CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Mike Rucker was walking from the weight room to his locker Thursday when a team employee handed him a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The Carolina Panthers defensive end was one of a handful of players invited to travel to Afghanistan in the offseason to meet U.S. troops there. Rucker looked over the letter with a sense of pride, pointing to Goodell's words about how the group was selected and its importance in bringing cheer to the troops.
Rucker is savoring every moment as his career winds down, a year after he didn't know if he would ever play football again following a serious knee injury. The commissioner's invitation and his breakout game Sunday against San Francisco are helping Rucker appreciate his nine-year career.
``Sometimes people will say that and it's kind of cheesy, but when you're in that position, you treat the game different and you respect it a whole lot more,'' Rucker said.
Rucker was long considered one of the leaders and classiest members of the team, but his future was in doubt nearly a year ago when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He knew he would turn 32 in February - senior citizen age for defensive linemen. Maybe he wasn't up to the seven months of rehabilitation ahead of him.
``I questioned myself if I wanted to put in that effort, that work,'' he said.
The next day Rucker talked with owner Jerry Richardson and teammates Mike Minter and John Kasay. The discussions lifted his spirits, and he decided to try to come back.
Rucker took a pay cut to help with the salary cap, then embarked on a grueling rehab program that left no time for offseason vacations with his wife and two young children.
Rucker was ready for the start of training camp, but he was playing with a bulky brace. Then Minter, his best friend on the team, announced his retirement due to achy knees.
Rucker cried at Minter's retirement news conference, unsure if he was next.
He kept his starting job for the start of the regular season, but didn't look like his old self, the guy who had racked up 52 1/2 sacks and a Pro Bowl selection in 2003. Rucker rarely was seen in the backfield as he struggled with the psychological aspect of favoring his knee.
``I'd be doing a play or something and I'd be always pulling my leg out,'' Rucker said. ``I'd be real conscious of it. The brace, I wasn't used to it.''
He was able to switch to a smaller brace. Finally, he shed the brace for Sunday's game against the 49ers.
Entering the game with only one sack all season, Rucker looked like the 2003 version of himself. He burst into the backfield in the first quarter and ripped the ball away from Arnaz Battle, leading to a Panthers field goal. He sacked Trent Dilfer in the second quarter, then shared a sack with Julius Peppers in the second half.
Rucker finished with four tackles and two quarterback hurries in Carolina's 31-14 win.
``I think that is why he is so respected by the fans and definitely by the coaching staff and his teammates,'' coach John Fox said. ``He's been kind of a model guy since he's been here and you almost expect it of him. ... Lesser guys would not even be playing, let alone starting and performing at a progressive level all season.''
Rucker, second in franchise history with 544 tackles, knows the end is near. He isn't sure if he'll retire after this season or try to play one more year. Settled in Charlotte with his family, he doesn't want to play for another team.
Rucker will decide sometime in the offseason. Perhaps after he visits the troops in Afghanistan.
``I probably took the game for granted,'' Rucker said. ``The game has blessed us, but after the injury it made me think different.''
Notes: WR Dwayne Jarrett missed practice again with a sprained right knee and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam later Thursday. ... RB DeShaun Foster (head), S Chris Harris (shoulder) and LB Na'il Diggs all returned to practice after missing Wednesday's workout. ... The Panthers lost DE Otis Grigsby from the practice squad when he was signed by Minnesota on Thursday. The Panthers signed DE Willie Evans to replace him.

Recent NFL Discussions

Super Bowl 51 Betting News and Notes on Mon, Jan 2017 by Blade
Books survive Title 'chalk' on Mon, Jan 2017 by Blade
NFL / NBA .. Timmy learns no lessons on Mon, Jan 2017 by sharkey11
2nd Half pitt/ ne on Sun, Jan 2017 by JBoppa
2nd half on Sun, Jan 2017 by JBoppa
Advertisement

Top NFL Public Bets

NFL Top Stories

Thumbnail SBLI: Patriots favored over Falcons Following their victory in the AFC title game, the Patriots have opened as small favorites over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Thumbnail AFC Championship Game Prediction Are the Steelers a good bet to cover versus the Patriots in tonight's AFC Championship Game at 6:40PM ET?
Thumbnail AFC Title Spread Holding Steady Kickoff of tonight's AFC Championship Game is set for 6:40PM ET between the Steelers and Patriots. Where is the point spread currently?
Thumbnail Public Bettors backing Patriots Are public bettors backing Tom Brady and the Patriots today in the AFC Championship Game, or the underdog Steelers at 6:40PM ET?
Thumbnail NFC Title First Player to Score Pick Who will score the first touchdown in the NFC Championship Game today at 3:05PM ET? Let's take a look at the odds first.

NFL Team Pages