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My first cap for the All Blacks was against Wales in 2003.

I was only 21, basically still a kid, and one of the things I remember most was sitting at my locker before the game, just looking around wide-eyed.

Those posters that covered my walls growing up? They had come to life. All the players surrounding me were guys I had absolutely worshipped growing up. Honestly, it felt like an out-of-body experience. Of course, I was trying to get my head right for the match, but I was also just amazed to be sitting there among those legends. Feeling almost like, Who let me in here?

All that sort of carried over to the field when I heard the roar of the crowd and we did the haka. It was all surreal. But then, during that game, something happened. A switch flipped. And I stopped thinking about how happy I was to be there and what a dream it was to earn a cap for the All Blacks. Instead, all I could think about was I want to do this again. And again. And again.

Since I first picked up a ball, rugby has always been what I wanted to do. I just love it. I love everything about it. And for the majority of my life, it’s been my biggest focus. It has required a ton of sacrifices. To dedicate your life to a sport this physical asks a ton out of your body. I pushed mine further than I ever thought I could, but with the support of my family and treatment from world-class training and medical staff, I made it through.

If you told me a year before the 2015 World Cup — when I had several injuries, my form was suffering and I had serious doubts that I’d make the squad — that I would compete for another half a decade until the age of 38 and win championships on three different continents, there’s no chance I would have believed you. I just wouldn’t be able to imagine that I was going to be that fortunate.

I was trying to get my head right for the match, but I was also just amazed to be sitting there among those legends. - Dan Carter

The physical pains took their toll, and I still feel plenty of them when I wake up in the morning, but today I’m healthy and healed. The time I’ve sacrificed away from my family, though, I know that’s something I can’t get back. After our season was canceled in Japan, and I returned home to New Zealand to be with my family, I realized that I never wanted to leave them again. And with our fourth child now on the way, I know I just have too many future memories with the people most important in my life that I can’t afford to miss.

My wife, Honor, still doesn’t really believe I’m retiring. More than anyone else, she’s the reason I’ve been able to play as long as I have. As I’ve been continuing to chase the dreams I had since I was a child, she’s been my rock. But I’m ready for what’s next after rugby. Being able to not just say that, but to truly feel it, is a privilege. Ultimately, getting to leave your sport on your own terms is all you can really hope for as an athlete.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t think I’ll miss playing.

Being able to go on the pitch, do the thing I love most in the world and make people happy in the process was always a thrill for me. I never took it for granted. And it’s what I’m truly going to miss the most.

I always knew my career wasn’t going to last forever. This game is so much bigger than any one player. Ultimately, we’re just custodians, and can only hope to leave the game in better shape than we found it.

My greatest hope is that maybe there was at least one person out there who, while watching me play, might have had a little spark ignited inside of them. And maybe that spark motivated them to dedicate themselves to their own impossible dream.

And maybe, if they put their full hearts and focus into it, they could also learn that their impossible dreams, as it turns out, aren’t so impossible after all.