CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After 8 seasons, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his retirement Tuesday night, sending shockwaves through Panther Nation.
The team posted his emotional retirement video on Twitter, where he said his decision to retire was a tough one, but he knows it is the right thing.
“It’s never the right time to step away, but now is the right time for me,” Kuechly said in a video posted online by the team. “It’s a tough decision. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think now is the right chance for me to move on. In my heart, I know it’s the right thing to do.”
Kuechly, 28, has been the face of the Panthers defense and has been one of the best linebackers to play since he was drafted in 2012.
He won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and followed that up by winning NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
He made seven Pro Bowls and was named an AP All-Pro seven times, five of which were first-team. However, he suffered three concussions during his career, which may have led to his decision.
In a statement, David Tepper said he wishes we could have had many more years with Kuechly on the field, but he respects his decision.
Tepper said in his short time with the team, he quickly recognized Kuechly was a special person and no player can replace what he brought to the Panthers.
DAVID TEPPER’S FULL STATEMENT:
“Beyond his extraordinary performance on the field, Luke has had a tremendous impact on this organization and region. In my two seasons with Luke, I quickly recognized how special of a person he is. The respect he gives and garners from others, as well as the positive impact he has on his peers is second to none. It’s obviously going to be very difficult for all of us because we know that no player can replace what he’s been for this organization for the last eight years.
His presence can’t be replicated. While I wish we could have him for many more years, he has done everything the right way and we respect the decision that he’s made. Luke is a once-in-a-generation player and someone we want every member of this organization to emulate.”
In the emotional video, Kuechly talks about why he made the decision.
He alludes to some of his long-term health concerns. Kuechly was a linebacker -- a critical player in the Panthers’ defense -- taking countless hits each game. Over the past few years, he has had a least three concussions.
On Nov. 17, 2016, Kuechly suffered a concussion after colliding with a Saints player. He left the game on a cart crying uncontrollably, a striking moment that shook the Panthers organization and players around the league and highlighted the NFL's ongoing problem with brain injuries.
He has been trying to take preventative steps such as wearing a special medical device that is designed to prevent concussions. Despite all that, he has been in good health for the last two seasons.
Kuechly fought back tears at times during his announcement. He did not specifically mention concussions but referenced the ongoing toll of the game on his body.
The decisions came as a shock to many, but Kuechly explained he felt it came at the right time for him.
“There’s only one way to play this game,” Kuechly said. “Since I was a little kid, is to play fast and play physical and play strong. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m able to do that anymore. I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision so, I thought about it for a long time and I think now is the opportunity for me to step away.”
Kuechly finishes his career with 1,092 tackles, which is the most by any player since coming into the league in 2012 as a first-round pick out of Boston College.
He helped the Panthers win three NFC South titles and reach the Super Bowl after the 2015 season.
Kuechly said after the troubling 2016 injury that he wasn’t concerned about concussions affecting his future. He suffered a third concussion in 2017.
Former NFL player Mike Dulaney said injuries often force players to take a closer look at their health and future.
He played for the Chicago Bears during the late 1990s and briefly with the Panthers.
“The contact we had back then was physical,” said Dulaney, vice president of the Carolina NFL Alumni Chapter. “We had a coach in Dave Wannstedt in Chicago who believed if you didn’t get that contact during the week, you weren’t ready to play on Sunday.”
He said he wasn’t shocked by Kuechly’s announcement Tuesday.
“A lot of guys that are in it that I know are not surprised by it,” Dulaney said.
“This goes back to Barry Sander retiring early,” Dulaney said. “Barry Sanders had a chance to shatter the rushing record and because of health concerns and being on a bad team, Barry was, like, ‘I had enough.’”
Dulaney said there's more information available now to inform players of the impact football is truly having on their bodies.
He said his career took a toll on his body.
“It wreaked havoc on my knees, my ankles, standing for three to four hours at a time,” he said about his time working after the NFL. “It was from football.”
Dulaney said the decision to step away much sooner, is now a feasible option because there is more money involved now.
“You didn’t make millions of dollars back then, during the ‘90s, during that first CBA agreement,” he said. “But with that second CBA free agency and then the TV money, it was just unbelievable how those salaries went through the roof.”
The Panthers tweeted a tribute to Kuechly, calling him the ”the face, the heart and the soul of our defense.” He was one of the most beloved players in franchise history, and his No. 59 jersey is a fixture among fans on game days.
Kuechly emphasized the strong bonds he has forged inside the locker room and on the gridiron.
“Obviously, on the field is awesome, but some of the best times of playing this game are behind the scenes in the locker rooms, in the meeting rooms, on the buses, traveling to games,” Kuechly said in the videotaped from inside the linebackers’ locker room.
He thanked former head coach Ron Rivera, former owner Jerry Richardson and Tepper, among others.
The timing of Kuechly’s retirement comes as the Panthers are going through a lot of changes. Kuechly has been a big part of the team for all eight seasons he’s been in the NFL.
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His decision comes just weeks after Tepper fired Rivera and a week after he hired new head coach Matt Rhule.
On top of that, Tepper just hired a new offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
In Kuechly’s announcement, he said his decision to retire has nothing to do with Rhule or the leadership changes. He added that the new coach is going to a fantastic job.
“It’s hard, but I hope to still be involved in some way,” Kuechly said. “This decision has nothing to do with new coaches and Coach Rhule. He’s going to do a fantastic job. His track record is proven. But for me, now is the right opportunity to move in a different direction.”
Kuechly also praised the fans.
“They've traveled when we've been good. When we haven't been great, they've been equally as supportive,” he said. “That's the best thing about this city and this town is that people love the team and people love the players.”
The legendary linebacker ended his farewell video by thanking his family, the fans and everyone in the NFL.
“Now is the time to move in a different direction," he said once again.
Luke Kuechly’s full retirement announcement:
"I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play this game since I was in fourth grade. I've been with the Panthers now for eight years. It's never the right time to step away, but now is the right time for me.
"It’s a tough decision. I’ve thought about it a lot and I think now is the right chance for me to move on. It makes me sad because I love playing this game. I’ve played it since I was a little kid. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do. The memories I have from this place and organization and playing on the field with these guys…they’ll never go away.
"Sitting right now in the linebackers room and the amount of memories I’ve had in this room alone could fill a book. These are the best times of playing. Obviously, on the field is awesome, but some of the best times of playing this game are behind the scenes in the locker rooms, in the meeting rooms, on the busses, traveling to games. You can’t replicate that anywhere else and that’s why this is so hard to do, to move on in a different direction. But in my heart, I know it’s the right thing to do. It’s hard, but that’s why you play this game to form relationships and if you form strong relationships, they never go away.
"It’s hard, but I hope to still be involved in some way. The biggest thing right now is to thank the people that helped get me there from the coaches and the players to Coach Rivera to Marty to Mr. Richardson for bringing me in and Mr. Tepper now. This decision has nothing to do with new coaches and Coach Rhule. He’s going to do a fantastic job. His track record is proven. But for me, now is the right opportunity to move in a different direction.
"There’s only one way to play this game, since I was a little kid, is to play fast and play physical and play strong. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m able to do that anymore. That’s the part that is most difficult. I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision. I’ve thought about it for a long time and I think now is an opportunity to step away with what’s going on here.
"We have a really good linebacker room, I think Shaq and those guys are going to do a tremendous job. I just want to say thank you to the coaches, the players, the support staff, the training staff. Everybody involved in this organization has been the best from top to bottom from the day I got here.
"The fans have been fantastic, they’ve supported us. They’ve traveled when we’ve been good. When we haven’t been great, they’ve been equally as supportive. That’s the best thing about this city and this town is that people love the team and people love the players. That goes a long way, because when you love the players for who they are I think it transcends the game. That’s what’s important.
“I want to thank my family. My mom and my dad, Eileen and Tom Kuechly. My two brothers, John and Henry. My girlfriend, Shannon. They’ve been with me since the beginning. They’ve been very supportive and I’m happy to share this journey with them. Thank you Panthers fans. Thank you everybody in the NFL for your constant support. Now is the time to move in a different direction.”
Kuechly has been the heart, soul and guts of the Panthers for years. He is equally loved by teammates and by fans.
Just outside Bank of America Stadium, his photo is center stage on a banner. It is a huge loss that he is leaving the team.
Shortly after he announced his retirement, dozens of his teammates, coaches and Charlotte community members took to social media to honor and share memories of their time with Kuechly, on and off the field.
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