CHARLOTTE -- For fullback Brad Hoover, the end of his decade with the Panthers was painful, as endings typically are -- especially in the NFL.
"It's tough, but in this business, you realize that most of the time you don't get to go out on your own terms," Hoover said Monday after being released by the only NFL team he'd ever known. "That's probably the toughest pill to swallow."
"Naturally, if I were to write the story, I would have loved to have played the last year of this contract and retire as a Panther. As of right now, the future is up in the air."
Hoover took an unlikely journey to his stellar NFL career, becoming one of the few players who grew up, played in college and succeeded in the NFL without leaving his state. From Thomasville to Cullowhee and on to Charlotte.
"Carolina's all I've ever known. Being my hometown team -- it's tough. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little upset," said Hoover, who attained cult-hero status among Panthers followers as much for his forthright, fan-friendly persona as his blocking prowess.
It is those fans -- some of whom have supported Hoover for decades -- that he wanted to salute as he bid farewell.
"I'd just like to thank all the fans. They've been great," he said. "I've gotten to spend a decade in Carolina with a great organization that provided me the chance to play a sport that I love, and to have great fans behind me that have supported me the last 10 years has been unbelievable.
"I have no regrets. I've loved everything I've ever done on and off the field for the organization. It's been a privilege to play as long as I have for an organization in the same state in which I grew up.
"It was a dream come true. It's just unfortunate that the reality has come that I'm no longer a part of the organization that I started with and played my whole career with. All I can do is thank Mr. Richardson, our fans, coach (John) Fox and Marty Hurney for the opportunity."
Last season, Hoover ranked second on the team in continuous active service, trailing only the last original Panther, kicker
"Brad has been here since the day I arrived in Carolina," Fox said. "When things were difficult, he was a leader and someone both the players and coaches knew would always be accountable. On the field, he was the ultimate competitor and set a physical tone in both his style of play and attitude."
As with many NFL fullbacks, Hoover improved with age as his ability to read blitzes sharpened. Even though he struggled with a sprained ankle and back spasms that sidelined him for five games last year, he became the first fullback in NFL history to block for a pair of 1,100-yard runners in the same season, as Stewart and Williams each surpassed that threshhold.
"I don't feel like it was my performance that went down; I just think it was a move the organization felt they needed to go with to become younger," he said.
Retirement crossed Hoover's mind in recent years, but as he left Bank of America Stadium, he did so believing that he has a second act still to come.
"I want to continue to play football. I think I've got a couple of years of football left in me -- and good football at that," he said. "We're just waiting on the right opportunity. Unfortunately, I wish it would have been with the Panthers, to continue on and retire as a Panther."