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View from the O-Zone: A career remembered – and well-earned

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JACKSONVILLE – He smiled and joked, but that wasn't the only real stuff.

Just as real at Maurice Jones-Drew's retirement ceremony was the moment when the man on stage let the emotions get to him. Even if it was for the briefest of moments.

There weren't tears, exactly – but there was some choking up.

Understandably and expectedly so. Because although he'd known for more than a month he wasn't playing football anymore, and although he'd known about Tuesday's ceremony at EverBank Field for a while, too, there are things for which you can't prepare, at least not fully.

His time had come. And now it was real.

"Nine years flew by," Jones-Drew said.

They did, because that's what NFL careers do. And it was when speaking about his wife, Ashley – and particularly what she did to allow him to do what he did – that emotions really got to one of the toughest, most-productive players ever to play for the Jaguars.

"I told myself I wasn't going to cry, so I'm going to try not to," he said.

He didn't. Not really. But that he struggled with it – and that this day was far from easy – wasn't a shock. Not if you covered Jones-Drew.

Make no mistake:

Trying to define Jones-Drew was maddening at times. For the media, he wasn't easy. He was dynamic, yes. And he was quotable. You always could count on a story when you went to Jones-Drew's locker. At the same time, he wasn't simple or cuddly, and few reporters covered him long without him holding a grudge and issuing the silent treatment.

He could be maddening to fans, too. On the field, three 1,000-yard seasons, 81 touchdowns and three Pro Bowl appearances were easy to love. The holdout before the 2012 season? Not so much.

But all of that? It was all part of it. You didn't get one Jones-Drew without the other.

He did it his way. Absolutely and consistently and no matter how other people felt about it.

But now, as we begin to look back, and as the on-field moments cement into memory, all of the aforementioned seems like so much periphery. The grudges never lasted long, and never felt all that serious. The holdout, like most holdouts, was mostly forgotten and forgiven – and correctly so.

None of those things matter much in how Jones-Drew will be remembered.

That's because Jones-Drew above all else absolutely, positively, passionately loved the game. And if it's a cliché to say a guy did it his way, in this case the cliché is true.

The man was absolutely professional, and absolutely gave everything every play. An argument could be made his career may have lasted longer had he not played so physically, had he not felt the need to finish every run.

Jones-Drew's makeup didn't allow such an approach.

I wrote it when he retired last month, but it's worth writing again today: Jones-Drew's rushing-champion, franchise-record season in 2011 was as impressive a season as I've covered in two decades covering the NFL.

It wasn't just impressive because Jones-Drew did it with a struggling offense and a rookie quarterback. Most impressive was how he willed his way to a rushing title when he wasn't the elusive, speedy player he had been early in his career. He bled, fought and scraped for every yard of that title.

He earned it yard by hard-fought yard.

His holdout the following offseason angered many fans, but given the man involved, it made sense. This is a guy who understood the NFL equally well as sport and business. He understood, too, that his value was at a peak that offseason. He understood he would never be faster or quicker or better. He understood if he was going to get paid it needed to happen then.

Fast forward three years, and there he was Tuesday talking about his career in the past tense. He talked, too, about what almost certainly will be a successful, entertaining post-football broadcasting career. That the day came three seasons after a rushing title is a testament to the realities of time. It moves faster in the NFL than in real life, and faster for a running back than any other position in football, maybe in all sports.

So it was that at age 30 Jones-Drew was smiling and joking Tuesday and recalling once again the 2006 NFL Draft, a story Jaguars fans know well. How 32 teams – including the Jaguars – thought him too small and passed on him in Round 1. How he wore No. 32 to symbolize that moment. How he never quite lost that chip on that shoulder, and how that whole thing stays with him still.

If you think of that start, the emotions Tuesday were pitch-perfect. Because while there were a few moments of sadness and not believing the career was over, there were more jokes and more smiles, and that made sense.

This was a career that was successful by any measure. What he set out to do, he did. The player with a chip on the shoulder proved his point in those nine years that flew by. He proved he was a star, and for a while, he was as good as any runner in the NFL.

As the runs cement into the collective memory, that's how he should be remembered, and it's how he will be remembered.

And he earned it, yard by hard-fought yard.

Take a look at images from Maurice Jones-Drew's NFL retirement press conference.

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