Beset by recurring injuries, Chicago Bears cornerback and kickoff return specialist Jerry Azumah, a former college tailback who made a remarkably seamless transition to the defensive side of the ball as a rookie, retired Thursday after seven NFL seasons.
"This has been a great ride," he said during a news
conference. "It's nothing to cry about or hold my head down to.
Just looking at everything I accomplished and achieved, being here
with the Bears and how they've embraced me, has been tremendous."
The move had been rumored since Azumah suffered the second serious neck injury of his career during the Bears' loss to the Carolina Panthers in a divisional-round playoff game Jan. 15. Azumah had surgery to repair a similar injury in the summer of 2004 and missed the first four games of that season. He also had two operations, the most recent following the 2005 season, to address a problem with his right hip.
"I knew I'd be playing in pain," Azumah said. "That was what was understood. I'd be playing with some pain, they'd go in and clean it out and would get me better so I wouldn't miss the season ... I decided to play until, basically, the wheels fell off."
Although he played in 15 games in 2005, Azumah started only one contest, a career low. And it was clear at times that he was not the same player he had been before the onset of the injuries. Playing primarily as a nickel cornerback, Azumah recorded 45 tackles, one sack and six passes defensed. For the first time since 2002, he failed to register an interception.
Teammates and club officials said that, while Azumah agonized over what was an emotional decision, the battles to keep bouncing back from serious surgeries had become too much for him.
A fifth-round choice in the 1999 draft, Azumah came to the Bears after a celebrated career as a tailback at New Hampshire, where he won the Walter Payton Award as the outstanding player at the Division I-AA level for the 1998 season. He was immediately switched to cornerback, became a part-time starter and a key nickel defender by his second season, then moved into the starting lineup in 2002.
In 2003, Azumah was chosen for the Pro Bowl squad as a return specialist, after he averaged 29.0 yards and scored two touchdowns on kickoffs.
Azumah, 28, started 29 games at cornerback between 2002-2003 and had four interceptions in 2003. He matched those four interceptions in 2004, despite starting in only eight games.
For his career, Azumah appeared in 105 games with 48 starts. He had 384 tackles, 10 interceptions, 29 passes defensed, 6½ sacks, six forced fumbles and one recovery.
While Azumah was departing, the Bears welcomed back three-year veteran defensive linemen Israel Idonije, when the team opted to match the four-year restricted free agent offer sheet to which the Buffalo Bills signed him last week. Chicago thus inherits the $7.4 million deal, which included a signing bonus of $1.6 million. Had the Bears not matched the offer sheet, they would not have received any compensation from Buffalo, since Idonije entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2003.
Idonije, 25, can play tackle and end, and the Bears regard him as an ascending player.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.