The flawless precision with which Pat Mannelly went about his job snapping the football for 16 years and the leadership he brought to the locker room as the longest serving player in Bears history are reasons why the club waited this deep into the offseason for an answer from the veteran on whether he would return for a 17th season.
General manager Phil Emery, coach Marc Trestman and special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said it publicly numerous times: The door was open for Mannelly to return after he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip.
Mannelly, in turn, expected his body to determine his course. And recently, he learned his fate.
“My body’s tapping me on the back and saying, ‘That’s it, bud. I think you’re done,’” he said during a teleconference Friday. “So it has been an awesome 16 years, and I’m fortunate to be able to walk away.”
Mannelly, 39, announced his retirement, concluding a distinguished career that includes 245 games and 2,282 plays without a botched snap.
“It definitely was a weight off my shoulder when I decided because it has been a lot of hard work, a lot of maintenance, a lot of extra time trying to get through these aches and pains,” Mannelly said. “The body, it’s just time to be done and not deal with that anymore.”
Bears officials and players lamented the loss of Mannelly as a teammate while celebrating all they experienced together.
“It’s difficult to talk about Patrick as a player in the past tense,” Bears Chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “Our family is very grateful for all he has done. Not just for the way he’s played on the field, but the way he has carried himself off the field. He’s the epitome of what a Chicago Bear is all about.”
Emery added in a statement that Mannelly had an impact not only with his excellence on the field “but in all areas of our team.”
Mannelly served as a captain the last six seasons and established himself as a pillar in the locker room. His tenure bridged those of four head coaches — Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron, Lovie Smith and Trestman. His 245 games played stand far ahead of Olin Kreutz and Steve McMichael, who are tied for second on the club’s all-time list with 191.
Only two long snappers in the history of the NFL have appeared in more games. Trey Junkin holds the record with 281 and David Binn played in 256.
Mannelly’s retirement leaves the Bears in search of a new permanent long snapper for the first time since 1997. The contenders now are Brandon Hartson, 24, who the team had in training camp last summer, and CFL veteran Chad Rempel, 32. Both competed at the position throughout the offseason program.
Rempel has more experience than Hartson, although it has come in Canada, where he played briefly for Trestman’s Montreal Alouettes. Even in the CFL, Rempel was studying tape of Mannelly.
“I understand he is an all-time Bear, a legend, and I can’t try to fill those shoes,” Rempel said Thursday. “All I can do is try to win the job. He is probably the best who ever has played the position.”
Said kicker Robbie Gould: “Trying to fill those shoes … those guys can’t even think about that. It’s not that it is not possible; it’s something they shouldn’t be worried about. … (But) I’m definitely comfortable with both of them.”
Mannelly said Gould’s endorsement of both candidates helped him to decide to end a career that began in 1998, when the Bears drafted him in the sixth round out of Duke.
Of the 241 players selected in that draft, Mannelly was the only one still active last season with the club that drafted him.
Mannelly was one reason why the Bears were able to set an NFL record for 920 consecutive punts (and 180 games) without a blocked punt, a streak that was snapped in 2003. At 6 feet 5, 265 pounds, he was also a big part of the punt coverage team, particularly earlier in his career. Mannelly made 81 tackles on special teams, hitting a career-high 11 in three seasons.
All that action took a toll. Mannelly said his doctor told him he has a “pretty old hip.”
“It’s something that has bothered me for six to eight years of my career,” he said. “And then last year it got really bad. But I’m hoping the surgery can put off a bigger surgery later on in life. I want to be able to live a normal life. Not limp around and ache every time I walk.”
As for what that life entails, Mannelly isn’t sure. He knows that he wants to be around the Bears, at least occasionally.
“The one thing I did think is I won’t be staring out my window before the game to see how bad the wind’s blowing at Soldier Field,” he cracked. “I’ll obviously watch the games. But … the stress level on Sunday morning will be a lot less.”