Seau another athlete who can't say goodbye

SAN DIEGO -- Junior Seau had it right in one respect: That was no retirement the other day in San Diego.

"I'm not retiring. I'm graduating," Seau told the 400-odd folks who gathered Monday at what sure looked like a going-away party for a soon-to-be-former NFL player. When you drop the number of soliloquies Seau dropped on the faithful, it's generally a good idea to actually be retiring and not just goofin' around.

But Seau had it right, in the end. He is graduating. He is leaving the ranks of the mere pro athletes and crossing over into Last Gasp Territory, where the professional life degrades into a series of one-year contracts, late-camp invitations and injuries-created-this-need opportunity.

He becomes, officially, a grinder. And if Seau can live with that, then surely the rest of us can.

Oh, absolutely, it's a lousy scene, Seau signing with the Patriots not even a workweek after this huge send-off from the loving fans near his Oceanside, Calif., hometown. The San Diego media treated Seau's apparent retirement as a genuinely massive moment, a sort of benediction upon the man's great football career. The tributes flowed.

Not necessarily the best moment to reconsider the whole idea. But there we go again, trying to make simple what is inherently a complicated thing.

Seau is either searching for a Super Bowl ring, one more steaming plateful of ego gratification or some final, smashing collision that will tell him it's OK to leave. Whatever the pursuit, I hope he finds it. As for whether it's a clean or messy process, that's no longer one of my concerns.

I used to pull for the perfect ending for great athletes -- until I realized what a myth it is in sports. For every Ted Williams or John Elway, it feels as though there are a hundred ragged departures, guys leaving too late or simply having the fates conspire to deny them a grand exit.

The reason we remember Elway winning back-to-back Super Bowls, then choppering out of sight, maybe, is because a player like Joe Montana ended his career by exiting the playoffs unceremoniously -- and with the Kansas City Chiefs, not the 49ers of his glory years. The final vision of Montana, even after two solid seasons in K.C., was of a quarterback being repeatedly slammed to the turf and concussed in the 1993 playoffs against Buffalo, then losing to the Dolphins in the first round in '94.

It doesn't diminish Montana's career; it's just that good endings are so hard to find. And by the way, Williams scripted that coda of his; after striking his fabled 521st home run at Fenway Park, Williams (another San Diego native, by the way) canceled himself out of Boston's subsequent season-ending road trip to New York. He was going to make that homer stand up as his final at-bat, period, and so he did. The man had made his closing argument.

The most cogent analysis of Seau's decision to forgo retirement after 16 seasons (in fairness, he consistently declined to use the word "retire" at his Monday gathering) came from Jim Trotter, the San Diego Union-Tribune writer who has chronicled so much of Seau's career. Trotter suggested that the one thing missing for Seau is a championship ring, a chase he now resumes full-time, and that notion was coupled with New England's clear statement that it not only wanted Seau but needed him. (Scan the Pats' interior defense for the lurid details.)

Whether the Patriots actually can put Seau close to a Super Bowl is one of those imponderables here in August, but at least the man unretired with a thought pattern attached. New England might or might not get within a ZIP code of another title, but at least it could. And the Pats' strong pursuit of Seau, after weeks of indifference from the league as a whole, struck an egocentric nerve His Juniorness couldn't resist.

"There are a lot of teams that probably wanted Junior for his character, his loyalty, his honor and how he approaches the game, his work ethic -- all the intangibles," Seau said Monday. "But do they want the football player, No. 55, with that character? That was questionable."

Translations: (1) Seau is unafraid to speak of himself in third person; and (2) he isn't yet interested in being a coach. The Pats, loudly and with much love, want Seau to play. Evidently, that's what the man wants, too -- enough to endure the awkwardness of an unretirement, his new identity as a pro grinder and the growing realization that almost nobody makes a clean getaway anymore. Godspeed.

Mark Kreidler is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com