Apologetic Raiola hopes to be remembered for leaving everything on field
Despite what some might think of him, Dominic Raiola wants Detroit Lions’ fans to know this:
He’s sorry the Lions had only two winning seasons in his 14 years with the team. He’s sorry they lost about 68 percent of the games since he arrived.
"That’s one thing, if I could apologize to the people of the city, I’m sorry that we couldn’t be more successful, ultimately win a championship, while I was here," Raiola said Tuesday afternoon during a conference call with the Detroit media.
"It sucks. I really mean that. Some people can take it how they want, but the real fans know that I really mean that and it comes from the heart."
Raiola, a second-round pick by Detroit in 2001, wanted to return next season and play his 15th year in the NFL.
But he said the Lions told him that they’re going in a "different direction" and "making changes," which is why Raiola won’t be re-signed when he becomes a free agent in March.
He got the news last week after first meeting with his position coaches and then with general manager Martin Mayhew, president Tom Lewand and coach Jim Caldwell.
"It was tough, but I respect how they did it," Raiola said. "I didn’t hear it through my agent or through a third party. I heard it straight from them. I can respect that. I just had to swallow it."
Raiola, 36, isn’t ready to announce his retirement yet, nor discuss his future plans.
"I’m just digesting this right now," he said. "Just knowing I’m not going to be a Lion anymore, that’s the hardest thing. I’m a big boy. I’ll handle it.
"Obviously, I still think I can play. A bunch of people probably don’t think I can, but a bunch of people haven’t took a snap in the NFL, either."
Besides finding another team that needs a center and is interested in him, Raiola will have to decide how important it is to play his entire career with one organization.
Raiola, whose 205 starts are more than any player in Lions’ history, said he "fell in love with the city" of Detroit.
"You guys know how much this place means to me and the city means to me," he said. "I don’t know anything different. I guess that’s the hardest thing about it."
Raiola grew up in Hawaii and played in college at Nebraska before coming to Detroit.
"People ask me when I’m moving back to Hawaii," Raiola said. "I’m not. This is home for me now."
He admitted he was "controversial at times," which often infuriated fans, many of whom will never forgive him for giving them the finger several years ago.
Some NFL fans know Raiola only for stomping on the leg of Chicago Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson, which led to a one-game suspension last month in the regular-season finale.
Raiola, however, said he wishes they would remember him "as a guy who left everything on the field."
"If you’re from the city, you understand the passion I played with," he said.
Mayhew appreciated that passion as much as anyone.
"Decisions like these are never easy," Mayhew said in a statement. "Dom and I came to the Lions the same year and we’ve been through a lot together.
"I doubt we’ve ever had a more passionate player than Dom. In many ways, he’s a throwback who could’ve played in any era of the NFL."
Caldwell, who coached Raiola for only one season, added: "He was about as passionate and dedicated as any player I have ever coached. Players like Dom are rare. His love for the game was obvious. He also loved helping our young players grow and develop, which was an indication of his selflessness and how team-oriented he was for us."
Even though the Lions lost their final two games — the one he missed in Week 17 at Green Bay when they could have won a division title for the first time in his career, and then in the opening round of the playoffs at Dallas — Raiola said this last season will stand out as the most memorable of his career.
He also said he thinks "good things are ahead" for the Lions, and that they’re in "great" hands with his likely successor, Travis Swanson, a third-round pick last year.
His final words before hanging up were meant for his teammates: "I’m going to miss those guys a lot."
They’re going to miss him, too.