Mates feel void of departure

The Baltimore Sun

Samari Rolle knew something didn't seem right with Steve McNair when he saw the Ravens quarterback at the team's complex in Owings Mills yesterday morning.

"His eyes were welled up," Rolle recalled a few hours later. "I said, 'What were you doing last night?' "

It was then that McNair revealed to his longtime teammate in Tennessee and Baltimore that he was retiring after a 13-year NFL career.

"He was like, 'I'm R-ing today," Rolle said. "R-ing? He said, 'I'm retiring.' It felt like the first time you get cut from a team."

McNair, 35, also told another longtime teammate, wide receiver Derrick Mason, but waited to inform most of the players gathered for the team's first minicamp before the workout.

They gave McNair a standing ovation.

Mason, who was McNair's favorite receiver with the Titans and Ravens in seven of the last nine years they played together, recalled the first time he met McNair.

It came at training camp during Mason's rookie year in Tennessee in 1997.

"Going out there, you're with the rookies for the first couple of days, then you start getting the veterans coming in, and you see a guy come out with a No. 9 jersey and you're in awe," Mason said.

"You get a couple of years under your belt and you figure out he's a regular guy just like me. He's an approachable guy; he's a good, a team-oriented guy. You begin to understand and see him for who he truly is."

The two would eventually become good friends off the field.

"I consider him a true friend, and not many people can say that in this league," Mason said. "His family, I consider them part of our family. ... I want to tell him that I love him, I appreciate him and I enjoyed 11 years I played with him."

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who lobbied general manager Ozzie Newsome to acquire McNair from the Titans in 2006, said in a statement that he appreciated how physically and emotionally McNair played the game.

"There was no greater warrior or player with a bigger heart than Steve McNair," Lewis said. "This is just one chapter ending for Steve, but it was a great chapter. He came into this game and gave it everything he had. He can now walk away with his head up high. Everyone always says, 'Play every day like it is your last down,' and that is what he did."

Lewis recalled some of the battles he had with McNair when the quarterback played in Tennessee, often resulting in some memorable collisions.

"Every time I faced him on the field, I knew I had to be at my best, because he was always going to be at his maximum," Lewis said. "Sometimes he would make plays against us because we would get caught watching him. I would easily pay to see Steve McNair play, because of his heart and his warrior mentality."

The respect only grew during McNair's two years with the Ravens, even last year when the team struggled to a 5-11 record and McNair was limited to six games because of injuries.

"As a Raven, he gave us everything he had, even when many players would have sat because of an injury," Lewis said. "I respect his decision, but I will miss having him as a teammate and watching him play."

Lewis said it was easy to tell that McNair was ready to play.

"To look in his eyes and know you were going to get the best is something I will never forget," Lewis said.

Those eyes gave away his plans yesterday, as Rolle and the rest of the Ravens found out.

Tears, and an announcement that McNair was retiring.

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