January 23, 2020
The Mount Airy News (Mount Airy, NC)
Last week I was saddened to hear the news that Luke Kuechly had retired.
I know a lot of you don’t care about my football posts, but here is a topic you should care about.
Luke Kuechly played arguably the most volent position on the field (middle linebacker) and not surprisingly suffered multiple head injuries as a result of collisions.
His job on every single play was to try to figure out where the ball was going, get there and put the man with the ball on the ground. In his eight years in the league, no one did it better. But there was a price.
Tony Romo, a retired quarterback now calling games, said he hated playing against Kuechly because he was so smart he would yell out the name of the play right before the Cowboys snapped the ball. Kuechly knew his oppponents so well that he could decipher what they were about to do like he was clairvoyant.
Now imagine a guy who could do something like that being “punch drunk” as the old boxing phrase goes. Or in more modern terms, imagine a smart, friendly fan favorite of a player — one that Cam Newton calls Captain America after the Marvel superhero — suffering from early-onset dementia from repeated blows to the helmet.
In 2016 Kuechly was about to make a tackle when he said he slipped and his head came down. He hit a Jaguar player with the top of his head rather than keeping his head up and out of the way. That was his first documented concussion.
He took time off and came back, but then a 300-pound lineman tried to knock him back with a forearm to the shoulder that instead glanced off and caught Kuechly on the left side of the helmet. Then as the two men fell to the ground, the big guy’s arm drove into Kuechly’s helmet a second time.
The 25-year-old’s brain was so shaken up that he sat on the field and started crying.
Retired NFL player/TV analyst Michael Strahan said he saw this once in his playing days where the man was bawling on the sidelines and couldn’t stop himself because of the trauma to some certain area of the brain. Strahan was so embarrassed for the player that he draped a towel over the guy’s head so the cameras wouldn’t catch him crying.
The next season, Kuechly, now 26, was making a tackle on a running back, who ran straight into his chest with his helmet coming up right into Kuechly’s face mask. Kuechly was jolted backward by the hit, then to make matters worse, teammate Thomas Davis came rushing over to help and struck Kuechly in the back of the head, sending the brain forward in a whiplash effect.
His third concussion in 26 months.
“What the research has taught us is that once you have had three concussions, especially over a relatively short period of time, you are at risk for a slower recovery and an increased risk for subsequent concussions,” Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz told Sports Illustrated in a story on Kuechly after that third concussion.
Guskiewicz is a neuroscientist who serves as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill and has also served on the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee.
“More worrisome is that our studies at UNC’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes have shown that former professional players with three-plus concussions are at an increased risk for depression and mild cognitive impairment later in life,” he stated.
The doctor said the Panthers did what they could to manage his care and take a conservative approach to his first two reported concussions. On the first injury, Kuechly stayed out for three games. After the second one, Kuechly was cleared to play by doctors after three games, but the team went ahead and rested him for another three games at the end of the season.
Some medical professionals at the time of the second concussion questioned the NFL for having games on Thursdays.
It is hard enough to be involved in dozens of violent collisions every Sunday as a middle linebacker, but at least the player has six days before the next game. With the Panthers playing the Eagles on Thursday night, Kuechly only rested three days from the prior game before getting hurt.
Robert Stern, a neuroscientist over Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, has stated publicly that a concussion itself isn’t that awful. The brain can recover if given time to fully heal. The problem comes when the injury isn’t diagnosed properly or when doctors clear a player to return too soon.
If the brain is still trying to heal when new trauma occurs, that is when things magnify. This new trauma doesn’t even have to be a new concussion. If Kuechly or another defender is making a textbook-perfect tackle, there is still some jarring to the head. It isn’t a big deal to a healthy player, but someone who is still recovering suffers worse.
Steve Wilks, who spent 2018 as the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach, was the defensive coordinator for one year in Carolina after years as the defensive backs specialist. When Kuechly suffered that third concussion in 2017, Wilks would later say to reporters that the linebacker was ““perfectly fine in the conversation I had.”
Kuechly would only miss one game in 2017, a far cry from the conservative approach in 2016.
So if Kuechly’s last diagnosed concussion was 2017, why is he retiring now? Well, can we be positive that this is the case? How do we know that the LB hasn’t had one or two that weren’t severe enough to register as a concussion?
Think of wind damage. The slowest tornado on the Fujita scale is F-0. The speeds of this twister are only 40-72 mph. Heck we have wind gusts at Groundhog Mountain that fast all the time, but they aren’t called tornados. That doesn’t mean there aren’t trees falling in roadways and shingles ripped off roofs.
Why shouldn’t a man worth millions quit now before he gets any worse and enjoy his life? The Panthers are starting a rebuilding so it’s not like he could hold out for another Super Bowl appearance.
“Life is a lot longer than a game. This is only a small stretch,” said Strahan.
According to announced contracts, Kuechly’s gross income for his eight years in the league is a whopping $63.8 million. Sure, if he came back this fall, his contract would go up to $10.8 million, but what good is the money if he can’t live to appreciate it?
The only question I have is: Should he have retired after 2017? In 10-20 years will we learn that Kuechly waited too long even at 28 to retire and that he suffers from CTE? Only time will tell.