As sports fans, we have various responses to when players leave the teams for which we root to play elsewhere. Sometimes those players become the enemy, like the multitude of Titans who left to play for the hated Ravens last decade. Other times, we’re just indifferent.
The rare few depart and still leave behind a soft spot in our hearts. On Thursday, one of those guys who fits in the third category – former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck – officially retired, and it’s hard not to smile when remembering No. 53 as both a player and a person during his time in Nashville.
Seldom comes along the player who got nearly everything right from start to finish of his career, but Bulluck seemed to do just that. He showed up every day with a smile on his face, never got in trouble, and played football with a joy and intensity matched by few of his contemporaries. You can tell a man who loves his job by the way he works, and there was not much doubt that Keith Bulluck enjoyed just about every down he played.
There are a few lasting images in my mind with regards to Bulluck’s career. I remember a guy who played sideline-to-sideline at full speed every play. I remember how Bulluck was outstanding in pass coverage: he picked off 21 passes for his career. I remember sitting in the upper deck of the Hoosier Dome in 2002, watching Bulluck race towards our end of the stadium in the open field clutching a football in one hand, almost literally dancing those last few yards of his touchdown as the Titans beat the Colts, 23-15, that day. The Tennessean’s Jim Wyatt offers a few more memories of Bulluck that are worth reading if you have the time.
Bulluck managed to make just one Pro Bowl, and year after year, people who watched him not only in Nashville but around the league wondered how that could happen. There was no question that he was one of the league’s great linebackers of the 2000s.
Bulluck left his mark off the field also. He was raised as a foster child and always kept the cause of those like him close to his heart. He worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Nashville and Soles4Souls to help provide for those in need. For years, he ran a wine-tasting event for his own foundation. He continues to be active in like causes.
Bulluck also provided a great role model to kids in other ways, as this recent article at the Huffington Post discloses. Unlike a lot of stars who blow their millions on God-knows-what and wind up bankrupt, Bulluck managed his well. He fashioned himself as more than a football star, pursuing various educational opportunities offered through the NFL. This fall, he’s even beginning a masters’ program in sports psychology and will also be on the local airwaves as a sports broadcaster.
Bulluck also appreciated Nashville his whole career, and made that clear. He wanted to finish his career as a Titan, but the franchise chose to let him walk after he tore up his knee near the end of 2009. So, Bulluck finished his career in his hometown of New York for one season. Nobody signed him last off-season, and when Bulluck decided this week that he was hanging up the cleats, he came back to Nashville to have his press conference.
And in Nashville, Bulluck will stay. As he told the Huffington Post, this is where he wants to spend the rest of his life. It’s fitting, because he never really left our hearts.
Nashville is still a relative newbie to the NFL as compared to the Green Bays and Pittsburghs of the league, which have decades of storied histories and championships and retired jerseys and such where we don’t. The Titans have, however, remembered three former players, Eddie George, Steve McNair and Frank Wycheck, with the ultimate compliment by electing them to their Hall of Fame. It would be fitting if Bulluck were there also. He loved us, and we loved him, and for all the right reasons.