When news that Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette was retiring at age 29 began trickling out Wednesday, it wasn't exactly shocking. Not after the crushing hit he took last season in a game against the Cowboys.
Still, the outpouring of tributes he's received from teammates and fans was surprising. After all, Lockette caught just 22 passes in his career – four of which went for touchdowns – and was best known for his standout play on special teams. But that's the beauty of players like him; they make the most of their moments, and when they do seize the spotlight, you can't help but stand and take notice.
And that's because players like Lockette often had to fight for recognition.
At Georgia's Fort Valley State University, he was the NCAA Division II 200-meter champion, with college track coach Tyree Price saying he could have been an Olympian if he hadn't turned his attention to football. At the NFL Combine, Lockette showed out by running a 4.37 40-yard dash – still short of his a personal best of 4.26 – but it wasn't enough to get him drafted. After all, you can't teach speed, but you can't teach most burners how to run routes or catch passes, either.
Enter Pete Carroll, who has a bit of a thing for undrafted wideouts.
Carroll loves players who have physical gifts that few others possess, and believes that he can maximize their potential by putting them in the best position to succeed. You see instances of that all over the Seahawks' roster; Lockette was in the same undrafted free agent Seattle class as receiver Doug Baldwin, who just caught 14 touchdowns. They were part of a group of players on the team who came in with massive chips on their shoulders: Baldwin. Lockette. Richard Sherman. Byron Maxwell. Malcolm Smith. K.J. Wright.
While the 2010 Seattle class brought in elite, undeniable talent (Earl Thomas, Russell Okung, Golden Tate) and the 2012 class gave them Russell Wilson, it was the rookie class of 2011 that gave the Seahawks their heartbeat. Lockette was as much a part of that as anyone.
In the final two games of his rookie season, Lockette caught two passes for 105 yards and a touchdown against division rivals Arizona and San Francisco. Fans went wild – imagine what this speedy 25-year-old could do with another summer of seasoning under his belt! – but reality set in when he was released during final cuts in the 2012 preseason. Lockette would probably never become an NFL receiver of note.
But he could become the league's best gunner on punt coverage.
Watch him sprint down the field on this punt against the Niners and you'll see that he doesn't seem to occupy the temporal plane as the rest of us:
Running against other players must have seemed like a joke to him, and these are some of the best athletes in the world. His speed often allowed him to get to the return man at the same time as the ball, which not only forced a lot of fair catches, but also made many players regret that they didn't signal for one:
Seahawks fans revered Lockette for his play on special teams, but just as quickly as he could capture your admiration, he could give it away with his penchant for drawing dumb flags. Despite getting very few snaps in the last three seasons, Lockette managed to rack up 12 penalties in just 38 games, half of which went for 15 yards.
And then of course there was "The Pick."
In Super Bowl XLIX, with the Seahawks one yard away from their second straight championship, Lockette got notice that he was about to be a hero. Down four points with less than a minute remaining, Wilson told Lockette that the ball was coming to him and they were about to win the Super Bowl. Lockette didn't throw the pass, he didn't call the play and maybe he did all that he could to catch it, but I'll always wonder – whether it's justified or not – if maybe there was something he could've done to prevent Patriots corner Malcolm Butler from intercepting the ball and ending the season.
He later wrote that he can't even watch the play. I don't blame him.
Then, last November, Lockette took a hit to the head from the Cowboys' Jeff Heath that immediately left him motionless. One of the first players to run to his side was Baldwin, and when you noticed how shook he was from seeing his fallen teammate, you couldn't help but feel like you were watching something you shouldn't. As he lay on the turf, the minutes felt like hours.
Lockette was taken off the field on a cart, but he held up his hand to make an "L" symbol, which stands for "Legion of Boom" – but also "Love Our Brothers." Sherman, Baldwin, all of his brothers were by his side as he left the field that day, and they still are today as he walks away from the game for good. Yesterday, Baldwin called him "the greatest teammate I've ever had," and Sherman singled him out as an "example of true grit."
Football is just a game. Being able to run routes doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. One play in a Super Bowl is ultimately meaningless. Lockette is a person. A guy who was pursuing his dreams and beating the odds, a track star out of Fort Valley State who played in the NFL for five years despite few believing he could last five minutes.
Thankfully, Lockette can still go about his life, even if it's not a life in football. He can walk. He can run. And he'll always be a Seahawk. And for that, I am very grateful.
He may have been a work-in-progress as a receiver, but he's an inspiration as a person.