Carolina Panthers

Minter's pain in heart and body

SPARTANBURG -- Finally, the hurt became too much.

For him, for them and for everyone who's watched Mike Minter the last 11 years.

If there's anything he'll be remembered for during his stint with the Carolina Panthers, it will be that Mike Minter was always there, even when he probably shouldn't have been.

Now he gets to rest, but his absence from the field and the locker room will be felt by the rest of us.

A tearful Minter stepped into the new phase of his life Tuesday, saying he had simply given everything he could to the team and the game.

"I figured I'd get healthy, the knees would come back," he said from behind his mercifully dark glasses. "I thought I could get a little more magic out of these legs.

"But at the end of the day, there just wasn't anything left."

Maybe not, but what he left behind will last.

Former coach Dom Capers called his shot on draft day 1997, extolling his newly acquired "tough guy."

That was before a staph infection in 1998 nearly ended Minter's career before it began.

That was before the business side of football nearly broke his heart, before he turned down guaranteed money in Cleveland to stay in Charlotte because it's where his spirit felt at home.

That was before he played the second half of the Super Bowl on a broken foot and tied a career-high in tackles in the process. That was before he tried coming back for an 11th season which everyone seemed to know was a bad idea.

But no one was going to tell Mike Minter to not try.

No one with a soul could.

Finally, his body betrayed him.

If nothing else, give Mike Minter credit for heeding his own advice.

He's seen first-hand what happens when players hang on too long. In 2004, he told running back Stephen Davis he should retire, rather than risk his legacy playing out the string. Davis faded into irrelevance in St. Louis, a little used backup.

His own internal struggle was apparent when he talked to teammates Sunday.

"One of the things I thought was so special, you really got a chance to look at somebody who was trying to come to grips with that decision," said kicker John Kasay, who sat next to him during meetings.

"And a lot of people like to do that in private. He was willing to show himself, this struggle he was having, knowing that mentally, he can do this. Mentally, he sees it, but your body won't let you take that step that you've always been able to take.

"So you could see the struggle with him trying to verbalize how he felt, and also wanting to make sure that the legacy he left was that he continued to battle until the very end. You saw that struggle with him."

You always did.

But if there's anything that could be different about this chapter of his life, you'd almost wish he hadn't tried this.

The last vision of Mike Minter on the football field shouldn't have been last week, a warm summer evening made for fans lounging lazily on the soft, green hill overlooking the practice fields.

It was a perfect night, except for one thing.

Minter was fighting, as he always has, fighting desperately but in vain for one more day, one more week, one more season.

Minter looked old that night. He was in pain, hopping awkwardly on one leg after one of his final attempts to come up and put a hit on someone. He couldn't really change direction, couldn't chase anyone. He knew exactly where he needed to be and what he needed to do, but his body wouldn't let him.

The thing that was so natural for so long looked so forced.

That's one of the tragedies.

But there's one bigger.

The next time the Carolina Panthers are looking for someone -- someone to make a tackle, someone to counsel a rookie, someone to speak up during hard times -- Mike Minter won't be there.

And that will hurt them far worse than anything he's experienced the last 11 years.