SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -Mike Minter hoped to play the game he loves for one more year, even after the pain in his knees seemed unbearable at the end of last season.
``Coming into the offseason, you figure you will get healthy, get your knees back and try to get some more magic out of them legs,'' Minter said Tuesday, wearing dark glasses to hide his tears. ``At the end of the day, there wasn't anything left.''
The 33-year-old safety officially ended his 10-year career with the Carolina Panthers by announcing his retirement Tuesday as his teammates, the team's office staff, security guards - and even the Panthers' owner - cried with him.
``I want to say this is probably the second hardest thing that I've ever had to do,'' Minter said, as his wife and four children sat nearby. ``The first thing was losing my mom, and the second thing is losing football. This is a game I love, a game I have been playing for a long time and it was a hard decision to come to.''
Minter leaves sitting atop the Panthers' record book in tackles, games started, fumble recoveries and interception returns for touchdowns. But perhaps more important, he leaves as the team's most respected leader.
``When we think about having the privilege to have a person who starts and ends his career the way Mike has, it's extraordinary,'' owner Jerry Richardson said after a long pause to compose himself.
Minter had all the qualities of an underdog. He was small - 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds - and had little cartilage left in his knees after three surgeries and a staph infection. But he overcame it all to become a mainstay in Carolina's secondary.
``A guy 5-10 coming in here to the National Football League trying to play strong safety, it shouldn't happen,'' Minter said. ``A guy coming in here with bone-on-bone in his knees, coming into the NFL like that, it shouldn't happen.''
What Minter lacked in size and speed, he made up for with his toughness, crowd-pleasing hard hits and his work in the community, ranging from the YMCA to his local church.
His importance to the franchise was illustrated last summer when Richardson, coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney flew to Oklahoma to attend his mother's funeral.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme, one of several veterans present when Minter announced his retirement during a news conference Tuesday, said Minter was a great man both on and off the field.
``I'm not talking in a masculine type of way. I'm talking in a fatherly type of way, and the civic person he was. This is a true man and a true pro when he came to play,'' Delhomme said.
While Minter never made the Pro Bowl, he has 467 more tackles than any other player in franchise history. His 141 starts and 94 consecutive starts are team records, as are his nine fumble recoveries and four interception returns for touchdowns.
Minter had not missed a game since early in the 2001 season, despite several injuries along the way. He played with a torn biceps muscle and even on a broken foot during Carolina's loss to New England in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season, when he had a career best 18 tackles.
Over the past few seasons, Minter's knee problems intensified. He took a pay cut in March and announced that 2007 would be his final season, but he was penciled in to start at free safety.
Minter was unable to practice twice a day at training camp this year, and he said last week he was considering retirement because he wasn't sure if his body would hold up over a 16-game season.
Sunday night, during a team meeting, Minter told his teammates he would retire.
``I couldn't keep a dry eye,'' Delhomme said. ``A bunch of guys were saying they had a lump in their throat and whatnot. I just think for some of the older guys it really hit them, really hard.''
Minter's retirement was especially hard for Mike Rucker, Minter's best friend on the team and a fellow former Nebraska player. Minter broke down when mentioned Rucker on Tuesday, and Rucker was in tears in the second row of seats.
``I'm going to miss the conversations,'' Rucker said before the news conference. ``Whether it's about life or football. I'll miss that around the locker room.''
Minter spoke for nearly 40 minutes Tuesday, thanking everyone from Richardson to the security guard who mans the gate at Bank of America Stadium. He said he planned to stay in Charlotte and ``be involved in anything they let us be involved in.''
He said he would like to become a high school football coach someday, while having some role in the Panthers' front office.
Moments later, Minter stepped off the podium, hugged his wife and children, and began life without football.
``It means everything to put on that Panther helmet, that No. 30 uniform, the black and blue and get ready to go to war. There's nothing like it,'' Minter said. ``And there won't be anything like it. I'm going to miss it.''

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