|Rucker, Jenkins could be playing final game for Panthers|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 26 December 2007 12:40|
Jenkins is the bombastic, rule-breaking, oversized personality who can take over a room - literally and physically. He has both amazed and disappointed at defensive tackle.
Rucker is the quiet, unassuming team and community leader, the guy you run into off the field and think there's no chance he has the necessary mean streak to make it as a defensive end.
Yet there they've been, lining up next to each other year after year, experiencing the highs of a Super Bowl appearance and the lows of a 1-15 season.
Now, each is preparing for perhaps his final game with the Panthers on Sunday at Tampa Bay and, fittingly, for much different reasons.
``When I came in my first year, he was here. It's been fun,'' Jenkins said of Rucker. ``We've been through a lot.''
As Jenkins openly wondered Wednesday if he'll be back next season, four months removed from being on the trading block, Rucker was three lockers away, stoically talking about the possibility of retirement, but declining to announce it for sure.
``I've been taking it as every game is my last and I approach it that way,'' Rucker said. ``I need time to just decompress and make a clear decision.''
Yet there's a sense the 32-year-old Rucker has already made up his mind. He teared up as he walked off the field after Saturday's loss to Dallas. Minutes later, when asked if he had played his final home game, Rucker choked up and turned away.
Carolina's 1999 second-round pick will make his 107th start Sunday again, less than a year removed from major knee surgery. He's second in team history with 552 tackles, and needs one sack for 56, which would pass Julius Peppers' team mark.
But Rucker has slowed down. He has only three sacks and lacks the explosiveness he once had. He took a pay cut before this season and is in the final year of his contract.
``The body, the beatings over the years, they start to catch up with you,'' Rucker said. ``You want to bend down and play catch with your boys. You want to be able to shoot hoops. At some point, the more you keep banging and banging is not helping the situation. That's part of this decision process.''
At 28, Jenkins has several years left - they just might not be with Carolina. The team's second-round pick in 2001, Jenkins was considered one of the NFL's top defensive tackles before missing most of the 2004 and '05 seasons with injuries.
Jenkins came back last year and made the Pro Bowl, but has angered coaches and staff for being overweight and missing offseason conditioning workouts.
After the Panthers failed to trade him during the draft, Jenkins was the only starter to miss June's voluntary workouts as his agent said he wanted a new contract. Jenkins didn't get a new deal, but he showed up at training camp and has been the best player on a disappointing defensive line. He's under contract through the 2009 season, but he's not sure he'll be back.
``I'm not that high on the totem pole to make my own decisions,'' Jenkins said, laughing.
Being put on the trading block hurt him. He refused to answer a question of whether things are better now; it's part of the reason Jenkins isn't sure if a new team might be the best option.
``I don't know, to be honest. Seven years is a long time, but I do like it here,'' Jenkins said. ``But I have two heads pulling at me. I miss being away from my family and not being able to see my kids grow up.''
Jenkins said he'll be on a flight Monday, the day after the season, to see his two sons in Maryland. That's where he'll spend his offseason again, away from the Panthers' conditioning program.
``For me personally, a lot happened this year,'' Jenkins said. ``And I don't know what it is, I guess it's the story of my life. I have these soap opera moments. Everything is so laced with drama and good times and bad times.''
There's been little drama with Rucker, other than waiting for the day he officially quits the game. Even then, Rucker promises to stay in Charlotte and remain involved in the community.
``I try to make people happy. I don't like conflict,'' Rucker said. ``I don't like being bitter. I don't like having a heavy heart. I guess, as they say, do the right thing.''
``I love this community, and I've tried to entrench myself in this community. It's the same way with teammates. I give it my all.''