Citing the aftereffects of the multiple concussions he has suffered in his career, longtime Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson announced his retirement yesterday, the day veterans reported to training camp for physicals and the team's annual conditioning test.
Johnson, 32, said as much as he wanted to play, his body ''didn't feel right" the entire offseason and eventually he had to heed the messages it was sending.
''I just couldn't ignore it anymore," said Johnson on a conference call last night. ''I knew something wasn't right.
''I'd love to still be playing. If I could play 10 more years I would. If my body would let me I would."
Johnson said he went for a general physical with his personal physician, who said there was enough evidence for Johnson to have serious concerns that his symptoms -- irritability, difficulty sleeping, and memory loss -- were the result of previous head injuries.
Specialists recommended he step away from the game.
''It was strongly urged and suggested that I not play; that I should consider the ramifications," Johnson said. ''I can still play, but I open myself up to potentially some very damaging long-term health issues.
''When it's time to go, you better go. When your body tells you it's time to go, you'd better listen to it."
Though he couldn't remember the number of diagnosed concussions he has suffered playing football, Johnson estimated a half-dozen, with likely many more that went undiagnosed. After lingering symptoms in the fall of 2002, he underwent neurological testing at Massachusetts General Hospital, but continued to play.
He admitted that perhaps he played some of the 2004 season with concussion symptoms, though he started 15 of the Patriots' 16 regular-season games and finished third on the team in tackles with 112.
Johnson pointed to former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who retired in 2001 at age 34 after 10 concussions, as part of a history of head injuries that NFL players need to pay attention to.
''We didn't know much about [concussions], and football players, we don't really want to know," Johnson said. ''There were times I'd second-guess my decision to play, but I loved the game. I was playing for all the pure reasons."
Johnson's exit comes eight days after fellow inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi decided to sit out the 2005 season as he recovers from a stroke suffered in the offseason. Teammates for the better part of a decade, they first started together on the same defense in 1997.
Johnson said if Bruschi's health issues had anything to do with his situation, it was purely on a subconscious level, as Johnson's problems have been ongoing for a few years.
Their departure means the Patriots enter this season without two of their steadiest defenders and two of their top three tacklers from last year's Super Bowl championship squad. Free agent signees Chad Brown and Monty Beisel should claim the inside linebacker spots in the team's 3-4 defense, but the Patriots took a surprise hit to their depth.
''Although his retirement is unexpected, we thoroughly respect his decision and support him as he moves on," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ''It goes without saying, but Ted Johnson is a class act. He was a solid contributor to this defense and the New England Patriots organization his entire career. Ted's signature was a work ethic and toughness that were second to none. He retires a champion."
Johnson, a second-round pick out of Colorado in the 1995 draft, started every game he played in as a rookie and has been a fixture in the lineup, when healthy, ever since.
He suffered a host of injuries during his career. He missed 11 games in 1999 with a torn left biceps, and eight contests during the 2001 campaign because of a broken foot. He also tore his right biceps, had surgery on both shoulders, suffered a torn medial collateral ligament, and tore ''every tendon imaginable."
''Ted was the ultimate football player," Patriots linebacker Larry Izzo said. ''Whenever he walked off the field you know that he gave everything he had. He looked like a warrior coming off the field, blood splattered on his pants.
''The style of play that he had is something that we all strive to do, with his physical style."
Added linebacker Willie McGinest, who joined the team a year before Johnson: ''Ted was a pillar in the organization. He has been a great guy on and off the field. He has always done everything he could possibly do for the community.
''He was one of the good ones."
Johnson volunteered as a board member of the Penikese Island School, a private school for troubled teenage boys.
''To find someone who's got the celebrity that he does and is so grounded, in my experience, is really rare," said Toby Lineaweaver, the executive director at Penikese. ''The Patriots are losing a great ambassador.
''His association with us has been very, very special for us. To give us a profile and a little bit of juice out there in the world, we're very grateful for what Ted has done for us."
Johnson, a father of four, is unsure what he will do now that he's not playing football for the first time in nearly 20 years. A California native who attended high school just outside San Diego, Johnson said he thinks he would enjoy living in Southern California so he could wear flip-flops year-round.
But for now he plans to remain in New England.
''I grew up here in a sense," Johnson said. ''I came here knowing nothing and I have roots here. I never had roots in my life. I'm a drifter. I never lived anywhere as long as I've lived here. I love it here.
''This is a very emotional thing. By all means, I don't need pity or sympathy, for crying out loud. But when you've been doing something since your freshman year of high school, and had a way of life for so long, it's a different transition emotionally. I'm going to miss it."