Howie Long, last of the Oakland Raiders, a member of the team's last Super Bowl-winning squad and one of the game's premier defensive linemen over the last 13 seasons, has played his last down for the Raiders.
Long announced his retirement Thursday at a news conference at Super Bowl headquarters.
Long said that although he had toyed with ending his career since late in the season, he didn't decide until Wednesday night, when he learned he had been added to this year's AFC Pro Bowl squad by Coach Marty Schottenheimer.
"It's time to get on with life," Long said. "It's time to grow up. I've been very fortunate. I've been very lucky. God has blessed me. I've made more money than I ever dreamof making.
"Having won a world championship, having done just about everything there is to do in sports from a defensive lineman's standpoint, having a great time and finishing up at this point in my career in the Pro Bowl at 34, that is, in my mind, the way I think you should leave sports.
"I've seen too many players who I have a great deal of respect and admiration for, (people) I looked up to growing up and watched on film, and then I watched them deteriorate physically, but try to hang on too long. That was always disappointing and hard to watch.
"I would much rather people say, 'The guy went out as a Pro Bowl player. He could have played two or three more years,' than having them say, 'He should have gotten out two years ago.' Many players talk about (retiring before their skills diminish), but very few accomplish it."
Long envisioned the alternative and chose to call it quits.
"I don't take criticism well," he said. "I would hate to have (Coach) Art Shell call me in and say, 'You've lost a step and we're going to bring you in off the bench.' I'd be embarrassed as hell. . . . I don't think I could bear not playing well. It would be hell for me not to be the go-to guy. . . . It's all or nothing, and I'm proud of the fact that, at 34, I took every snap, I played every down and was considered one of the best players in the league at what I do."
Though he thoroughly enjoyed his career, he also seemed relieved Thursday to finally give his body a rest.
"When I got drafted by the Raiders, I was 20 years old," Long said. "I'm 34. I've been hitting people for a long time. I've been operated on seven times. I know my wife's tired of being in post-op, waiting. I'm tired of being in pre-op, waiting.
"It kind of wears on you. You've got to trick yourself mentally to stay at that level."
Long had no guarantee he would ever reach that level after playing collegiately at Villanova, hardly a high-profile football school.
He was added to the roster for the 1980 Blue-Gray game, filling in for an injured player. Long made the most of it, being voted the game's most valuable player.
Long was so eager to make the pros, he can recall working out for scouts on his front lawn on a Sunday at 8 a.m.
Ultimately, it paid off. Long was drafted in the second round in 1981 by the Raiders.
He agreed to a salary of $37,000 for his first season, bought a used car in Tucson on his way out west and drove into Oakland.
And there he ran into the reality of pro football in the form of Art Shell.
Shell wasn't Long's coach in those days. He was a future Hall of Fame tackle and the man Long faced in a drill on his first day in camp. Shell cracked Long's cheekbone and hit him with a fist to the stomach.
"It was a shock, believe me, because there was no one on the Delaware team (a Villanova opponent) like Art Shell," Long said.
Fortunately for Long, there weren't too many like Shell in the NFL, either. Long went on to be named first team on the All-NFL team of the 1980s, played in 179 games, recorded 91 1/2 sacks and was a member of the Raider squad that beat the Washington Redskins in the 1984 Super Bowl.
In recent years, Long was not a dominating player but, with rising stars like Anthony Smith, Nolan Harrison and Chester McGlockton around him, could still be a force.
The Pro Bowl on Feb. 6 will be Long's eighth, tying him for the team record with Shell, who has been such a big part of his career.
Long, who had a contract through the 1996 season, held out last summer, finally reporting when the Raiders agreed to adjust his deal, paying him more in 1993.
Long had no idea at the time, he said, that it would be his last season.
Having made his decision Wednesday night, Long said, he was not able to get in touch with owner Al Davis before Thursday's announcement, but hoped to meet with him today in Atlanta.
"It's somewhat of a surprise," Raider executive assistant Al LoCasale said. "I thought he was committed to the Raiders for the next three years under his last contract. But if this is what he wants to do, we certainly wish him well."
Long plans to spend more time with his wife, Diane, and three young boys and will pursue dual careers as a football analyst and actor.
Present at Thursday's farewell was former linemate Bill Pickel, one of many players Long took under his expansive wings.
"It wasn't like going to school," Pickel said. "He treated you like family. If you played basketball, you wanted to be like Mike. If you played football, you wanted to be like Howie."
Veteran guard Max Montoya has been named to the Pro Bowl.