CHARLOTTE – Left tackle Jordan Gross knew before training camp that his 11th NFL season would likely be his last.
"Barring some giant revelation, I knew that I was going to retire," Gross said. "It went according to plan."
So did his final season.
When the day ultimately came for Gross to step away from the team that selected him with the eighth overall choice in the 2003 NFL Draft, he wanted to make sure the franchise was in position for sustained success.
After helping lead the Panthers to a 12-4 season and an NFC South division title, Gross can safely say he achieved that goal.
"I went all-in this season. Gave everything I had and left it all out on the field," Gross said. "It was an incredibly hard season for me physically, just to be up to the task every week. But it was so satisfying knowing that I was still able to play well."
Gross knows he can still play. But arguably the best offensive lineman in franchise history feels this is the right time to move on.
"I just felt so fortunate that I was in a position where I could make that decision on my own," Gross said. "I know the team would have a spot for me if I wanted to come back."
Then he launched into one of his entertaining analogies.
"You'd rather leave the party with everybody telling you to stay and keep having fun rather than being the last one to leave and they are shoeing you out the door," Gross explained.
Gross said he tried to cherish every moment during his final season – the last day of his last training camp, the meetings with his fellow linemen, the locker room celebrations.
He had prepared himself for this moment.
As for the rest of us, it's understandable to have a hard time imagining the Panthers locker room without him.
Gross was a team captain for the sixth time in 2013. He was one of six elected captains, but he was unquestionably the singular leader of the team.
When the Panthers gathered in a huddle on the field prior to the start of a game, you could always find No. 69 raising his voice in the middle, surrounded by his teammates.
"It's a great feeling when you know that you can say something in front of a group of professional football players and they'll listen to you," Gross said. "You've done something right to earn that respect."
That respect meant everything to Gross.
"The biggest compliment I got from my teammates was when they told me they would look to me for a sense of calm, and that I knew what to do when times were tough," he said. "I'd become the man I wanted to be when other men would look to me. I took a lot of value in the fact that guys counted on me like that.
"It slowly happens by repeatedly proving that you can be that guy. I'm so fortunate that I was able to do that."
As is the case with any great leader, Gross was at his best in the tough moments.
No one wants to answer questions after a heartbreaking loss. But Gross always made himself available and provided detailed answers to every difficult question.
He essentially became an unofficial, official team spokesman. When former general manager Marty Hurney was dismissed six games into the 2012 season, the first member of the organization to comment publicly was Gross.
"As you get older and understand how the whole machine works – media, players, fans – you understand how important it is to have somebody that will speak on the tough issues and speak confidently," Gross said. "I knew that was my role. I was happy to do it.
"I think I was more available for interviews after losses than I was on Wednesdays or Thursdays in the locker room. I felt like I could carry a heavy load on my shoulders and answer the tough questions. I took a lot of pride in being able to do that."
Then he paused and laughed.
"But now that's somebody else's job."
Indeed it is. Somebody else has to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blindside. Somebody else has to make the inspiring speeches. Somebody else has to answer the tough questions.
As Gross said, it's all part of the NFL machine.
"The show will go on, and the team will be fine without me," Gross said. "Hopefully, they remember my name and can tell some stories about stuff I did. That's really all you can ask for."