10-21-02, 5:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The aches and pains have caught up to Vaughn Booker and the Bengals defensive end knows this season might very well be his last. With a fairly serious knee sprain keeping him out of at least the next three games, Booker knows retirement is staring at him.
"Thirty-five years old," said a reflective Booker Monday. "That ain't young for any body."
"I hate to say anything too early because the offseason is so long and you feel totally different when the season starts again," Booker said. Sometimes they say, 'He's hell when he's well, but he's always hurt.' I guess that could sum up the last couple of years of my career. I had a good career, good experience. I was glad to come home and play. I know realistically it has to end sometime."
Booker, who turns 35 in February and has two years left on his contract, is holding off on saying anything definitive until he sees how his knee bounces back. But if he retires, that would certainly re-order the Bengals' needs in free agency and the draft.
Booker sprained the medial collateral ligament last week against the Steelers, but the injury is
complicated by balky ankles that kept him out of the Cleveland and Tampa Bay games.
"I've got three injuries right now and the knee is the worst," Booker said. "I knew the minute I did it, it was bad. It was a relief because I thought it might tear."
That has been the norm since Booker, out of Taft High School and the University of Cincinnati, signed with his hometown team after stints with Kansas City and Green Bay before the 2000 season. He missed seven games that season because of a fainting spell and arthroscopic knee surgery. A thigh bruise and right ankle sprain took him out of two games last year. He's already missed 11 games in Cincinnati after missing 10 the previous six seasons.
Booker has never been mistaken for a workout warrior and he has been candid down through the years about his lack of a consistent regimen. But he also has a reputation for showing up and playing hard and well on Sundays. He has just 1.5 sacks in 27 games in Cincinnati, but he has been playing the run-stopping end.
"I'm in football shape," Booker said. "I'm not going to be Chad Johnson skinny or Corey Dillon ripped up. I'm in good enough shape to do my job. It's not a question of me being winded. Unless we're on the field for a long period of time, I don't get tired during a game."
The Bengals have been filling in for Booker with Bernard Whittington and Eric Ogbogu, but Ogbogu, a free-agent pickup from the Jets, hasn't been right since he injured his calf in training camp and has been inactive for four games.
Booker, in three playoff games with the Chiefs and one with the Packers, never dreamed this year would come down to an injury-plagued stint on an 0-6 team. With the No. 9 defense in the NFL returning intact, Booker figured he'd be basing his future on other things.
"I just knew we were going to come back on the same page and grow with this thing and then maybe at the end of the season when the retirement question came up and I was feeling good and we were in the playoffs," Booker said. "That was my goal this year. Let's get to the playoffs. Once you get to the playoffs, it's a whole new season. Anything goes. That's what I'm used. And take it as far as possible."
Booker admits, "retirement is part of my future," but he doesn't want to say so just yet because, "once you do it, it's forever." But there's no question he wants it to be on his terms.
"I'd rather have retirement than, 'We got to let you go.' I don't want to end my career like that," Booker said.