Dominic Raiola arrived in Detroit during the 2001 season as a Hawaiian who spent his college career in Nebraska. He leaves as one of the longest-tenured players in the franchise's history and someone who felt a strong emotional tie toward the city.
The 36-year-old center lasted 14 seasons through one of the roughest stretches the Detroit Lions ever faced. He was one of the final players left on the team from the winless 2008 season and had often acted like a bridge between the struggles of the past and their attempts at building a future.
Raiola's agent, Kenny Zuckerman, said on Monday that the Lions would not bring him back next season. While Raiola wanted to return for one more campaign in 2015, it is the right time for the Lions to cut ties. His play slipped in 2014 after a standout 2013 season and the Lions already drafted his eventual replacement, Travis Swanson, last May.
The offensive line struggled this season, allowing quarterback Matthew Stafford to be sacked 45 times. Other than Raiola and Rob Sims, another pending free agent who has an unknown future, the Lions have a young core with guard Larry Warford, tackles Riley Reiff and LaAdrian Waddle and Swanson now at center.
Whether or not Raiola retires or finishes his career somewhere else, his complex legacy with the Lions will remain unchanged.
He is one of the men who taught Warford, Swanson, Reiff and Waddle how to transition to life -- and how to play on the offensive line -- in the NFL. Up until now, Raiola had always been good enough to keep his job. Even as the years crept up and as the faces around the locker room rotated, Raiola was the constant. When he spoke about playoff runs and finally having a satisfying season with the Lions, you could hear the passion in his voice.
And while his emotions fueled some of his best games with the team, they also landed him in trouble, too. He yelled at members of the Wisconsin marching band in 2013, leading to a sizeable donation to the band's fund. He cursed out and flipped off fans. This season, he was suspended for stomping on Ego Ferguson's ankle and fined for trying to club New England defensive lineman Zach Moore. The suspension came during the biggest regular-season game in his Lions career: The finale against Green Bay with a division title on the line.
For someone who had been through so much losing in Detroit, he was always optimistic that the perpetually woebegone Lions were going to turn into a winner. That's why this season meant so much to him. Detroit had become a winner for one of the few times in his career -- a career that he knew was going to end soon.
When he cleaned out his locker the day after Detroit's season ended with a playoff loss to Dallas, he had tears in his eyes. He was adamant he could still play, even though he admitted he didn't know if he would be back with the club.
It was tough to tell whether the emotions were a result of how the Lions' season ended -- in the playoffs following one of two over-.500 seasons Raiola had in his career -- or because he knew there was a good chance this might be the end.
He often spoke about the future of this franchise and how he believed it would be bright. Sooner than he expected, he is no longer part of it.