Last night, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Carolina Panthers, 28-23. More importantly, Luke Kuechly, the Panthers’ defensive heart and soul, did not play the second half. For the second time in less than a year, a concussion could potentially rob Kuechly of game action. With that said, considering the severity of his 2016 head trauma, questions begin to arise about Kuechly’s football future.
On the field, no middle linebacker plays with the intellect and instincts better than Kuechly. He is a guaranteed a hundred tackles, near double-digit pass breakups and a general feel for game tempo. His mere presence in the Carolina defense elevates the level of play of everyone around him. Teammates feed off his intensity and meticulous attention to detail. Opponents, fans, and teammates alike praise his ability to control a scheme and interject himself into the action. For a 26-year old, he demands excellence and displays consistent elite level skill.
Granted, the Carolina Panthers compensate Kuechly well. Over six seasons, Kuechly brought home $45,236,661. If Kuechly manages his money the way he calls plays, then he’s set for life. As a result, the question of why keep playing, if the money is there already? Theoretically, Kuechly could walk away with enough money to live on for 20 lifetimes right now. Looking at his contract, the Panthers owe him another 40 million, if he plays out the life of his deal. When it comes to the careers of NFL players, I like the phrase ” get in, get paid well, get out”
Two major (they all are) head traumatic in less than a year should worry Kuechly. As mentioned, he refuses to alter his approach and attacking style, rightfully so. Overthinking and slowing up during a game leads to injury. On the other hand, at 26, millions banked, just entering his prime, how much longer should Kuechly pad up for the Panthers? No one but Kuechly can answer that, but last night’s injury serves as a stark reminder of how fleeting NFL life can be. I am not here to tell a player when it’s time to hang up the cleats, but the question of how much longer remains valid.
The days of the fifteen plus year career need to end, unless you are a protected species like the quarterback. Everyone else must look into the mirror and realize the finite number of hits the human body, more specifically the head can endure. Again, Kuechly’s decision on how long his career lasts is his. Not ours.
Football fans, especially the Panthers’ faithful love and respect Luke Kuechly, the player. It’s Luke Kuechly, the human being that requires more consideration. Fifteen years from now, No one wants to turn on a sports news show and see Kuechly discussing his physical limitations and lamenting playing too long. Yet, for many NFL players, an uncertain future remains an ugly and tragic fact of life. Granted, advancements in medical testing and the NFL finally acknowledging the severity of head trauma helps, but what damage has been done? The brain is not a muscle to be built after injury. It is a fatty mass, consisting of seventy percent water.
As a Raiders fan, brain injury hits home for me. One of the unsung Raiders now sits in a chair, unable to speak or take care of himself. Fullback Steve Smith’s job was to open holes for Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson. Smith toiled in anonymity while others grabbed glory. Yet, he never complained. After his retirement, doctors diagnosed Smith with ALS. Studies show that football players succumb to ALS at a much higher rate than regular citizens.
Additionally, Kuechly’s production reminds me of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. If you look at Seau’s first few years and match them to Kuechly, the numbers balance. As a Raiders fan, Seau, along with Derrick Thomas and Dennis Smith were the reoccurring nightmares. Like Kuechly, Seau’s fearless passion for the game terrorized offenses for years.
Sadly, Junior Seau took his own life on May 2, 2012. With a single gunshot to the chest, as to allow post-mortem brain research, Seau became a tragic figure in the sport we all love.
As stated, his football career is ultimately Luke Kuechly’s decision and none of ours. Yet, as people, we should endeavor to wish the best for any athlete that suits up and plays the game we adore. If independent doctors tell Kuechly to not worry, enjoy the rest of his contract, which elapses in 2021. Then, at age 30, with 85 million earned, Kuechly could examine his future further. Football remains a game of sharp decisions. This one is for Luke to make.