CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mike Rucker was walking from the weight room to his locker yesterday when a team employee handed him a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The Carolina Panthers defensive end was one of a handful of players invited to travel to Afghanistan in the off-season to meet U.S. troops there. Rucker looked over the letter with a sense of pride, pointing to Goodell's words about how the group was selected and its importance in bringing cheer to the troops.
Rucker is savoring every moment as his career winds down, a year after he didn't know if he would ever play football again following a serious knee injury. The commissioner's invitation and his breakout game Sunday against San Francisco are helping Rucker appreciate his nine-year career.
"Sometimes people will say that and it's kind of cheesy, but when you're in that position, you treat the game different and you respect it a whole lot more," Rucker said.
Rucker was long considered one of the leaders and classiest members of the team, but his future was in doubt nearly a year ago when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He knew he would turn 32 in February - senior citizen age for defensive linemen. Maybe he wasn't up to the seven months of rehabilitation ahead of him.
"I questioned myself if I wanted to put in that effort, that work," he said.
The next day Rucker talked with owner Jerry Richardson and teammates Mike Minter and John Kasay. The discussions lifted his spirits, and he decided to try to come back.
Rucker took a pay cut to help with the salary cap, then embarked on a grueling rehab program that left no time for off-season vacations with his wife and two young children.
Rucker was ready for the start of training camp, but he was playing with a bulky brace. Then Minter, his best friend on the team, announced his retirement due to achy knees.
Rucker cried at Minter's retirement news conference, unsure if he was next.
He kept his starting job for the start of the regular season, but didn't look like his old self, the guy who had racked up 521/2 sacks and a Pro Bowl selection in 2003. Rucker rarely was seen in the backfield as he struggled with the psychological aspect of favoring his knee.
"I'd be doing a play or something and I'd be always pulling my leg out," Rucker said. "I'd be real conscious of it. The brace, I wasn't used to it."
He was able to switch to a smaller brace. Finally, he shed the brace for Sunday's game against the 49ers.
Entering the game with only one sack all season, Rucker looked like the 2003 version of himself. He burst into the backfield in the first quarter and ripped the ball away from Arnaz Battle, leading to a Panthers field goal. He sacked Trent Dilfer in the second quarter, then shared a sack with Julius Peppers in the second half.
Rucker finished with four tackles and two quarterback hurries in Carolina's 31-14 win.
"I think that is why he is so respected by the fans and definitely by the coaching staff and his teammates," coach John Fox said. "He's been kind of a model guy since he's been here and you almost expect it of him. . . . Lesser guys would not even be playing, let alone starting and performing at a progressive level all season."
Rucker, second in franchise history with 544 tackles, knows the end is near. He isn't sure if he will retire after this season or try to play one more season. Settled in Charlotte with his family, he doesn't want to play for another team.
Rucker will decide sometime in the off-season. Perhaps after he visits the troops in Afghanistan.