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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Morgan's retirement is reason to celebrate

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

The best news of the entire offseason came Monday night.

Linebacker Dan Morgan retired after seven NFL seasons. This isn't going to be your typical column talking about how sad it is to see a player walk away from the game.

This is going to be celebratory in tone because retiring now is what's best for Morgan and his family. In fact, the only thing that slightly dampens Morgan's walking away now is that he should have done it a year sooner.

After covering Morgan from the day he was drafted in the first round by the Carolina Panthers in 2001, there came a point -- and I can't remember exactly when -- that it became obvious he was a walking time bomb. Was it the third documented concussion? Or maybe the fifth?

Dan Morgan
Concussions and various other injuries prevented Dan Morgan from realizing his true potential.
During that time, stories kept popping up about retired players and the problems they were having later in life as the result of concussions they'd had as players. The stories were gruesome, and the last thing anybody who has ever met Morgan would want to see is his ending up like that.

Reporters and the players they cover aren't supposed to be friends. It's just the rules of the business. You don't get too close to them so you're not in an awkward position if they screw up and you have to write about it. They don't get too close to you because -- well, you're in a different tax bracket.

But of all the guys I dealt with as a beat writer covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Panthers, Morgan made that line the most blurry. He was just a very regular guy. The kind of guy who'd take a cell phone from a reporter in a Spartanburg, S.C., pizza place and wake another napping reporter and tell him to get over there.

The kind of guy you'd like to grab a beer with if the rules for reporters and athletes weren't in place and if Morgan didn't have his own set of rules. The guy took pride in the fact that alcohol had never touched his lips.

That's how dedicated Morgan was to football and his body. The game was sacred. He grew up as the son of Dan Marino's former bodyguard. The body was sacred. Nobody's conditioning program was more strenuous than Morgan's. A columnist I worked with in Charlotte went down to South Florida soon after Morgan was drafted to watch him work out.

Morgan plowed through sand dunes for an hour in May heat. He stopped … to throw up and, then, went right back to running.

But that's the irony of it all. Once he got to the NFL, Morgan's body betrayed him. The injuries started right away, with Morgan going down with a broken leg in his rookie season. Weird things kept happening and Morgan never was able to play a full season with the Panthers.

When he did play, he was spectacular. It gets overshadowed because the Patriots won, but Morgan made 25 tackles in Super Bowl XXXVIII. There were a few other outstanding games through the years and, at his best, Morgan stacked up with any linebacker in the league.

But the injuries kept coming, and then the concussions started piling up. There was one in the 2006 preseason followed closely by another in that season's opener. The Panthers shut Morgan down for the season, and some pretty important people in the organization tried to tell him it was time to walk away.

Morgan couldn't. He went to numerous concussion specialists and the consensus was he could return to play in 2007. The Panthers had a huge decision to make. Could they even let Morgan back on the field?

Owner Jerry Richardson knew if Morgan didn't play in Carolina, he'd play somewhere. If Morgan was going to play anywhere, Richardson decided, it should be with the team that drafted him. Reporters and fans rolled their eyes and hoped they weren't about to see a worst-case scenario.

But that became moot three games into last season, when Morgan went down with an Achilles tendon injury that would sideline him for the rest of the year. In the meantime, rookie Jon Beason showed he was a healthy version of Morgan. The Panthers again suggested to Morgan that he retire and he declined. They released him and Morgan signed with the New Orleans Saints in March.

Sometime in recent days, Morgan began seeing what the rest of the world had seen for the past couple of years. He has a lovely wife and two beautiful children. He's 29 and has all the money he'll ever need. He still seems to have reasonable health.

Watching Morgan the past couple of years, you couldn't help but get the feeling that things were going to end horribly if he kept playing. Maybe one more concussion would be one too many.

That's why it's time to celebrate. A guy, a truly good guy, who seemed to have tunnel vision only for football, finally looked around and saw a great life outside of football. Then, mercifully, he walked away while he still could.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.