It's hard to say goodbye

The Ravens' Michael McCrary talked about what he would miss about playing football - the "sanctuary" of the field, the ecstasy of dominating an opponent.

He also talked about what he wouldn't miss.


"The pain," he said. "The unbelievable pain. Your knees hurting so badly that you don't want to get out of bed or get up out of a chair.

"Not having to go through that will make it easier to give up playing."


Michawn Yuvienco, a senior at the Naval Academy, talked about his last play in football after 11 years of youth, high school and college ball. It came in the third quarter of Navy's big win over Army on Dec. 7.

"They threw a pass to a guy coming out of the backfield and I came up and made the tackle," said Yuvienco, who played safety for the Midshipmen this season. "I got up and ran off the field, thinking I was coming back in. But we were ahead and they put the subs in. I was done."

Mike Coyne, a Hereford High School senior who played receiver, talked about ending his career with a victory in the Class 2A state title game at Ravens Stadium last month.

"It was a bittersweet day," Coyne said. "We won and I caught a pass, which was so great. But it starts to hit you when you're taking off the pads for the last time, getting off the bus back at school, leaving the locker room for the last time. This is the end in this game you have played for so long.

"It was very emotional, and weird. I'm 17. Things should just be beginning. But this phase of my life is over."

McCrary, Yuvienco and Coyne played football at different levels in 2002, but they're dealing with the same reality now:

Their playing days are over.

It's a rite of passage experienced every year by thousands of players of all ages and abilities. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that more than 1 million high school students played football this year, but according to the NCAA, only one in 17 high school players suits up in college, and only one in every 50 college players gets drafted by the pros.


The winnowing is drastic and relentless, with many players forced to stop long before they want, usually because of age, injuries or a lack of size or skills.

But regardless of the length and arc of their careers, every player eventually faces the transition from the crunching glories of a violent game to the more commonplace reality of life out of uniform.

The sense of loss is profound for many as they come to grips with what the game meant to them.

"I'm trying not to think about it because it makes me sad," said Yuvienco, 23, who lives in Glen Burnie and will begin his five-year military service commitment next spring.

The experiences of a pro, college and high school player facing "the end" were similar despite their vast differences in abilities and accomplishments.

They're going to remember teammates, high points and hardships.


They believe they're better, far better, for having played.

And, oh, they're going to miss it.

"It isn't going to be easy," McCrary said. "I truly love the game. I've played it since I was 6. That's my home out there on the field. I'm at peace there. That's my sanctuary, where I feel safe and secure - the one area where I know I can control my destiny and everything around me, and where no one can tell me anything.

"It's going to be hard to find something to replace that."

McCrary, 32, played high school ball in Falls Church, Va., college ball at Wake Forest and 10 years in the NFL with the Ravens and Seattle Seahawks. An undersized defensive end with a huge heart and nonstop motor, he won't officially retire until specialists confirm his knees can't go anymore.

"I'm just going to wait until I'm absolutely sure," he said.


There's little doubt. He has had eight knee surgeries in the past five years, and the cartilage has "worn down like tread on a tire," McCrary said. Now, arthritis has set in.

Doctors told McCrary this fall that both knees will have to be replaced.

"That was the knockout punch, when I heard that," he said. "I was like, 'Whoa, that's what old people have to do, and I need it now.' That floored me."

The future is now

Just 13 months ago, he was starting for the defending Super Bowl champions and seemingly on his way to a third Pro Bowl appearance, among the NFL's sack leaders. Torn knee cartilage ended his season in November.

He survived the Ravens' offseason purge because team officials thought he would be ready again after undergoing two surgeries; he renegotiated his contract to give the team more salary cap room, signing a six-year, $24 million extension with a $3.6 million signing bonus. But it became clear early this season that his knees simply were too sore. His last start was a Sept. 30 home game against the Denver Broncos. The last sack, his 71st, was in the same game. His last appearance in a uniform was at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 20.


"Warming up that day, I knew I was in trouble," he said. "My knees were just killing me. I couldn't do any of the things I wanted to do. It made no sense to be in pain all week, just trying to reduce the fluid in your knees and be able to walk, and then not even be able to play.

"You had to ask yourself, 'What are you doing?' I was on a course where I was going to play until I couldn't walk anymore. I'd be finished in life. That Monday, I said, 'This is probably it.' I want to be able to walk."

He doesn't know what's next, mentioning broadcasting and coaching as possibilities. Although his body has failed him at a relatively early age, sending him to the sidelines long before most players of his caliber quit, he sounded neither frustrated nor sad.

"I have no regrets," he said. "I'm very fortunate. I got to play 10 years in the league, made Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl. Had great teammates, played for great coaches, great ownership. I played for the respect of my opponents and peers, and I got it. I've done it all, gotten it all, experienced it all. What else is there?"

He is helping coach the Ravens' defensive linemen, and still travels to away games. Ravens coach Brian Billick used his presence to try to motivate the team's young players during a Saturday night meeting before the Ravens' game Dec. 1 in Cincinnati.

"[Billick] was trying to emphasize how much they need to appreciate just having the opportunity to play," McCrary said. "He pointed to me and said, 'Talk to Mac about it. Talk to [No.] 99. He'd give anything to play one more game healthy.' "



"Absolutely," McCrary said. "I wouldn't need [to be paid] money or anything.

"But I knew because of the way I played that I'd probably end my career like this, because of an injury. That was something I accepted beforehand, and it's happened. I still have that fire. I just can't play.

"I'm going to miss the camaraderie and the whole environment. There's nothing like it But I'm not going to miss the pain."

The long wait

Yuvienco, the Navy senior, hasn't played as much as McCrary; after making headlines as a linebacker at North County High in Anne Arundel County in the late 1990s, he spent three years on the practice squad at Navy before finally getting to play as a defensive back this season.


His first college start came in Navy's sixth game this season, at home against Rice on Oct. 12. He also started the last three, culminating with the win over Army.

Now, suddenly, he's finished.

"I don't think it's really hit him yet," said his mother, Michelle Yuvienco of Glen Burnie. "I do think he'll miss it. The rush of getting ready for the game. He gets really pepped up. He's going to miss the excitement of everything around it."

Yuvienco came to Navy as a wrestling recruit in 1999. He went out for football as a plebe and made the varsity camp, encouraging him to keep going. He also picked engineering as his major. After experiencing some wrestling losses as a freshman, he realized something had to give,

"Between football, wrestling and engineering, I had too much on my plate," he said, "so I stopped wrestling and stuck with football."

He had played in youth leagues throughout Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, always excelling. But he couldn't crack the lineup at Navy.


"It was discouraging. There were times when I wondered if I was going to keep going," he said. "You gave everything you had, and it seemed like it wasn't good enough. I talked to my mom about quitting, and she said, 'Michawn, give it one more chance. This is your last opportunity. Keep on giving it the best you got.' "

His break came when Paul Johnson was hired as Navy's new coach after last season. Given a clean slate, Yuvienco had a successful spring camp, moved up the depth chart and got to play this year. His career ended on a high note, with a series of big plays in the win over Army.

"It's a lot easier" to quit playing, he said, "knowing that I showed people I could play this game."

What's next? He'll do engineering work for the military and maybe coach football later. If the country goes to war, he's ready.

"That's why the government paid for me to be here, to be ready in case we go to war," he said.

His best football memories? Lacking McCrary's tangible successes and major career highlights, Yuvienco said he would remember his teammates.


"I call it the brotherhood," he said. "When you have a love for a game and you play with people who love it just as much, that's special. There were times, when I was practicing but not getting to play, that I got down. But my teammates always picked me back up. And if you keep working, your time does come."

Something special

Coyne, the Hereford High senior, also was a star in youth leagues. But then his friends grew and he didn't.

"In sixth grade, I was 4-foot-7 and 72 pounds," he said.

Why did he stick with football?

"I liked the contact; I was a hyper kid," he said. "And it was the first sport I excelled in. I don't know, it just got into my blood. I've played all the sports, but there's nothing like football."


By the time he reached high school, Hereford coach Steve Turnbaugh's Bulls were a power and the competition for playing time was fierce. Coyne was a junior varsity reserve as a freshman, a JV starter as a sophomore. Then he was pushed to the end of the varsity bench as a junior; Hereford swept to a state title, but Coyne never played and didn't even dress for five games.

"It was awful," he said. "All my close friends were playing, the guys I'd played with forever. And I wasn't even dressing. As into it as I am, I was crushed."

Like Yuvienco, he thought about quitting.

"I told [Turnbaugh] it wasn't for me anymore," Coyne recalled. "He asked me to talk to my parents about it, sleep on it, give it more time. My parents and grandfather talked me into continuing. I'm really glad I did."

His father, Dave Coyne, the general manager of a Timonium car dealership, said: "Mike didn't want to look at himself as a quitter. Football has been a big part of his life, and he wasn't ready to give it up."

He hit the weight room extra hard, grew to 5-10 and 175 pounds and earned a starting spot this year, catching two touchdown passes as the Bulls swept to another state title.


"He caught a big pass in the championship game, and that was a huge moment for him," Dave Coyne said. "He needed it to put an exclamation point on his career, and he got it."

Envisioning a career in sports journalism, he has applied to major universities.

"I try not to think about [being done]," Coyne said. "Some of my friends are going on to play in college, and I'm really happy for them, but I don't talk to them about it. It kind of hurts a little bit."

Like Yuvienco, he said he will remember the camaraderie.

"I can't imagine another experience in my life equaling it," Coyne said. "Putting your body on the line with a group of people. Even if you don't like someone, you respect him because they're going through the same thing. And the ones you do like, you're really close for having gone through that.

"I can see why some pro athletes hang on for what people think is too long. How do you just walk away? Even if you see your skills declining, how do you walk away from something so great that's been so important in your life? We all have to do it, but it's hard."