METAIRIE, La. -- Zach Strief operated in the shadows for most of his 12-year career with the New Orleans Saints. But the 34-year-old right tackle got the grand send-off he deserved when he officially announced his retirement Monday at the team's practice facility.
Past and present teammates including Drew Brees, Steve Gleason, Deuce McAllister, Mark Ingram and Cameron Jordan were in attendance, as well as team owner Gayle Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Payton, and Strief's parents, wife and newborn son.
"My career here has exceeded my wildest imagination. I didn't think this was going to last through my first August, never mind 12 years," said Strief, who was drafted in the seventh round out of Northwestern in 2006 and became a full-time starter five years later -- finishing with 98 career starts, including the playoffs.
Strief lasted less than five minutes into his opening statement before he started choking up while talking about longtime strength and conditioning coach Dan Dalrymple. Then the tears picked up as he directly addressed Payton, Loomis and Brees.
"You took a chance on me when no one else would. Your faith in me has changed my life forever. ... Thank you from the bottom of my heart," Strief said to Payton.
He called Brees "the single greatest motivation for me as a player" while talking about his tireless work ethic.
"My greatest drive as a player was not to let you down," Strief told Brees. "Being a small part of your Hall of Fame career has been my greatest honor as a player."
Brees also praised Strief in an Instagram post:
Strief's retirement wasn't a surprise, since he tore his ACL and MCL last year. He has also repeatedly expressed his confidence (and relief) that first-round draft pick Ryan Ramczyk is ready to take over his job.
"I knew if I was at home watching TV and Drew was getting hit and I felt like I could've helped, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself," Strief said. "It's much easier knowing that there's someone there that's going to play at a high level for him. So this is all Ryan Ramczyk's fault."
Strief retires with one year and $4 million in salary and bonuses left on his contract.
He also spent time Monday praising former Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb for being a mentor and former Northwestern coach Randy Walker, who recommended Strief to Payton in 2006 just two months before Walker's unexpected death.
Strief wasn't on the Saints' draft board until Walker insisted that he would be a 10-year player in the NFL. Strief has talked before about how much it meant to him to prove his coach right.
"It would be easy to say he 'overachieved' in his career. But I would say with his strength, his size, his experience and all of those things, he became one of the best right tackles in our game over the past five years. And consistent. You knew what you were getting," said Payton, who credited Strief for perfecting his craft and endearing himself to his teammates among many other positive traits. "He became an expert at that position."
Strief, who was always a media darling in New Orleans, also injected plenty of humor into the 45-minute event, including self-deprecating comments about his unimpressive vertical and 40-yard dash times, plugs for the new brewery he co-owns, and lumping in his failed opportunity at a touchdown pass with his other most lasting memories.
Strief said he felt "indebted" to Payton and Loomis for giving him the opportunity. He added that he never seriously considered leaving for any other teams when he had the chance -- even before he married a New Orleans native.
Strief arrived in New Orleans months after Hurricane Katrina and got to be part of the rebirth of both the city and the team, which won its first Super Bowl in the 2009 season.
"What's been special is I've gotten to be a part of not only this organization kind of growing to where it is today, but also this city," Strief said. "So it's very hard not to become attached to that."