There’s still time for folks to figure it out. In a way, that’s appropriate.
Opportunities in professional football did not come quickly to Keith Bulluck. When they did, however, he made sure not to let them pass and the result was an 11-year NFL career in which he displayed durability and productivity rarely matched by those who preceded him or those who followed.
Still, the most common sentiment Friday when he formally announced his retirement — as a member of the Tennessee Titans — was that Bulluck, a linebacker who at one point started every game over an eight-year period was not, still is not appreciated for the caliber of player that he was.
He officially closed the book on his career with a light-hearted and upbeat press conference at the Titans’ training facility, which attracted former teammates, members of the equipment staff, front office personnel and family members.
“As a young kid, you start off you just want to play ball,” he said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do was play ball. I got that opportunity at the collegiate level and now here. When I got here I didn’t get the opportunity at first, but I knew I was going to get that opportunity and when I did I’m a firm believer in maximizing your opportunity.”
Bulluck came to the Titans in 2000 as the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft. Based on his ability, he probably should not have had to wait that long, but a DUI incident during his college days at Syracuse created concern among some teams. Five other linebackers were taken ahead of him, including LaVar Arrington (No. 2), Brian Urlacher (No. 9) and John Abraham (No. 13).
He joined a veteran defense that was not necessarily in immediate need of his services so he was a role player and special teams performer as the Titans allowed the fewest total yards in the league.
His finally got the chance to be a starter in his third season. From the beginning of 2002 until the 14th game of 2009, when he sustained a serious knee injury, he started every game and recorded at least 109 tackles each season. His streak of 135 consecutive games played was more than all but three players in franchise history and his 127 straight straights was the sixth-longest streak.
“I saw every game he played,” coach Mike Munchak, Tennessee’s offensive line coach during Bulluck’s playing days, said. “I saw every practice he participated in. For me, I had a front row seat to watching him develop into one of the greatest players that played for this organization and … more importantly, the great person that he is.
“… When he first came through the door he acted like a pro. He didn’t start right away but he found a way to contribute. A lot of guys wouldn’t handle that well. He handled that very well, I thought.”
Once Bulluck got his shot, people actually were quick to notice. He was a first-team All-Pro and earned a Pro Bowl invitation in 2003, a year after he was a second team All-Pro selection.
Then the Titans missed the postseason each of the next three years and the personal honors vanished despite the fact that his production never wavered. He set a franchise record with eight straight seasons of 100-plus tackles and led the team in stops six times in seven years. Of his 18 career sacks, 15.5 came in a four-year stretch from 2003-06 and he recorded 12 of his 21 interceptions between 2003 and 2007, yet he never made another Pro Bowl or earned All-Pro recognition again.
“You just have to be yourself in this game,” Bulluck said. “I feel like players, they think they’ll be themselves before they let their game speak for them. I got to a point in my career where I wasn’t worried about my game. … I’d just like to be remembered as an all-around great linebacker.”
His final season was 2010, when he played for the New York Giants, his favorite team as a child. The Titans defeated the Giants 29-10 in the Week 3 of that year but Bulluck was one of New York’s leading tacklers in the contest.
He said he made the decision to retire a year ago but finally made it official to satisfy public curiosity. Currently he works with NFL Sirius Satellite Radio and is a father of two young girls.
“I’ll never practice football again,” he said. “I’ll never play another game. That’s why when I did it I did it to the best of my ability. I maximized my opportunity. I hope these guys that play this sport now take that as a privilege and an honor.
“I’m officially no longer a football player.”
If form holds, it will be a little before most fully appreciate just how good a football player he was.