Derrick Brooks went away mad.
Warren Sapp went away disappointed.
John Lynch went away confused.
There is nothing harder in football than saying goodbye to it. One day a player is planning on having one more year, and the next he is being told he just had it. Nothing stings worse than the team he gave everything to suggesting he has no more to give.
Which leads us to Ronde Barber, the latest Bucs icon.
What if this is the end of his time?
Even the thought of it is jarring. They have been together so long, the Bucs and Barber, and they have meant so much to each other. The thought of one proceeding without the other seems wrong.
Even last year, at age 37, Barber had more big plays than anyone else in the Bucs' secondary. Despite the onslaught of opposing offenses against the Bucs' secondary, Barber was a Pro Bowl alternate. He still had those magnificent instincts of his.
Lately, however, there has been some thought the Bucs might be better with Mark Barron, last year's No. 1 draft pick, playing in the tackle box instead of playing centerfield.
So where does that leave Ronde? Does he switch to play the deep middle? Does he return to corner? Or does he shrug and head toward the golf course because, as it turns out, the Bucs have too much talent in their secondary?
For now, no one knows. Barber, as is his routine, is sequestered away, trying to figure out if he can push his mind and body through another season. It is never an easy answer for Barber, but so far he has always managed to show up when the shoulder pads were handed out. Given the choice of playing or not playing, he has always decided to play.
All things being equal, everybody wants to be wanted. So, yeah, I figure Barber will try to play. The alternative is to put the helmet away forever.
Remember 2004, when the Bucs cut Lynch and let Sapp go into free agency? As it turned out, a lot of good plays were left in both. Remember January 2009, when they cut Brooks? It felt cold, cruel. It is true no one picked up Brooks; on the other hand, it wasn't as if the Bucs had a lot of other linebackers ready, either.
Remember the way it ended for Keyshawn Johnson, deactivated and embarrassed in the middle of the season?
Remember the way it ended for Simeon Rice, with the team waiting until he arrived at camp in Celebration before telling him he was a former player?
Remember the way it ended for Doug Williams, with then-owner Hugh Culverhouse deciding to pinch pennies instead of give them away in a contract?
Look, it isn't a pretty thing when a player wants more time and a team doesn't believe it has more to give him. There is no room for sentimentality, because when you get down to it, no one owes anyone more time. The more a player wants to play, the harsher the decision can appear.
Remember the way it ended for Tony Dungy? Fired.
Remember the way it ended for Jon Gruden? Fired.
Remember the way it ended for Lee Roy Selmon? He retired rather than risk surgery to prolong his career.
It never ends happily. It never ends warmly. Pro sports is a collection of awful endings.
Will it be different with Barber? Probably.
For several years, Barber and the Bucs have had a meeting each winter to discuss his situation. Was the playing time going to be satisfactory? Was the pay?
If the Bucs meet and suggest Barber's playing time is not guaranteed or that his money is going down, then Barber probably backs slowly out of the room. No hard feelings.
Still, it would be a shame for it to end that way. If nothing else, Barber deserves to compete until he loses the job, at whatever part of forever that might be. He is the eternal cornerback, and he deserves a chance until someone better shows up.
After all, someone is bound to beat out Barber someday.
Just not yet.
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on 98.7-FM the Fan.