Flanked by his head coach and general manager, surrounded by his teammates and the franchise that became his home, Zach Strief closed the doors to the career he never expected to last this long.
Strief announced his retirement Monday after 12 years with the New Orleans Saints.
Emotional at times, funny at others and characteristically open and honest throughout a 43-minute press conference, Strief spent his final interview as a Saint reflecting on the remarkable career that saw him rise from a seventh-round draft pick to one of the NFL's best right tackles.
"I felt like it was time," Strief said. "It was harder than I thought. ... It's a huge part of my life that's going away, and that made it difficult, but I think it's undoubtedly the right decision."
Strief first approached Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis about the possibility of retirement after the 2016 season.
New Orleans had been preparing for it for a couple of seasons — the Saints drafted Andrus Peat in the first round in 2015 as a potential replacement before Peat found a home at left guard — but Payton and Loomis believed Strief was still at the top of his game after a 2016 season in which he stonewalled a laundry list of the NFL's best pass rushers.
For Strief, who started crying when he mentioned quarterback Drew Brees in his opening statement on Monday, the responsibility of keeping Brees clean was too great to walk away.
"There was no clear replacement on the roster," Strief said. "I knew if I was at home watching TV and Drew was getting hit and I felt like I could have helped, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself."
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With the knowledge that Strief was contemplating the end of his career, New Orleans drafted Ryan Ramczyk in the first round last season, and the rookie ended up taking over for Strief when the 34-year-old veteran tore his ACL and MCL in the Saints' win over Miami in London.
Ramczyk established himself as one of the league's best young tackles in Strief's absence. As much as Strief did not want to end his career on an injury, the knowledge that Brees is in good hands made Strief's decision to retire clear.
"This is all Ryan Ramczyk’s fault," Strief joked.
Brees, whose pending contract negotiations with the Saints are the talk of the NFL world, was in the crowd for Strief's retirement conference on Monday, along with Thomas Morstead, Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram, some of the longest-tenured Saints on the team.
With Strief retiring, only Brees and Morstead remain from the Saints' Super Bowl team, and Brees is the only player left from 2006, Payton's first season in New Orleans and the season the Saints came back to the city after Hurricane Katrina.
“My career here has exceeded my wildest imagination," Strief said. "I didn’t think this was going to last through my first August, never mind 12 years.”
Unlike the other key members of that class, Saints legends like Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston, Strief wasn't an immediate success story in New Orleans.
A little-known tackle out of Northwestern, Strief was the seventh of eight picks the Saints made in the 2006 draft, a class that formed the foundation of the most successful era in franchise history, along with the signing of Brees that same offseason. A recommendation from Wildcats coach Randy Walker to Sean Payton convinced the Saints to use a seventh-round pick on Strief — Loomis reminded the tackle that he was picked before Colston — even though Strief likes to joke that he wasn't even on the board.
For a little while, Strief thought he wouldn't make it out of training camp.
"More than anything, I was getting beaten to death. I was losing every play; that's what it felt like, anyway," Strief said. "I was like, 'I'm getting cut in three weeks, so why not just stop now?' "
A call to Strief's father convinced him not to quit, and on the day that Strief thought he'd quit, then-tight ends coach Terry Malone told Strief he just needed to keep doing what he was doing.
New Orleans kept Strief around as a developmental lineman and the tight end in the jumbo package, and he spent five years learning from starter Jon Stinchcomb, another key figure in Strief's career. While Strief was pushing for playing time, Stinchcomb took the younger player under his wing, a preview of the way Strief treated Ramczyk last year.
And the Saints never cut bait on Strief when few backups around the NFL spend more than a couple of years with a team.
"This business is not very patient," Strief said. "I was one of the few that was given patience."
Strief rewarded the Saints' patience. Installed as the starter in 2011, Strief started 98 games for New Orleans, forming a bond with Evans on the right side that kept Brees clean for years.
"It would be easy to say he ‘overachieved’ in his career," Payton said. "I would say with his strength, his size, his experience and all of those things, he became one of the best right tackles in our game over the past five years. And consistent."
Strief fell in love with New Orleans along the way. Brought in as part of that 2006 draft class, Strief remembers driving into the city from the east and seeing a car on top of a roof and a street with driveways but no houses in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As his career grew, the city grew, and Strief made a decision fairly early that he wanted to stay in New Orleans; he didn't want to play for any team but the Saints. On Monday, he joked that he overplayed his potential interest from a suitor in a negotiation with Loomis mid-career, but the truth was he wanted to make good on Walker's promise to Payton that he'd play 10 years for him.
Few NFL players ever get that chance.
"First of all, any time you hit on a seventh-round pick, you’re pretty excited," Loomis said. "I think there’s only three other guys that have had more than 10 years — same team — in that category for the Saints."
Now, after giving so much to the team that gave him a chance, Strief is ready to walk away.