Wilson was a tough leader in Denver

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Al Wilson officially called it a career Wednesday. But the beginning of the end for the former Denver Broncos middle linebacker and defensive captain came on Dec. 3, 2006.

In what was supposed to be remembered as the fist start of Jay Cutler's NFL career, I remember it as the beginning of Wilson's retirement.

Wilson was taken off the field on a stretcher after a violent collision with a teammate. He lay motionless for several minutes. The Invesco Field at Mile High crowd began to chant his name. Wilson was a fan favorite.

After Wilson was taken to a local hospital, the Seahawks made a furious comeback against Denver's shell-shocked teammates, who were clearly shaken by Wilson's injury.

He suffered a neck injury, but in typical Wilson form, the former amateur boxing champion was back at practice three days later and finished the season.

Still, there was a toll from the injury. He was going to be traded to the New York Giants the next spring but the deal was scuttled when he failed a physical. He missed the entire 2007 season. Wilson was cleared to play this year and he had a couple of workouts. But Wilson ultimately decided that his long-term health wasn't worth risking.

While Wilson has been gone from the league nearly two years, his formal departure needs to be noted with respect. This was an intense, fiery leader on the field. In his prime, Wilson was one of the nastiest linebackers in the league. Off the field, Wilson was down to earth and friendly. He'd talk to you all day long and it didn't have to be football.

I covered Wilson for three seasons in Denver. He goes down as one my favorites players I covered, in any city, any sport.