In a surprising move that no one saw coming, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his retirement at the age of 28 years old. The announcement comes on the heels of the Panthers announcing Matt Rhule as the new head coach, who took over for Ron Rivera, the man who drafted Keuchly back in 2012. The Panthers will now look ahead to the 2020 season looking to fill the void left by Keuchly.

“I think now is the right chance for me to move on,” Kuechly said in a video posted on the Panthers website. “It makes me sad because I love playing this game, I’ve played it since I was a kid. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do. The memories I have from this place and this organization and being on the field with these guys – they’ll never go away.

Note: The full transcript of Kuechly’s announcement is at the end of the post, courtesy of the Panthers organization.

“In my heart I know it’s the right thing to do… There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid – play fast, play physical and play strong. And at this point I don’t know if I am able to do that anymore.”

Owner David Tepper praised Kuechly for his extraordinary performance on the field.

“Beyond his extraordinary performance on the field, Luke has had a tremendous impact on this organization and region,” Tepper said. “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.”

Keuchly selected by the Panthers in the 2012 NFL Draft

Kuechly entered the NFL after being selected ninth overall in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Panthers. He was described by many draft pundits as someone who possesses rare pass coverage abilities. This, of course, helped raise his draft stock because of his ability to stay on the field for all three downs.

It didn’t take long for Kuechly to make an impact in his rookie season. After starting the season as outside linebacker, he moved inside once veteran Jon Beason missed several games due to an injury. From there, Kuechly never looked back. At the end of the season, he was named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and received the Defensive Rookie of the Year award from Pro Football Weekly. He was also named the 79th best player on the NFL Top 100 list.

In 2013, Kuechly continued to impress. In fact, he recorded 26 tackles in a game against the New Orleans Saints. This was a new team record and NFL single-game record. That season, he was selected to the Pro Bowl and was named to the 2013 All-Pro Team.

He was also recognized as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press, joining Lawrence Taylor as the only players in NFL history to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in successive years. When the NFL Top 100 list was revealed, he was the 15th best player in the NFL.

The start of the concussions

Kuechly would continue to dominate for several years. But in 2016, he suffered a concussion in Week 11, which kept him out for the rest of the season. Little did we know that this would soon become a major concern for what some called the best middle linebacker in the NFL.

That’s because he suffered another concussion several weeks after the 2017 season-opener. This would be his third concussion in as many seasons and the lingering effects is what many suspect led to Kuechly’s sudden retirement. He would return a few weeks later and finished the season strong, earning First Team All-Pro honors for the fourth time. 

But, the damage was likely done. Shortly after his third concussion, Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz told Sports Illustrated that suffering three concussions in three years would put anyone in a bad situation.

“If Luke Kuechly has in fact suffered a concussion, then a third in three years puts him into a precarious situation,” Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz told SI. “What the research has taught us is that once you have had three concussions, especially over a relatively short period of time, you are at risk for a slower recovery and an increased risk for subsequent concussions.”

Keuchly would return in 2018 and play in all 16 games. He also had a strong season in 2019, and reached a milestone with 1,000 career tackles, becoming the first first player in NFL history to do so in his first eight seasons and the fastest to reach the mark in only 107 games.

Keuchly’s legacy in Panthers franchise history

Newly retired, Keuchly will go down as one of the best players in Panthers franchise history, even though he only played for eight seasons in the NFL. Some say he may be known as one of the better linebackers in NFL history.

But because of the concussions he suffered and how it played a key role in forcing him to retire at such a young age, he will be referred to as a case study for just how dangerous the game can be. However, there is no denying that every time he stepped on the field, he made his impact known.

His final resume includes seven Pro Bowl nods, seven AP All-Pro selections with five on the first team, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award and the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He also adds 1,092 tackles, 18 interceptions, and 75 tackles for a loss.

Full transcript of Luke Kuechly’s 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.”