If anyone deserves 'Happy Trails,' it's Gross

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The news conference began with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson saying the guest of honor was not perfect, "borderline disrespectful.'' It ended with a slapstick rendition of "Happy Trails'' from a barbershop quartet named Zero Hour.

It was sad. It was funny.

It was tearful. It was laughable.

It was Jordan Gross.

Not all professional athletes get to go out on their own terms in this age of salary-cap casualties. Not all athletes get to spend their entire career with one team.

Gross did both.

Carolina's left tackle officially called it quits on Wednesday after 11 NFL seasons, saying it was the right time to leave. He said goodbye the way only he could, taking us through a pictorial journey of his career filled with one-liners and tears.

He began with a picture of him fresh out of the University of Utah, his face admittedly a bit chubby and his ears undeniably big. He ended with a picture of him, his wife and two kids on the sideline at the 2014 Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

"It's time for me to go," Gross said. "I learned in college you never want to stay at the party too long or bad things will happen."

Gross, 33, spent most of the news conference fighting back tears. Surrounded by many of his teammates from his rookie year in 2003 to his current team, he admittedly couldn't find anybody to look at that didn't get him choked up.

Most of them were choked up as well. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who barely can remember the last time he was on a football field without the player who followed him to Carolina from the University of Utah, stopped several times to fight off tears.

Asked about one moment in the news conference when there was a picture of him on the right shoulder of Gross in the Super Bowl following the 2003 season, the raw emotion spilled over.

"Just a great teammate," he said, biting his upper lip. "I'm good. I can't keep it together."

And he walked away.

Gross walked away from football for many reasons. He couldn't see putting his body through another season and risk the possibility of not being able to enjoy a family skiing trip as he just returned from.

He also felt the Panthers were headed in the right direction regardless of whether he returned or not. I won't bore you with details of who might replace him here. This is all about Gross.

Gross actually knew this was going to be his last season a year ago, "barring some miracle, where I knew I wouldn't have any more pain in my body."

And it's not like he's really going anywhere. He still plans to be around the organization. As he hinted, it'll likely be behind a microphone, whether it's doing his weekly "This is Gross" podcast or doing analysis for the team's in-house network -- or possibly both.

Center Ryan Kalil jokingly said Gross will be around the stadium so much it'll be like he's on pretend injured reserve.

But regardless of how much Gross is around, he'll be missed -- on and off the field. His leadership meant just as much to the team as his ability to protect the blind side of quarterback Jake Delhomme during his rookie season to Cam Newton the past three seasons.

He was selfless to a fault, always coming to coach Ron Rivera to fight for the team needs and not his own. Rivera felt like he lost a friend as much as a player.

"He always started off, 'You don't always have to do it this way, but ...'" Rivera said when describing one of Gross' visits to his office. "It was always the 'but' that got me."

But Gross got people because they respected him. That was reinforced by the number of coaches, current teammates and former teammates that lined the visitors' locker room for the goodbye.

It was in the visitors' locker room, by the way, because the stadium is under an $87 million renovation.

Guard Geoff Hangartner flew from Austin, Texas, to be here. Smith cut a family vacation to Utah short.

"Not many of us get to play with that one team and have personal success and have a positive impact, not only with the team but the organization and community," tight end Greg Olsen said. "He pretty much lived what every player hopes to have as their timeline in the NFL."

That didn't make Wednesday's goodbye any easier. Kalil knew his good friend was dreading the moment, so he hired the quartet to lighten the mood.

He even sang along. Here's a sample of the variations they came up with:

"Happy Trails to you, my aging and departing friend. Happy Trails to you, I can't believe it's the end. ... No more cares about the spin or speed or bull rush. So try to not get knocked back while in retirement. ... Happy Trials, to you, you'll be missed on third-and-10."

That, as Smith said, summarized what Gross meant to the team.

"He always kept things fun, great spirits," Smith said.

And in the end, Gross left on his own terms.

It was sad. It was funny.

But it was Gross.