METAIRIE, La. -- Deuce McAllister kept a pair of sunglasses in his jacket pocket, just in case he had trouble keeping himself together while saying his formal goodbyes to the New Orleans Saints.
He never quite needed to hide his eyes, but it wasn't for a lack of attachment to the only NFL team he has played for or the fans who loudly expressed their love for him everywhere they saw him -- most recently with elongated howls of "Deuce" when McAllister attended a New Orleans Hornets basketball game this month.
"Obviously ... this is a day that as a player you dread to happen," McAllister said Tuesday, shortly after he was released by the Saints. "But if you don't go out on your own terms, this is eventually a possibility that may occur.
"To the fans of the New Orleans Saints, it has been a blessing, an honor, just to be able to play every Sunday, Monday or Thursday or whatever day it may have been. ... I've been blessed -- blessed -- and I just want to tell everyone thank you."
McAllister, the Saints' career rushing leader with 6,069 yards, was due over $7 million next season -- part of a more than $50 million, eight-year contract that he signed in 2005, before the first of reconstructive surgeries on both knees. The Saints could no longer afford to pay that much to McAllister, who played a limited role last season with 107 carries for 418 yards. The team said it granted McAllister his release so he could seek other offers around the NFL.
"I still have that itch to play. ... I still feel like I can contribute and help a team," McAllister said, adding that he wouldn't rule out returning to the Saints after he has been able to test the market.
"We've left that door ajar," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said, but added, "I wouldn't call it likely."
"Decisions like this are always very difficult ones to make," Loomis said. "Deuce has epitomized hard work, leadership and productivity throughout his career and has been a source of great pride for all of us associated with the team."
McAllister's first reconstructive surgery was on his right knee in 2005, the second on his left knee in 2007. McAllister, who turned 30 last December, also had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee six weeks ago and said he couldn't pass a physical if he took one now. However, he expected to be ready by next season and believes he can play another three years or so.
McAllister said money was only part of the reason he wants to test the market. He said he also wanted to see if another team would give him a greater role than he had last season in New Orleans, where he effectively worked as a third-stringer behind Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.
"If you're a player, you want (the ball) more," McAllister said. "At the same time, it has to be in a role that I'm helping. ... It would be naive of myself to say I'm still that 25-, 30-carry type of back. It's got to be in the best interest of the team, and I guess that's where I have to find a niche."
McAllister, a Mississippi native who starred at Ole Miss, said he always would consider New Orleans home, will carry on his community-service endeavors in the region and could foresee returning to the Saints in a front-office or assistant coaching role after his playing days have ended.
He said his only remaining goal as a player is to win a Super Bowl, a consideration that likely would figure in to which team he joins.
McAllister still could be suspended four games because he was one of several players who tested positive for the banned diuretic bumetanide last season. The players said they were unaware the substance was in dietary supplements they took because it wasn't listed as an ingredient, and their lawsuit seeking to overturn the suspensions is pending in federal court.
A first-round draft pick by the Saints in 2001, McAllister also holds team records for touchdowns (55) and rushing touchdowns (49).
His last 1,000-yard season was 2006, when the Saints advanced to the NFC Championship Game. That also was the season before McAllister's second anterior cruciate ligament tear.
Saints coach Sean Payton said the decision to release McAllister was one of the most difficult he has ever been part of as a coach. Payton said he marveled at McAllister's leadership ability, toughness, work ethic and his ability to connect with everyone from top NFL executives to fans.
"For the last four or five months, when I'm out going to eat or with my family, I can't tell you how many times a fan says, 'Hey, keep Deuce. Hang on to Deuce,"' Payton said. "So that's strong. It's a strong message, and I think clearly, if you just pay attention, you appreciate and understand what this player has meant not really just on the football field but what he's meant in all other aspects."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press