DENVER — DeMarcus Ware stood at his locker on multiple occasions last season, talking more like a coach than a player. He missed time with a fractured right forearm. He finished the season on the injured reserve with a bulging disc in his back that required surgery.
Ware, 34, talked bravely of continuing his career. But as the days became weeks this offseason, the question was simple: What for?
Ware won a Super Bowl ring in 2016. He finished with 138.5 sacks, ranking eighth all-time. He boasts a Hall of Fame resume, and on Monday decided it was time to retire rather than pursue a limited role with the Broncos or another team. It's likely he will have avenues in broadcast available after hosting his own show on NFL Network last year.
"After a lot of thought and prayer, I've decided to accept the unknown and retire from my NFL career," Ware wrote in a statement he posted on Twitter. "Tempting opportunities still present themselves for me to play and I feel better than I have in years. However, long term health and quality of life outweigh the spark and passion to play that I once had."
Ware made nine Pro Bowls. He joined the Broncos in 2015 as part of a free agent coup that included cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. His motivation for coming to Denver was simple: win a championship. In 2016, the Broncos upset the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Teammates credit speeches by Ware and quarterback Peyton Manning the night before the game for inspiring them. Manning often talked with Ware about team issues as the two rehabbed injuries, developing a friendship.
"DeMarcus loved football. He loved everything about it. He loved putting the work in, loved helping the young players and of course loved playing on Sundays," Manning said. "It's no surprise why he was such an outstanding football player. It was because of his work ethic and his real passion for the game. It was an honor to call DeMarcus a teammate."
By defensive teammates, Ware was viewed as a legend. He had a presence that was unmistakable.
"A great leader. He just put in the work non-stop to be great," All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told Denver7. "And when he spoke people stopped and listened."
Ware played his best when it mattered most, notching 3.5 sacks during the Broncos' playoff run. He brought energy, intelligence and calm in the storm.
"DWare was my favorite teammate. I learned so much from him, about football and life," linebacker Brandon Marshall told Denver7. "I am going to miss him, and his jokes and laughter. It was always a pleasure being around him. He always made me feel like I could come and pick his brain about anything. He is a great leader and an even better man. I am happy for him."
Ware formed a vicious tandem with outside linebacker Von Miller. As much as Ware helped Miller on the field, he became more of an asset off it. With Miller at a crossroads in his career following injuries and suspension, Ware provided guidance about everything from diet to sleeping habits. Miller said Monday that "God brought DeMarcus into my life when I needed him the most."
"What has DeMarcus meant to me? I could sit here all day and write a book, the moments where DeMarcus has impacted my life," Miller explained in December. "I have been in the league six years and three of those were with DeMarcus. And if you look at my years with DeMarcus and look at the type of player I was and the type of person that I am now during DeMarcus' tenure is totally different than I was."
Ware finished with 21.5 sacks with with the Broncos. He made the Pro Bowl twice in Denver.
"DeMarcus - you are the epitome of what an NFL player should be. Congrats on your Hall of Fame career & thank you for becoming a Bronco!" Tweeted general manager John Elway.
Former Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called Ware a Hall of Famer in every way. He told Denver7 on Monday, "DeMarcus was the easiest guy to coach ever. Just had to tell him to sic'em and he did the rest."
Gary Kubiak, who led the Broncos to the Super Bowl win, leaned on Ware to set the tone in the locker room and in meetings. He trusted Ware's influence on teammates.
"He's one of the finest human beings you'll ever come across," Kubiak said. "He was a once-in-a-generation player. I will always remember his talks to our team before the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl. It was very powerful. It was a privilege to coach DeMarcus."
Ware offered thanks to those who shaped his career before confirming he is walking away from football.
"I will miss my teammates, coaches and fans, who supported me over the years. I am hanging up my cleats and beginning the journey to my next destination."