SPARTANBURG -- As long as he worked for the Carolina Panthers, Mike Minter led them.

When he talked to his teammates for the final time Sunday, he called on a group of the team's younger players to take up his torch and to lead the team past where he took them for so long.

The veteran safety called it quits Tuesday, retiring after 10 years in the league because his knees wouldn't allow him to play one more. He left the team as their all-time leading tackler, the guy who started more games than anyone.

But the numbers didn't matter, as he displayed one last time the core of his being, the reason he's so beloved.

As he stood at the podium a Panther for the last time, he called on the next generation to deliver what he came so close to, yet was unable to finish.

"I told them to get them rings," he said. "And to have me one ready."

Minter apologized to owner Jerry Richardson for not getting him the Super Bowl title he promised in 2003, when the best Panthers team to date fell just short.

But on Tuesday, his friends and family gathered around him to commemorate his exit, rallied around him to make sure he knew what he meant to them.

"This is not about 'Good-bye,'" coach John Fox said. "This is about 'Thank you.'"

As they did, the emotion began to pour out.

Richardson wept quietly as he stared out a window before the press conference even started, and dabbed his eyes throughout. Defensive end Mike Rucker used the sleeve of his shirt when Minter thanked his best friend for being there for him, from their days together at Nebraska to this last week of training camp.

Mostly, Minter thanked everyone, although he couldn't thank everyone he touched because there's simply not the time.

"You never replace a Mike Minter," a red-eyed general manager Marty Hurney said. "You just move forward without him."

As he prepared for this day, he left instructions for three of the team's young stars. He talked about his decision to retire Sunday and told Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Steve Smith how much would be expected of them.

"I said, 'Pep, this is your defense now, take it,'" Minter said. "And I'm not talking about getting the sack record, I'm talking about taking five or six guys with you. I told Jordan Gross, he had to step it up for the O-line, this is his time. I told Steve Smith how proud I was of him, how I watched him grow up. He came in here as a young guy with an issue with everybody, and now he knows it's bigger than himself.

"I told those guys, 'This is your time.' We will not win a Super Bowl unless you guys take them there."

Those who heard his speech said the emotion was real and profound.

Kicker John Kasay sat next to him in every team meeting, and when he asked Minter how he was doing, Minter's reply was, "Well, you're fixing to find out, if I can get through this."

From the sounds of it, few did.

"I'll be honest with you, I did not hold back. I had tears coming down," quarterback Jake Delhomme said.

"He came into the league in '97 and I came into the league in '97. At any moment that could possibly be me. That's the hardest thing for any athlete to know. He told us he just couldn't do it at the level he needed to be at.

"We're all competitors and strong men, but all your life you've always been the best at something in athletics. When I think he kind of realized it's not there, physically you can't, it's kind of tough.

"I'm not saying we'll never see him, but when he walked out of that meeting room, that was it. He's not coming back to meetings. As much as we complain and we hate camp, that's part of your fabric. That's who you are. It was a difficult time. We were talking about it after and I couldn't keep a dry eye."

Minter tried to laugh at times through his farewell, but it wasn't working. After all he's done, all he's meant, saying it was over was more than he could bear.

He talked about last summer, when his mother died in the middle of training camp and said that was the only thing that even approached the sadness he felt Tuesday.

"This is probably the second-hardest thing I ever had to do," Minter said. "The first was losing my mom. The second is losing football."


• Who: Panthers at N.Y. Giants

• When: 8 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

• TV: FOX (cable channel 11 in Rock Hill)

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