Now, more than ever, the tone of his voice resonates with a sense of calm that vibrates from his mammoth legs all the way through his broadened shoulders.

His is a voice of maturity and understanding, seasoned with pride and quiet strength.

For all his years trampling weak defenders, Mike Alstott the Pro Bowl running back snared in a fullback’s body, is remarkably content with his position in life.

And well he should be.

This, after all, has been a storied run.

A Pro Bowl career.

A healthy family around him.

A dedicated, if not obsessed, fan base.

All body parts, presumably, functioning well.

But that’s not enough. And if you love football, thank God!

You sit with Alstott, 11 games into his 11th season, and you understand why men put on the pads. It’s not because of the glory, though that’s why they don’t take them off. It’s not because of the money, though that’s why they hold out. It’s not because of the fans, though that’s who they owe a dept of gratitude.

No, talk to Alstott well into the winter of his career, and it becomes microscopically clear. The man plays football because … he’s a football player.

He plays football because the game gives him life, meaning, perspective and a sense of accomplishment.

“It’s simple, really simple,” he says. “I love the game. I love the feeling. It’s impossible to describe.”

I buy that. And I also buy that such a virus running through your veins is impossible to get rid of.

And so, as he approaches the final downs of a brutally disappointing 2006, Alstott knows, more sooner than later, he’ll have to deal with the questions about his immediate future.

Those are his demons and good luck with that.

But, this is not how it should have ended. Not with him sitting on the bench. Not with him barely touching the ball (18 carries, 17 receptions). Not with the season ending it with a whimper and not with a bang.

That stinks!

It stinks because the A-Train, and some of his seasoned teammates, deserve better. It stinks because being successful was the only way for this to have played out correctly.

“Am I going to have this next year? You never know with the offseason being what it is,” Alstott said. “I don’t have any regrets. I’m here playing football, playing the game I love, that we all love and have passion for. We have the opportunity to still play and finish off the season with some success. That’s what I want.”

The fans want more and good for them. They want to see him train wreck a couple more safeties much like he did against the Redskins two weeks ago. They want to see him energize his offensive line, shoot his team, the way he did barreling over a couple Washington weaklings on his way to not-so-short yardage. They don’t want to see it happen just a couple of times and never again.

“I envision that all the time,” Alstott said of his brief fountain of youth performance against the ‘Skins. “I loved it. That’s why I play this game. That’s why I still play this game. First of all, I know I can do it and I have the passion to do it and I want to continue to do it.  I want success. I want us to get back to how it was in 2005, when we were balling, having fun, smiling and enjoying it.”

And we enjoyed it, too.

So make no mistake, if Alstott is done after this season, then the Bucs better start planning the press conference and the gala send off. They better start planning to unveil some kind of memorial plaque or charity foundation. Or both. They better offer him a job with the franchise.

They better look at it as practice for when Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber and some of the other old-schoolers do the same.

But if he only mentions coming back, if he only hints at it, tells a joke, whispers in the ear of the head custodian, then the Bucs better listen.

“I don’t know what lies ahead,” Alstott said. “Don’t get me wrong, yes, I have thought about (retirement), but I still love the game. A lot will depend on a number of things. A lot will depend on what (the Bucs) say.”


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