Mike Alstott ended the 2006 season wondering if it would be his last playing professional football.
"You're cut in half," Alstott said. "You say, ‘I want to play and I know I can play,' but at the same time it's, ‘What's the situation as far as the business side of football?' If it's not here, is it somewhere else? Do you want to make that change or transition of going to another uniform and picking up your family and leaving?"
The decision was a tough one the fullback, who began his pro career in Tampa Bay in 1996 and has been with the Bucs ever since.
Now, Alstott, once a driving force behind the Bucs' offense, has a one-year contract and could end up in the same conflicted state he was at the end of the 2006 season.
His perspective now is one of taking nothing for granted, he said.
"You don't know when it's going to be your last play," Alstott said. "You have to consume it all and enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, even through the hard times, you'll drive yourself nuts. It's a long grind. I really sit back and think about everything and enjoy it. One day as football players we'll wake up in another occupation and never wear a helmet again."
As far as when and how he will leave the game, Alstott says he'll make that decision when it's time.
"You never want to be told you can't play," he said. "You enjoy it as long as possible. Go play football and play to your fullest every day. If they say you can't play, so be it."
When 2006 ended many believed he would decide to leave the game. It certainly appeared that way that final game at Raymond James Stadium against Seattle. Alstott left the field embracing his wife, Nicole, and his three children, Griffin, Hannah and Lexie. Fans gave him a standing ovation before and after the contest.
He was emotional in the locker room afterward. It was obvious to everyone that he had cried. He told the media that he just didn't know what the future held in store, and he didn't "know how things would fall."
It took him about two weeks to determine that he wanted to come back for a 12th season, and after that talks began with the Buccaneers about a new contract. He had to sit down with Bucs general manager Bruce Allen and figure out if he was even a part of the Bucs' plans in 2007.
"When you are on a one-year-at-a-time contract, you never know what's going to happen," Alstott said.
He signed just before free agency in March. This training camp, just like the 11 before, Bucs fans have showered Alstott with affection. They cheer every time he touches the ball and revel in his little traditions, such as running the football the length of the field to the end zone during drills, if he isn't tackled first. No Buc is more popular than Alstott when he hops over the green retaining screen and begins signing autographs. The resulting push in the stands is akin to a rock concert crowd.
|Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott left the field last season with his family, not sure if his future would include football in 2007. (AP)|
" … I have a lot of football left in me and I'm ready to win a world championship for this team," Alstott said. "I really believe that with some of the acquisitions we made in free agency and some of the rookies that we selected that we addressed a lot of needs and I think we have a contender for the Super Bowl right now."
Much work has been done on the team's offensive line and Alstott says he believes it will make a difference in the Bucs' offense. That, he said, will help him perform on the field.
Of course, Alstott's own career numbers have taken a hit the past few years. He was never a 1,000-yard rusher, but during his days combining with former backfield mate Warrick Dunn he was always productive. He is now the Bucs' all-time leader in total touchdowns (71), rushing touchdowns (57) and non-kicker scoring (432 points). He is third all-time in scoring (behind Martin Gramatica and Michael Husted) and second all-time in rushing yards (5.088) behind James Wilder. It would take Alstott claiming his past form to overtake Wilder this year.
His production has tailed off since 2003, since a neck injury threatened to end Alstott's career prematurely. That year he played just four games and rushed 27 times for 77 yards. His best season since then was 2004, when he rushed 67 times for 230 yards.
His days of receiving 150 or 200 carries per season are behind him. The Buccaneers have Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman to carry the majority of the load. But Alstott can be an effective piece of the puzzle. He's a situational player now, and he's come to grips with that, even if the A-Train's rabid fan base hasn't quite come to terms with it.
"Everybody knows I'm a situational player," Alstott said. "When you're down by 10, 14, 21 points, my role changes a whole bunch and I'm pretty much on the sidelines. You go to one back, full wide receiver sets and there is no room for me. But it's been proven that if we put up the points and control the clock that I will be involved in the game and contribute and make the plays that help us win on Sundays."