TAMPA - It was not a time for goodbyes. It just looked that way.
This is not the way you are accustomed to seeing Mike Alstott move. His knee was in plaster, his face was in pain. There were crutches shoved under his armpits, there was concern on the faces of his children.
Alstott hobbled down the corridor, looking as uncertain as his future. The inside of his right knee was twisted, and the path of his career seems to be interrupted once more.
"Daddy's hurt," Alstott's son, Griffin, said. "Daddy, are you going to be all right?"
Through the eyes of a child, watching Alstott limp away from a football stadium was a painful, confusing moment. Through the eyes of a Tampa Bay football fan, it was the same.
They love Alstott around here. More than that, they revere him. For almost a decade, there has been a love affair between area and athlete, a genuine affection that time has not diminished. Alstott doesn't get the carries he used to, and he doesn't catch the ball as often.
Still, he is the A-Train.
Still, he leads the league in effort and in ovations.
Officially, then, this stinks. After all his work, after all his sweat, Alstott faces a season in jeopardy for the second straight year. As of now, it is a close call between what hurts more: the pain in his knee or the ache in his fans' heart.
"I'm going to be all right," Alstott, 30, said from his home Sunday night. "It's disappointing. It's frustrating because I want to be out there. But this injury isn't to the extent of the last one (the neck injury that cost Alstott three-quarters of the 2003 season). I have to see what the doctors say, but I'll be back."
Around here, who is going to doubt Alstott? After all the production, after all the punishment, he remains one of the most popular players in Bucs' history. Even now, there are those who think the Tampa Bay offense would be just fine if only the team would hand him the ball 30 times a game and get out of his way. Even now, there are those who trust the nine-year veteran above all others.
For those who have not watched him play, the bond between this competitor and this community is elusive. With Alstott, it never really has been about the yards, or the carries, or the honors. With Alstott, it always has been about the effort.
Who else did you ever want to see with the ball tucked into his arm and the goal line in sight? Who broke more tackles, and the will of more opponents, than Alstott? Who else turned into a pinball around the goal line, bouncing and bruising until he cross the line with defenders scattered in his wake? Who else looked like a rolling boulder in the final period, dragging players along as if he were plowing a field?
"He is the guy in this locker who best exemplifies what Buccaneer football is all about," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He's a guy who will get his face dirty. He's the everyday man. I think everyone in this locker room respects him. I think everyone in this town respects him.
"I don't think anyone doubts Mike. He has redefined the role (of fullback) for himself. No one else has done it the way he has done it. He's the toughest dude in the world, man."
It probably won't surprise you, but his latest injury came on another gang-tackle by the opposition. This time, it came on one of those sweeps to nowhere. Three Bears were hauling Alstott to the ground when Chicago lineman Hunter Hillenmeyer fell across his leg.
The injury was originally diagnosed as a torn ACL. Not true, Alstott said. Bucs coach Jon Gruden said Alstott had an MCL injury, which usually keeps a player out from four weeks to a season depending on the severity.
Alstott will tell you, again, this is not the end. For Alstott, however, there always has been the knowledge that he will limp away from his career. He absorbs too much punishment, trades too many pads, to ignore the possibility.
If this is no time for goodbyes, however, it is at least time for acknowledgement of what a player can mean to a community. Even as Alstott left the field, fans leaned over the field to tell him they were pulling for him, praying for him.
If he sat in the stands, Gruden would have done the same. "I would think "That is one big, tough, football playing s.o.b.,"' Gruden said. "He's there every week, man. He's a great football player.
"Forget about running it or catching it. He's just different. He's a throwback, he's an anvil, he's a physical, tough son of a gun. I'm glad he's on my team. You watch him play and it could be 1939. He could be in those choppy films you see from there. Bronco Alstott."
Wander around the locker room and drop Alstott's name, and you fall into a collection of old stories and old highlights. There was the run against Washington on the goal line, and the back-breaker against Green Bay, and the stampede against Cleveland.
He has been a star, and he has been in the supporting cast. He has been featured and forgotten, chastised and cheered. Still, he has not complained, and he has not changed. He took more licks in two carries than most backs do in 10.
Along the way, he won over a community. Some would find that strange. Alstott never has had a 1,000-yard season rushing, and he has had only seven 100-yard games, only one since Gruden arrived.
"I think everyone who watches him sees a little bit of themselves in Mike," teammate Dave Moore said. "He's kind of an ordinary guy who does extraordinary things."
One more time, then, it is up to Alstott to come back. One more time, he says he will.