Just a freshman, Kuechly registered 19 tackles (eight solo) and 2.5 tackles for loss that day. I saw him in person the next year at Duke. Kuechly was somehow even more laughably dominant that day, collecting 23 tackles (17!!! solo) and a forced fumble. He was less linebacker than tsunami.
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For his college career, Kuechly collected 532 tackles in 38 games, a preposterous average of 14 per game. When the Panthers drafted him 9th overall in 2012, there was absolutely zero doubt he would immediately become the linchpin of the Carolina defense. He was everything a team could hope for, impossibly talented, driven to improve and willing to do whatever it took with his body and mind to succeed.
After seven seasons of dominance as the pre-eminent middle linebacker in the NFL, Kuechly's performance slipped noticeably last season. In the course of sacrificing himself to the game, his body and his brain had been battered routinely and repetitively. Once fearless, Kuechly began to flinch.
There were so many iconic plays over the years - the tackles of course, always the tackles - but also his nose for the football. Huge interception returns against Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and then versus the Seahawks and Cardinals to help the Panthers into the Super Bowl.
There were just as many scares along the way. None more so than that Thursday in 2016 vs the Saints. After taking a hit to the jaw and chest while corralling a New Orleans running back, Kuechly went down and stayed down. That was alarming enough, but when they loaded him on to the cart to leave the field, things got downright frightening. Kuechly's eyes looked filled with terror, like he recognized something was very wrong. Tears started down his cheeks. Watching at work, worry wasn't a strong enough word. I felt grave concern for his well-being.
Kuechly eventually returned to action of course. He always did. There were more concussions. That's why, at Training Camp in 2017, when he was asked about alarming new concussion research findings, it seemed very odd that he seemed to brush the information off. He was a football player and he'd made a contract with the game wherein that sort of thing just came with the territory. I thought at the time he was trying to bury his head in the sand.
Two seasons later, he clearly had come to a different mind about these things. While his body is certainly not the machine it was once, Kuechly came to realize that his brain wasn't going to last either if he kept at it. In his mind, there's only one way to play the game and that's like a rocket ship. He couldn't in good conscience do that anymore. The risks had come to outweigh the rewards.
“In my heart, I know it’s the right thing to do.” pic.twitter.com/mSDyJ0iEMw— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 15, 2020
The pain was evident in Kuechly's video announcement. Football has been his life. The games, but also the routines, the rhythms and the world of the team. Time spent behind closed doors doing the kind of bonding that can't ever be replaced. He doesn't want to leave that behind, but he knew he had to.
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As much as we'll all miss watching Kuechly play, there are things far more important at stake. At just 28 years old, his entire life remains. Family, friends and undoubtedly football in some capacity. By making this decision, he's decided that enjoying all those things for several decades more is more important than enjoying an NFL career for a couple more years. It's undoubtedly the right choice.