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Luke Kuechly Joins Esteemed Company As an NFL Star Who Retired Young

The Panthers linebacker was one of the best defensive players of the past decade, despite playing a position that was made even more difficult by the league’s passing boom. He retired on Tuesday at 28, leaving behind a Hall of Fame career and joining a growing list of star players who left the game early.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Luke Kuechly is going to make the Hall of Fame. He leads all players in tackles and all linebackers in interceptions and pass breakups since he entered the league in 2012. The game got faster, and he got faster with it. Modern football, on the field, has made it easier than ever to pass over the middle of the field because of rule changes, new offensive philosophies, and better athletes. Kuechly was one of the few forces in the past decade that made it much harder.

Linebackers were supposed to lose relevance in this era, but players like Kuechly ensured the position actually evolved. He is Pro Football Focus’s most valuable linebacker since 2006. Bruce Feldman once said that college recruiters missed on Kuechly because he wore glasses. They did not notice he was a badass. On Tuesday, Kuechly retired at 28 years old.

Modern football, off the field, has come to feature something else Kuechly will now be a part of: the superstar who walked away. Since the beginning of last year, the sport has lost Rob Gronkowski, Andrew Luck, and Kuechly. Two other linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who combined for nine first-team All-Pro appearances between them, hung it up in the past five years, out of the league before age 30. Receiver Calvin Johnson left at 30 after putting up over 1,200 yards the previous season. This is not unprecedented—Jim Brown and Barry Sanders were gone from football by 31 in previous decades, and each easily cleared the bar for Canton—but the past half-decade has brought a concentration of stars who’ve bailed early.

Kuechly announced his decision in an emotional video on the Panthers’ team Twitter account, from the team’s linebackers meeting room. “There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid,” he said. “It’s to play fast and physical and play strong and at this point, I don’t know if I’m able to do that anymore.” He started to tear up. “That’s the part that is the most difficult,” he said. That, of course, is the heart of the matter. Kuechly did play a fast, physical, and strong brand of football, which is why he was one of the best players of his generation. It is also, in a sport in which speed and collision impact are increasing constantly, a hard thing to be good at while staying healthy. He added that he wants to continue playing but doesn’t think it’s the right decision to do so. He’s suffered at least three concussions, including one of the scariest moments in recent memory: Kuechly crying on national television after suffering a concussion against the Saints in 2016.

To paint all of these early departures with a broad brush is misguided: The injuries that kept Luck on the sideline before his retirement weren’t concussions, making his situation different than Kuechly’s. Luck said he simply didn’t want to go through another grueling rehabilitation process before this season. The injuries that sent Willis to injured reserve, ending his final NFL season in 2014, were nagging toe and foot injuries. “When you don’t have no feet, that’s what has made me what I am,” said Willis, who made $42 million in his career. Johnson said he couldn’t put the effort in that he used to, and later said he’d had his “fair share” of concussions. The through line is that these were thoughtful players who’d made money on a second contract and decided they couldn’t continue. Kuechly, as a nonquarterback, didn’t get as many dollars as fellow 2012 draftee Luck (who made over $100 million in his career), but $63 million in eight seasons is enough to step away with considerable comfort. Kuechly said in the video that he wanted to remain in the game in some capacity, and having talked to him a handful of times, I expect that he’ll be good at whatever he’d like to do, be it coaching, front office work, or as a thoughtful media member. He was once kicked out of the facility for watching tape on Christmas Eve. He can find a way to be helpful to a team or the game.

During my conversations with Kuechly, I was struck by how much he loved football. In my interviews with him, I tried to veer off into nonfootball topics—similar to profiles I’d written about his teammates like Cam Newton or Josh Norman—but Kuechly really liked football. So we talked about football. The longest discussion we had focused on the changing nature of his job: In an area of the field that was wide open, Kuechly was handed the task of closing it. He talked about how big, strong, and fast tight ends had gotten—like Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. Left unspoken is that he was just as big, strong, and fast. We talked about defending running backs out of the backfield, which also made his job harder. “The problem is that it’s not just like the old days where they’d just run this short route,” he told me. “They can run route trees and you have to be on top of them. You have to be able to compete in space. That’s where this game is going. It’s one more thing you have to worry about.”

Kuechly was right in understanding that the game was going toward more open space, but he was going there with it. That’s why he was able to be one of the best coverage linebackers of his time. Athletic linebackers like Bobby Wagner will keep thriving, but the sport lost a special talent this week. Wagner, like Kuechly, came into the league in 2012, a draft that helped remake the NFL. It not only gave the sport Luck and Kuechly, but a handful of figures who were influential in ways both hidden and obvious: Robert Griffin III, for instance, helped kick-start a move toward college-influenced offenses that would proliferate throughout the decade. Russell Wilson is one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Stephon Gilmore is the top cornerback. Fletcher Cox, Chandler Jones, T.Y. Hilton, and Josh Norman have reached superstar status. Nick Foles won a Super Bowl. Kirk Cousins got the biggest guaranteed contract in the sport’s history.

Football is changing: The 2012 draft class was, in many ways, the start of this current era. It’s instructive to study any draft class to see how players develop and age, but this one is particularly important. The season before had brought an unprecedented offensive uptick. They were the first draft class held under the current collective bargaining agreement (the rookie wage scale was retroactively applied to the 2011 draft, but the CBA was struck in July of that year). Practice limits were in place for 2012 that didn’t previously exist. Stars were born. Some stars have faded already—Norman comes to mind—and some, like Wilson and Ryan Tannehill, are still getting better. Now, two of the most notable players from that draft have stepped away. The circumstances are different, and the players are different. The decisions they made were sound, but the sport will be worse off without them.