CHARLOTTE – As John Kasay and his family pulled into the Bank of America Stadium parking lot Tuesday, one of the first things that caught his wife's eye was the railroad tracks adjacent to the Panthers' home since 1996 - her husband's home away from home.
"When we drove up, I was remembering how when we first came here what a big deal it was for Steven whenever the train came by," Laura Kasay said of the couple's oldest of four children. "Then a train came by. I kind of got teary-eyed."
When John Kasay became one of the first two unrestricted free agent to sign with the fledgling franchise on Feb. 20, 1995, Steven was six weeks old. Tuesday, when the legendary and beloved kicker signed a one-day contract with the Panthers before announcing his retirement, he told those gathered that Steven will be heading off to college in the fall.
"To be able to watch your family grow in number and stature gives you a long-range perspective," Kasay said. "As blessed as we were to be able to come and live in this community, this city and really the North Carolina/South Carolina region has given way more to us than we can ever give back.
"I told Mr. Richardson that I wanted to do this simply because I can't write 70,000 thank you notes. I wish that I could, but this is my feeble attempt to tell everybody, 'Thank you.' "
Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson, while introducing Kasay, pointed out that the train hasn't entirely left the station. Kasay, who played 16 of his 21 NFL seasons with the Panthers, will take over as athletic director at Charlotte Christian on July 1.
"For me, this is more than just football," Richardson said. "John came here as a very young man and made great friendships in the community and with his teammates. He always represented us well.
"I would suspect we're going to be fortunate enough to have him around here for many years."
Six former teammates – wide receiver Steve Smith, long snapper JJ Jansen and offensive linemen Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, Geoff Hangartner and Kevin Donnalley – were among those in attendance Tuesday when one of the most successful kickers in NFL history hung up his cleats.
Kasay ranks sixth in league history with 461 field goals made, is tied for second with 42 field goals of 50 or more yards and stands fifth among kickers who have 500 or more attempts with an 81.9-percent success rate. His 1,970 career points are the eighth most in NFL history.
But the staggering statistics were a sidelight to Tuesday's affair.
"He's just been so warm and inviting away from football," said Jansen, who served as Kasay's snapper for his final two seasons in Carolina. "John and his whole family are our dearest friends. He's been such a friend, mentor, really a second father figure. We often joke that I'm his fifth kid.
"And all the football stuff speaks for itself. The reason we're here today is because he was so good at what he did for so long. It's fun to be able to give him a proper and fitting end to an unbelievably great career."
The 43-year-old Kasay, who kicked for the New Orleans Saints in 2011 and produced a career-best 147 points, realized last season that this day was around the corner.
Shortly after the Saints released him last August, Kasay began helping the special teams units on the Charlotte Christian football team. The role felt right to Kasay, the son of a former college coach, so much so that when an NFL team inquired about his availability, Kasay declined.
At that point, he knew his playing days were over.
"You have to make some hard decisions, and that's the one that I made," Kasay said. "I just kept feeling myself being pulled that way. I've thought about coaching. I thought about going into ministry. Laura and us sat down and talked about (the Charlotte Christian job) and decided, 'This could be interesting.' "
Not surprisingly, Kasay had a difficult time nailing down his favorite moments from his Panthers career. For one, his stay in Carolina spanned a team-record 221 games. For another, he's never been one to focus on his individual accomplishments, like his 11 game-winning field goals.
He fondly remembers a couple of game-winners at the Atlanta Falcons, not far from his hometown of Athens, Ga. He recalls a 46-yarder with two seconds left – the shortest of his four field goals on the day – to win at Tampa Bay in 2006 and prompt Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden to joke about not sending Kasay any Christmas cards.
"I remember the first playoff game here in '96 with the Cowboys and Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith," Kasay said. "We had to kick a field goal at the end of the game to ice the game, that would put us up two scores. We knew if we made this kick it was over. I was so full of adrenaline, and I remember that when I hit the ball it went over the net. That doesn't happen very much here.
"It was such a big day for everybody. You have the events, and then you have the ripple out from the events, and those are as much fun as anything. I would enjoy making a kick and then watching the guys celebrate. Those were special times."
Tuesday was another special time, one that brought Kasay close to tears when he thanked the Panthers community at large and closer still when he thanked his wife. She too had her teary moment, drowned out by a passing train.
They were all tears of joy.
"It's not bittersweet," she said. "Just sweet."