Long after his teammates vacated the field, hit the showers and put Raymond James Stadium in their rear-view mirrors, Mike Alstott wanted a bit more.

So with a group of family and friends, the man who bulldozed his way into the hearts of so many Bucs fans over the past 12 seasons, walked out to south end zone and spent an extra quarter taking pictures, feeling the grass under his feet, soaking in everything the stadium had to offer as darkness fell, even as the ground crew was furiously transforming the field to become the Outback Bowl just hours later.

No argument here.

The way I see it, Alstott – and a couple of his iconic teammates – has earned the right to do just about whatever he pleases on that field.

He helped build it.

He helped make it an elite place to play.

He is, in part, responsible for the 100,000 season-ticket holders waiting to fill it up.

Are you going to tell King Arthur he can’t sit at the Round Table whenever he wants?

I didn’t think so!

If that was King Mike’s last stroll in the end zone, if Sunday’s 23-7 loss to the Seahawks was the A-Train’s last journey, the last stop, then find time to celebrate his value and not chastise his demise.

Accept that this man’s brilliant career may have ended on a low with four yards on six carries and a fumble, but should be remembered as a high.

“Mike Alstott is never going to be judged by this football game,” coach Jon Gruden said. “He’s going to be judged on a career that kind of defied the odds…. I don’t want to paint a gloomy picture around Mike Alstott. He typifies grit, blue collar, hard-nosed football and we’ll see what happens in his future. His career has been very distinguished if you ask me.”

That is where we are, talking about his career, reflecting upon the realization that retirement is a distinct and surreal possibility.

“It’s been a good long run,” said Alstott, who finished the game with six yards on four carries. “We’ve won Super Bowls, gone to pro bowls. I’ve played with Hall of Fame players and done some great things. At the same time, you have to take this as my last game.

“Contractually, I have no contract. I don’t know what direction the Bucs are going in in the future. And I don’t know what direction I’m going either. I’m going to sit back and take the family out of town and think about it.”

What is there to think about?

Alstott has been a battering ram his entire career. A great one.

He’s played with a coal-minder’s heart, a steel-mill worker’s determination, a roofer’s sheer oblivion to punishment.

But he’s also sustained a neck injury (among a host of others) and seen his playing time and production decline rapidly.

He’s got nothing more to prove. No extra feats need to be added to his legend.

“I told him I love him. I told him that we will be back, we will be back,” running back Michael Pittman said. “If he retires, Mike’s going to be successful. But, I don’t think he’s going to retire. I think Mike has a lot left. He’s a leader out there. If he retires, I’ll be happy for him, but it’s going to be definitely different without him in the locker room. Mike deserves everything. I believe he’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”

If so, then Hall of Famers have the right to go out how and when they want. And given the Bucs are facing a giant rebuilding process, which usually means ciao to older, less productive players, then this seems the right time.

“Let me breathe a moment and I’ll let you know,” he said. “It’s tough for a professional athlete to say goodbye. It’s something you’ve been doing pretty much your whole life. You don’t want to. I know I can play. I know I can play at a high level and do some good things. I need some time to really, really think, before I say the ‘R’ word. It’s one of the hardest decisions for an athlete to say, ‘Hey, I’m walking away from something I have played since I was six years old.’”

And whether it’s Alstott, or Shelton Quarles, or Simeon Rice, or whomever the Bucs jettison for the future, the 2006 season should have little bearing on their place in the team’s history.

“We were talking to Ronde (Barber) last night about his brother playing and everyone was rooting for Tiki to finish strong,” linebacker Ryan Nece said. “And he did. At the same time, we have guys here who are like our brothers because we spend so much time with them. You want them to finish on a good note and we didn’t get that done today.

“If you use that game to measure them, then you missed it. These guys have been way more valuable to this team, to this franchise, to this city than a lot of other players.”

Whatever decision Alstott makes, here’s to hoping he makes it before the Bucs do. Their treatment of some recent departing icons wasn’t stellar and if the list of those who deserve the pomp and circumstance of a fond farewell is short, Alstott has to be among them.

“I’m proud to be a Buccaneer,” he said. “I’m proud to have played my whole career here.”

Most of Tampa Bay should feel the same way.

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