Luke Kuechly is the one retiring from the Panthers, so why are we the ones feeling so bad?

January 15, 2020
Scott Fowler-The Charlotte Observer

Oh, Luke.

I’m so sorry. For you, and for us.

No one has ever loved football more than Luke Kuechly, the beloved Carolina Panthers linebacker who dropped the bombshell Tuesday that he was retiring at age 28.

Kuechly has mixed feelings about leaving football — his startling but vague retirement video, aired by the Panthers, makes that clear.

“I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision,” Kuechly said at one point, taking a deep breath and fighting back tears. He filmed the 3-minute, 35-second video while sitting in the linebackers meeting room at Bank of America Stadium, a place where he basically set up a second home from the time the Panthers drafted him No. 9 overall in 2012.

If Kuechly wants to leave for the sake of his long-term health — and surely that’s the reason — that’s his prerogative. It’s his brain. His body. But I feel bad for him, in much the way I felt bad for Dan Morgan — who was Luke Kuechly in Charlotte before Kuechly ever got here.

Morgan made the Pro Bowl, played in a Super Bowl and left the game early, too, because of health and concussion problems that were even more severe than Kuechly’s.

But Morgan has since carved out a fine career as an NFL front-office man. I could see Kuechly doing the same thing, or coaching in the NFL like Sam Mills did following his own successful career.

But at age 28?! Kuechly is gone from the field? Forever?! He’s leaving more than $20 million on the table that he would have earned had he fulfilled his contract through the 2021 season?!

“In my heart, I know it’s the right thing to do,” Kuechly said.

I don’t just feel bad for Kuechly, though. I feel bad for me. I feel bad for you. Watching Kuechly was a singular pleasure.

This was the guy Cam Newton nicknamed “Captain America.” This was Saint Luke. He was nice to children. Old ladies had a crush on him. Guys wanted to take him out for a beer. He made funny commercials for CPI. And he was so, so good at his job.

Yes, I get it. Kuechly can leave the sport whenever he wants.

But let me have a second to recalibrate the world. Because a Panthers team without Kuechly sprinting around on defense, calling out the other teams’ plays before they are run, sending the stadium into spasms of “L-u-u-u-k-e” with every tackle — it’s hard to fathom. And it’s a grayer world, too.

Kuechly, who played all eight of his NFL seasons with Carolina, had three concussions in a 26-month period from 2015-17, missing 10 games.

There was a time, after that second concussion and again after the third, that I thought Kuechly might indeed retire in his 20s. There was speculation that he would.

If you remember, he cried uncontrollably and had trouble catching his breath while being carted off the field after his second reported NFL concussion in 2016. Those images embedded themselves into the minds of millions during a nationally televised game vs. New Orleans.

“He was sobbing out on the field,” NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth said on-air at the time. “I don’t know what’s going on here. … Oh my gosh! I mean nobody loves the game of football and is loved by this city and is loved by his teammates more than that guy!”

But Kuechly came back and played full seasons in 2018 and 2019. The Panthers didn’t make the playoffs in either season, and he had obviously lost a step this year and missed a few more tackles than he usually would. He was also hampered (although he never said so himself) by Carolina’s switch to a base 3-4 defense.

But even at one step slower, Kuechly was two steps faster than the average NFL linebacker. He just made the Pro Bowl for the seventh straight year and started all 16 games with no reported concussions. Opposing coaches still feared him, and with good reason. Since Kuechly entered the NFL in 2012, he’s first among all linebackers in tackles, interceptions and pass breakups.

So why now?

“There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid,” Kuechly said in the video. “To play fast, to play physical and to play strong. And at this point, I don’t know if I’m able to do that anymore, and that’s the part that is the most difficult.”

We can talk about how this affects the Panthers as a team under new coach Matt Rhule (who Kuechly insisted in the video had nothing to do with this) on another day. There’s plenty of time for that.

For now, though, can we just appreciate Kuechly a little bit?

He entered the league with a splash, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. The chant of “L-u-u-u-k-e!” became so pervasive after a Kuechly tackle that I have heard it from Panthers fans everywhere from Charlotte to Atlanta to London. And what about his interceptions? The back-to-back ones against Dallas and Tony Romo on Thanksgiving Day and the pick-six against Russell Wilson and Seattle in the 2015 playoffs are the ones I remember most vividly, but there were plenty more.

Kuechly was the consummate middle linebacker and the consummate teammate, and for awhile with Thomas Davis he combined to form the NFL’s consummate linebacker tandem. Kuechly was unbelievably popular thanks to his ridiculously good play and his “aw-shucks” handsomeness. During the Panthers’ Super Bowl season, Kuechly’s jersey was at one point selling more than any NFL player in America except for Tom Brady (Cam Newton, in the midst of an NFL Most Valuable Player season at the time, was fifth).

And now Kuechly is leaving. There’s always a potential for him to rescind his retirement, I don’t think he will.

Kuechly is steadfast in what he believes, and willing to do things that are a bit off the beaten path. He went to Boston College. He turned down an all-expenses-paid trip to New York when he was certain to be a first-round draft pick to stay home and watch the draft on TV with his family and friends in Cincinnati.

If this is what Kuechly wants, more power to him. But his retirement calls into question the long-term survival of football, which in August saw the early retirement of Andrew Luck, another high-profile star, at age 29, due to him getting tired of always having to rehab one injury or another. And there have been other stars who have retired in recent years with seemingly plenty left in the tank: Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Willis and Calvin Johnson, to name a few.

I did a story recently on a former Panther named Winslow Oliver, now experiencing memory loss and pre-dementia at age 46. Oliver had at least 10 concussions in his NFL career, and they weren’t monitored as carefully as Kuechly’s; the concussion protocol didn’t exist back then.

As part of that story, I spoke with Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the world’s foremost experts on concussions. Cantu had recently co-authored an academic paper which came to the conclusion that for every single year of playing football, a person’s risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the devastating neuro-degenerative disease — increases by 30 percent. The study’s basis was an analysis of the brains of 266 deceased former amateur and pro football players.

Kuechly has been playing football since the fourth grade. His risk of CTE — which can’t, at this point, be detected in the living — is high. But it has been high for years. Why now?

He’ll surely explain more about his decision in future days. It’s his brain. His life. His choice.

I just feel sorry for him. I can’t think of a single football player who will miss playing more.

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