Luke Kuechly’s words rolled off his lips at a measured clip, and almost monotone.
“It’s never the right time to step away,” the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker said early in the video message released for him by the Carolina Panthers late Tuesday night. “But now is the right time for me.”
One of the NFL’s best inside linebackers — scratch that. One of the NFL’s best defensive players, period, is walking away from the game. At the age of 28. And with two years and more than $20 million remaining on his contract.
The news brought with it initial surprise. But as Kuechly’s message to the world continued, it was evident how well thought-out a decision he was making. As teammates and opponents alike flooded social media with expressions of respect and well wishes for the eight-year veteran, it was evident, they got it.
Good-byes are never easy, especially when they seem premature. But as Kuechly joins Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck to become the third elite-level player in the last year to retire before his 30th birthday, his decision featured a large degree of normalcy as well.
In this 100th season of the National Football League, the landscape continues to change.
Today’s NFL players are better educated on injury risks, more business savvy and financially secure, and less beholden to the game.
They still love pro football. That’s for sure, especially hearing Kuechly talk.
“It makes me sad because I’ve played this game since I was a little kid and it’s my favorite thing in the world to do,” he said, and at one point he did fight back tears.
But Kuechly, while valuing the privilege of playing his boyhood game at the highest level, values health and long-term quality of life even more.
At least three concussions and two shoulder surgeries since 2015 have taken their toll on his body and his mind. And despite coming off of another 16-game, 100-plus-tackle season that saw him earn Pro Bowl and second-team all-pro honors, the linebacker didn’t feel like he could continue to adequately devote himself to the sport.
“There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid — play fast, play physical and play strong,” he said. “And at this point I don’t know if I am able to do that anymore.”
And so, he’s walking away.
These days we talk about the player empowerment era because of the way NFL stars have begun carrying themselves as businessmen. Some hold out for contracts that offer greater financial security. In some cases, they force their ways out of bad situations and into more favorable and competitive working environments.