For something that so many saw coming so long ago, news that the Green Bay Packers had waived veteran wide receiver Antonio Freeman caused a fair share of surprise throughout the Packers locker room Monday.
It wasn't that players couldn't understand why Freeman and the Packers couldn't come to terms on a new contract -- that's just business in the NFL -- it's simply that even into the final hour, few players could truly imagine Freeman wearing any other uniform than that of the Green and Gold.
"I talked to him a couple of days ago and he didn't really say anything that he was going to be released or anything was going to happen," said Donald Driver, who with three NFL seasons under his belt now has the longest Packers tenure of any receiver on the squad. "I was thinking that he would be back, maybe not this camp, but maybe training camp. We're going to miss him."
Of the Packers' currently expanded preseason roster, only 10 players have been in the league longer than Freeman and only five -- Gilbert Brown, LeRoy Butler, Earl Dotson, Brett Favre and Frank Winters -- know of life in Titletown prior to his being drafted out of Virginia Tech in 1993.
Over the years, Freeman had become an NFL rarity: a familiar face in one uniform in the age of free agency and the salary cap. That he was paired with another such player in Favre opened the door for legendary numbers.
Ranked fifth in NFL history, no two active players have combined for more touchdowns than Freeman and Favre, at 57. And only Don Hutson (99) and Sterling Sharpe (65) made more scoring grabs in a Packers uniform than Freeman.
"I'm going to miss him," said offensive guard Marco Rivera, himself approaching his seventh professional season. "He's been a part of this team since I've been here and he's one of the big reasons that we won the Super Bowl in 1996 and got back in 1997.
"He's going to do what's best for him and we've got to accept that. We'd love to have him, but it's not in the cards right now. You've got to look forward and we've got some new young talent this year, some veteran talent coming in here also, so I feel pretty good about what we have right now."
Looking forward has been what the Packers have done all offseason, first completing a multi-clause deal to acquire seventh-year player Terry Glenn from the New England Patriots, then offering multiple draft picks to the Seattle Seahawks to move up in the 2002 NFL Draft and claim Florida State's Javon Walker with the 20th overall selection.
With Bill Schroeder already departed via free agency and Freeman now released, the Packers know they are without their second and third leading receivers from 2001, but they also hope that they have taken positive steps to see that 2002's leading receiver is not halfback Ahman Green, as has been the case two years running.
As Favre noted during the team's April mini-camp, the talent level in Green Bay's receiving corps has risen since the 2001 season ended in St. Louis, not only with the additions of Glenn and Walker, but also with the maturation of Charles Lee and Robert Ferguson.
Still, there's something to be said for a friendly face. For all the talent at his disposal, Favre is now challenged to connect with receivers who might have more burning speed than the 30-year-old Freeman, but certainly don't have the same silent chemistry.
"He has done a lot for this program whether people believe it or not," Favre said of Freeman back in April. "He was a big-play guy, he showed that in the playoffs . . .
"(He was) by far one of the toughest guys I've played with. How many times have we seen that guy get cold-cocked? Usually I was the one who caused it, but he always came back."
And so, too, the Packers now must come back and begin a new era without the familiar presence of No. 86. But there seemed to be no hard feelings in the Packers locker room, nor doubts that the organization hasn't stepped in the right direction, even if that means stepping away from Freeman -- the team and the player reportedly parting under mutual terms.
"The older you get, you realize that these things happen and that's part of the game," Rivera said. "It's part of the business and you learn to accept it . . .
"We have some great young talent (at wide receiver). We got Terry Glenn this year, Ferguson has been impressive in practice, so we're just excited to see what those guys can do."
After all, to start a new era, another has to end.