, but the way he conducted himself allowed it to be what he called "a joyful day."
The 33-year-old called it a career after nine seasons, admitting the physical strain of coming back from his 2006 knee injury left him with little to offer his only pro team. He left in the franchise's all-time top three in games started, tackles and sacks.
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As he tearfully addressed coach John Fox from his podium in the team meeting room, Rucker made clear the reason.
"I just want you to know I gave it everything I've got," Rucker said as he paused, tears welling all around him. "But the tank is empty ... it's empty."
Rucker stood at the podium for nearly 30 minutes thanking people from top to bottom of the organization. He spoke to owner Jerry Richardson, to all his coaches and teammates, to the trainers and strength coaches that brought him back to health and to John Coleman, the security guard who greets people when they enter Bank of America Stadium's main entrance.
As he closed, he looked around the room, and said, "Saying that, ... I'm done. I have to let it go."
It was a long farewell, reminiscent of his 2007 season.
He vowed that a torn ACL in December 2006 wasn't going to end his career, that "they weren't going to carry me off the field."
So even though his wife Kristina was tending to their three children, the youngest two months old at the time, he embarked on a rigorous rehabilitation, and was back to start 16 games last year. After having no offseason last year, the last few months proved to Rucker what he needed to do.
Even the mundane things, like renting a minivan to drive to his native Missouri for Easter -- "I don't know why I rented a minivan," he cracked -- showed him it was time.
Those around him could do nothing but agree.
Rucker's play wasn't what it had been, but he was still a serviceable part, and probably could have found a minimum-wage deal to play another year. But he was going to have to do it somewhere else, as the Panthers had elected to go with younger players, and told him as much.
He initially said he'd consider playing somewhere else, but ultimately chose not to mar his record.
This, he said, has become home. It's where his success came, his family is settled, his businesses and charitable endeavors are based.
Richardson recalled a recent meeting with Rucker, when they talked about such things. Richardson knows of what he speaks, parlaying his own playing money with Baltimore into a Hardee's franchise that would eventually turn into Rucker's future employer.
"I told him my thoughts were that he's in the perfect place in his life," Richardson said, before he too had to dab his eyes.
Rucker's leaving the original family business to his younger brother Martin, a tight end from Missouri who'll be drafted this weekend in the middle rounds. The big brother teared up again when asked about how tempting it was to stay behind to play with or against him.
"I told him I'm passing the baton, and now he's got it," Rucker said.
The only person missing was his best friend, former Panthers safety Mike Minter, who was out of town and couldn't get back in time.
Minter cried, too, when he retired in August, and the emotions associated with moving forward without them aren't lost on those who stay behind.
Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac thought about the pair of them many times recently, as he graded out prospects for this weekend's draft.
"They left an important role model to fill," Trgovac said. "Those two, both of them, were very good football players and as close as you can get to perfect. They do what you ask them to do, on time, do the right things in the community, great family men.
"It's ironic for me, getting ready for this draft and sitting there studying all these players. You think, 'God, you'd just like to get a guy like Minter and Rucker.'"
That's going to be hard for the Panthers.
That's why they were all so emotional Tuesday, as they began moving on.