RENTON — For a guy often late to things, WR Ricardo Lockette was early to pro football retirement. A whole lot of Seahawks showed up Thursday to confront the fact and support the man. Even the team newbies.
“Lots of guys who didn’t play with him showed up here,” said coach Pete Carroll of the big crowd at the VMAC auditorium. “They heard the stories.”
For a wide receiver who started once and caught 22 passes in his five NFL seasons, there are lots of stories about Lockette.
There was the time he and teammate Marshawn Lynch found a wallet lost at a gas station, then drove around Mount Vernon looking for, and finding, its startled owner.
There was the time before pro football when he was so distraught at failing to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic track team as a sprinter that he said he slept in his car “for three or four days,” he said, too embarrassed to go home.
And of course, there was the time he was the target for the most astounding play in the history of the Super Bowl: the goal-line pass that he didn’t get to catch, making him a fixture forever in national and local sports lore.
But the stories Thursday were secondary to the man who had to retire at 29.
“He really was the embodiment of our spirit and style,” Carroll said. “It’s about great effort, great enthusiasm, great toughness and playing smart.
“That was Ricardo . . . almost. He wasn’t always playing the smartest because he was so tough and so crazy at times.”
The reporters around Carroll laughed, recognizing the honesty.
Then there was the final story, laced with irony: The edgy relentlessness that made him among the most feared gunners in the annals of NFL special teams ushered in his career demise.
The crushing, yet clean, hit in the Nov. 1 game in Dallas by Cowboys blocker Jeff Heath on a punt return nearly killed Lockette, according to his account from the surgeons who implanted two titanium plates on his spinal cord to support his detached vertebrae. A large scar remains visible on the back of his neck and skull.
He has 50 percent rotation of his neck, and can no longer lift heavy things, or play sports with his kids. Football? Not a chance.
“No rollercoasters, either,” he said, smiling.
Naturally, in the culture of the warrior, there can be no regrets.
“You live by the sword and you die by the sword,” said Lockette, joined at the podium by his parents, Earl and Felita, brother Earl Jr. and girlfriend Jamaica Terry. “So I can’t complain about that. And I’ve done a lot of things on the field that I probably shouldn’t have gotten away with.
“I don’t regret it because I did it for my boys.”
That’s what is said when the boys are looking on. Because to say anything less noble and more honest would have injected anxiety and some dread into a retirement ceremony meant to hail, not to ponder the consequences of a game featuring high-speed violence.
To reflect is to limit. Lockette understood.
“Play with your heart out, every play, every play,” he said. “You never know when your last play is. You never know.”
Lockette said retired Broncos QB Peyton Manning had a similar surgery. But Lockette’s game was all about haste and ferocity.
“(Quarterbacks) don’t fly down there like a missile and run into people, and have to cross the middle (on pass routes),” he said. “I didn’t want to play the game like that. Especially only with 50 percent rotation. That kind of had a lot to do with it.”
One of the best teammates you can ask for! Really sad to lose him as a teammate. Example of true grit https://t.co/GsgYz1Uryi
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) May 12, 2016
But the details of the injury were far secondary to the stories of his feats of speed and intensity, like the “Beastquake Two” run in Arizona in December 2014 when Lynch’s 79-yard touchdown dash included two blocks by Lockette, one early and one late.
What Lockette said he will miss most is what nearly every retiring player in team sports says: The locker room. The friends, jokes, pranks and intimacy that are unlikely to be replicated in any future endeavor.
Lockette told the story of his first training camp, when he met his roommate and subsequent best buddy, WR Doug Baldwin, at the team hotel.
“I introduced myself and he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever,” he said. “My name is Doug Baldwin and I’m from Stanford University. Shut up, go to sleep, We’ve got work to do.’
“So I said, ‘OK, this guy is going to be a handful.’ But he pushed me through a lot of days where I felt like, ‘Man, I’m from a small school (Fort Valley State), and I’m from Albany, Georgia. No one is going to believe in me. They didn’t even draft me.'”
Lockette persevered, even when he “didn’t know how to get off the line” of scrimmage and away from the press coverage of CB Richard Sherman.
Carroll recalled that Baldwin and Lockette became so close that after their first season in Seattle, they worked out together so intensely that it set them back.
“They came back tighter than a drum,” Carroll said, smiling. “They had all kinds of problems; they were just so over-prepared and over-hyped about it all.
“But for the right reasons — they were trying to get back and be their best. It’s just because both of those guys are so nuts about competing.”
Lockette seemed to be competing Thursday with his emotions. But he stayed composed through a highlights video and a standing ovation from his teammates as he and his family took the stage. He thanked many, particularly some lower-profile staffers, and apologized to one, receivers coach Dave Canales.
“Sorry about the days I was late, coach,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”
Everyone laughed. It was easier.