“I’m still in a world of denial,” “said Andrew Lincoln tonight at the start of the New York Comic Con panel at Madison Square Garden on Saturday as The Walking Dead fans chanted his name like soccer team followers do for their favorite team. “Don’t make me cry,” the actor added to a jammed packed venue.

Just over 24 hours before the premiere of the ninth season of TWD, the seemingly last Comic Con panel on either coast that Lincoln will ever be on was a deeply emotional affair for those on stage and in the crowd. With the man who has portrayed Rick Grimes since the very beginning of the AMC zombie apocalypse series leaving Walking Dead in the next few weeks, though no specific exit episode has been identified yet.

What has also not been identified is exactly how past cast member Scott Wilson, now Star Trek Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green and current Punisher Jon Bernthal will be returning to TWD. However, new showrunner Angela Kang confirmed to NYCC that the on-screen deceased trio would be back in some form for Season 9.

That news got a big cheer but tonight’s panel was focused on Lincoln.

“Seeing everything that Andrew has done with Rick Grimes,” comic creator and TWD EP Robert Kirkman, “always made me feel like I wasn’t trying hard enough on the comics.” “It’s tough, it’s tough when anyone leaves the show,” Kirkman admitted followed by a clearly heartfelt “I love you Andy.”

I fuckin’ hated him,” said a not breaking a smile Jeffrey Dean Morgan. “No one is happier to see him go than I am,” the man who plays Grime’s villainous foe Negan. “There’s not a better partner,” The Watchmen alum declared in a more serious vein of his the actor he frequently shared scenes with since joining TWD in 2016.

Wearing the trademark Sheriff’s hat of Grimes, Kirkman and Morgan were joined on Saturday on the NYCC panel by Lincoln as well as hatted cast mates Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, and EP Kang. Executive producers Gale Anne Hurd, Greg Nicotero and Dave Alpert were in attendance as was Black Panther star and Michonne herself Danai Gurira.

Lincoln will actually be back to TWD and its crew, but now behind the camera as a director for a forthcoming episode.

“There as a point two weeks into shooting when we were doing s sequence where I woke up in a hospital corridor and Frank (Darabont, EP) sidled up to me and said ‘I think we might have something here, ‘“ Lincoln told the thousands in the venue of when he realized that TWD was something special  – and he wasn’t going to be fired.

As for another something special, at the end of the panel, it was announced that the fans in MSG wouldn’t have to wait until tomorrow to see the Season 9 opener – they played it right there to the screaming fans.

NYCC runs until tomorrow with the global debut of the new season of Doctor Who among the final panels.