CHARLOTTE -- Mike Rucker's admitting he's tired. He's acknowledging he's influenced by the way best friend Mike Minter was received after his training camp retirement. He recognizes the allure of finishing where he started.
What the Carolina Panthers' defensive end's not doing, however, is announcing anything.
The 32-year-old Rucker has a contract that expires at the end of the year, though he had to take a pay cut this year to reach it. While all the clues are in place, he's not ready to say this will be his final year.
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"We all know we can't play this game forever," Rucker said, leaning back in his chair and slowly cutting the tape off his ankles after another long practice. "The older you get, the more time you've got to put in it and the more work you've got to put in it.
"My goal was to get back for this year. And to play this year. I'm at a point I'm just looking at this year. I'm happy that, after what happened close to a year ago, I'm happy I was fortunate enough to get out here."
Rucker's referring to blowing out his left knee on Dec. 17 against Pittsburgh, tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Combining the injury, his age, and the fact he had big salary cap numbers which had to be reduced, many thought his days here, if not his days playing period, were over.
Rucker grins and says he used such talk as motivation.
"My sole focus was to get back on the field," he said. "I didn't want to go out that way. I didn't want to be carted off. A lot of people didn't think I was going to get back, because of age, and all the other stuff. So that was my motivation. I didn't want to go out that way. And we're here today. It's still fun."
Of course, getting back required him to essentially forego his offseason, spending all his time in an aggressive rehab that enabled him to start the regular season. Combined with the general fatigue that sets in this time of year, Rucker's quick to admit he's not as fresh as he once was.
"Now that the season is banging on you, you feel different than you did three months ago -- now you've been clanging and banging," he said. "I feel good, to the extent that you hadn't had a break since last offseason.
"You go into the year, you've got two weeks off, then you're rehabbing the whole offseason. I didn't know what to expect, how I was going to feel. So far, halfway, we're still there plugging away. But it's been a tough 11 months."
Of course, he's not as productive as he's been in the past. He's yet to record a sack, though he does lead the team with 10 pressures. And he's playing the run as well as he has in the past, which makes him valuable, even if not someone they can build future plans around.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said it was "too premature," to think about keeping Rucker past this year, and when asked if his play merited such consideration, Hurney replied: "He's playing very well."
But perhaps the biggest consideration unfolded before Rucker's eyes three months ago this week, as he watched Minter try to come back for another year, before realizing his arthritic knees wouldn't allow it, leading to a tearful good-bye during training camp.
The two are partners in many business and charitable ventures, and have been known each other since their college days at Nebraska. So it's impossible to think Minter's situation hasn't made him reflect on his own nine years here.
"I think definitely, the way the organization dealt with it, the way he dealt with it, it all worked out," Rucker said. "It was like the perfect setting. You're not talking about a guy that had to bounce from team to team. You can call this home, and you didn't have to leave to be happy.
"That's the beauty of it."
So beautiful he wants to go out the same way?
"I'll keep you posted," Rucker said with a grin.