Aaron Stecker admits he was taking a gamble when he decided to transfer from the University of Wisconsin football program to Western Illinois 13 years ago.
The payout was enormous, with Stecker making a good enough impression in his two years with the Leathernecks to lead to an 11-year NFL career that ended this offseason.
The 34-year-old Stecker, an Ashwaubenon native who lives in Middleton, confirmed Thursday he has decided to retire.
Stecker -- who transferred from UW after the 1996 season when Ron Dayne emerged as the Badgers' featured back to begin a historic four-year run -- put together a steady pro career that included a Super Bowl title in 2003 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's funny how those types of things work, isn't it?" said Stecker, who is represented by Madison-based agent Ron Slavin of BTI Sports Advisors. "There was motivation."
After rushing for 626 yards and eight touchdowns and also returning a kick and a punt for a touchdown in his two years in Madison, Stecker ran for 3,799 yards and 41 touchdowns for Western Illinois. He left the school as its all-time leading rusher, though his mark has since been surpassed.
Stecker, who got his start in the NFL in training camp with the Chicago Bears in 1999 and was Offensive Most Valuable Player of NFL Europe in 2000 with the Scottish Claymores, said he had a feeling last season that he was approaching the end.
After missing a good chunk of the 2008 season with the New Orleans Saints, he said he wanted to prove to himself that he could still play and endure the rigors of an NFL season.
He ended up signing with the Atlanta Falcons midway through the year and saw spot duty in nine games.
"I felt like I could play a couple more years, but ... to me it just felt like it was time. I wasn't playing up to the level that I felt that I was capable of playing," he said.
"And then once you get that far, then there's other things -- injuries, and I've been blessed with not having any serious, like knee injuries or neck injuries or anything. If I played one more year, what would I think of myself if I did suffer one of those injuries?"
Stecker, who finished his career with 386 carries for 1,526 rushing yards and 166 catches for 1,175 yards while also frequently working as a kick returner, said he wasn't sure what his future holds. He's contemplated going into coaching.
At the moment, he's simply planning on relaxing with his wife Kara (a Janesville native), daughter Skylar and son Dorsett.
"As a kid, you dream of playing a sport, and I accomplished that," he said. "That was my dream, so now that I'm done with that at a young age, now I kind of have to dream of something else."
Stecker said the Green Bay Packers called him midway through last season and were interested in bringing him in for a workout, but it was the same day he signed with Atlanta.
He said playing for his hometown team would have been "the ultimate closure to my career."
"But I can't complain," Stecker continued. "I had 11 years with a Super Bowl ring. I'll take it."