Last link says goodbye

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(May 11)—It was an event. The Jacksonville media was there en masse. Some of his former teammates – Tony Boselli, James Stewart, Paul Frase, Bryan Barker and Will Moore – were on hand. His immediate heir apparent, Ernest Wilford, was there.

Jimmy Smith said goodbye to football on Thursday, but the split goes much deeper. With Smith's retirement, the Jaguars said goodbye to the greatest player in their history and the team's last link to the franchise's inaugural season, 1995.

"This is a day I've been trying to get to my whole career. I reached my goal to have played in a long and illustrious career in the NFL," Smith said in a press conference that was hastily-arranged this morning following Smith's surprising announcement that he was retiring.

Suddenly, memories flashed before the eyes of Jaguars fans. They are memories of the team's first training camp in Stevens Point, Wisc., where Smith was a former second-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys attempting to resurrect his career following a year out of the game. His first action came as a kick-returner.

Smith's rise to fame in the NFL was as improbable as the Jaguars' meteoric rise to success, and it was no coincidence that the Jaguars didn't hit their stride until Smith hit his. It was in the second half of the Jaguars' second season that Smith and the Jaguars came to life simultaneously, as Smith's late-season surge led the Jaguars to the AFC title game, the capping blow having been his game-winning touchdown catch in Denver.

Records have fallen since then. Smith has led the Jaguars in receiving yards in each of the last 10 seasons and ranks seventh in NFL history with 862 receptions and 11th with 12,287 receiving yards.

Illustrious? Simply put, Smith becomes the leading candidate to become the first Jaguars player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His candidacy, of course, must wait five years.

"A sad day in one respect," owner Wayne Weaver said. "This is kind of the end of an era in Jaguars history and I can tell you it was a great era. Jimmy will always be remembered as one of our early heroes," said Weaver, who tabbed Smith as the second Jaguars player to be inducted into the team's newly-instituted "Ring of Honor." Boselli will become the "Ring of Honor's" first inductee next season.

"Jimmy Smith will be the next, one day in the future," Weaver said.

"I thought I had another year in me," Smith said. "You guys know I've been going back and forth. It's best to leave on top. Not many guys get to do what I'm doing today; walk away happy."

Smith was accompanied to Thursday's press conference by his wife Sandra.

"The past 11 years have been the best in my life, here in Jacksonville. I love it here. It's time for me to move on to the next phase of my life," Smith added.

Smith hinted at retirement following the Jaguars' 28-3 playoff loss in New England, after a game that was not one of Smith's best. He said he struggled during the winter on a decision to play another season.

He spoke with 17-year veteran receiver Tim Brown at an offseason workout camp and Brown advised Smith to get away from football for awhile. Smith did and then returned to Alltel Stadium for the first day of the Jaguars' offseason conditioning program in April. He said he looked forward to the new season.

"This is not a total surprise," coach Jack Del Rio said. "It was something I was trying to have him put off. I was trying to buy another year. He felt, in his heart, it was the right thing to do. I will miss Jimmy."

Smith's retirement leaves the Jaguars with a young corps of wide receivers. Two of them – Reggie Williams and Matt Jones – are first-round draft choices. Wilford was the team's second-leading receiver, behind Smith, last season. Cortez Hankton and Chad Owens move up the pecking order.

Del Rio said the team's decisions in the recent draft would not have been affected by Smith's retirement, had he announced his decision before the draft.

"We felt we had a good, solid group of wide receivers and didn't need to add anybody. Our approach will be to develop the guys we have," Del Rio said.

"It's hard because I know I can still go out there and do it. It's just best for me to leave. Now, with camp just around the corner, I just don't think I can do it," Smith said.

Smith was asked if drug-testing had forced his retirement decision. "I've been playing for [26] years. I'm tired. Leave it at that," Smith said.

"We both learned from each other. We learned what it meant to be the leaders of our team and leaders of our offense. We understood that we were the play-makers and we had to make plays. He was the type of guy that wanted everyone to know that Jimmy Smith had arrived. He's done a great job of that," Keenan McCardell said. Smith and McCardell, of course, spent six years together to become one of the top receiving tandems in NFL history.

From all across the league, tributes poured into the Jaguars offices on Thursday. They came from coaches, cornerbacks, quarterbacks, etc.

"Jimmy is the best receiver I've been around. He is the total team player and his teammates always knew he would be there for them. It was an honor for me to have been on the same field with him," former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell said.

"There were a couple of rare ingredients this kid had," former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said of Smith. "He had some medical issues; he had asthma. Yet, he played with great endurance, which the great ones have. He developed a unique relationship with Mark Brunell and if you were going to single-cover Jimmy Smith, the ball was going to him. He was a difference-maker."

"I am part of this football team, always," Smith said. "I think this team is very well on its way to the Super Bowl. I feel strongly this year."

Smith was in the final year of a contract that was to pay him $3.625 million in salary this year. That salary savings is credited to the Jaguars' salary cap.

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