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Why did Luke Kuechly retire? Panthers star explains his decision to end NFL career

Sporting News — (Vinnie Iyer)

Luke Kuechly has announced his decision to retire from the NFL after eight seasons playing inside linebacker for the Panthers. Given the intense, physical nature of his play and the consistent all-out effort he gave at one of most football's most demanding positions, there always was a chance he would walk away from the game on his terms. He finally did so on Jan. 14.

"It's never the right time to step away, but now is the right time for me," Kuechly said in an emotional video from the linebacker room at Carolina's team headquarters in Charlotte. "It's a tough decision. I've thought about it a lot. 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 this organization and playing on the field with these guys — they'll never go away.

"But in my heart, it's the right thing to do ... This decision has nothing to do with new coaches and Coach (Matt) Rhule. He's going to do a fantastic job ... 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 — play fast, play physical, play strong  And at this point, I don't know if I am able to do that anymore.

"That's the part that's most difficult. I still want to play but I don't think it's the right decision."

HAISLOP: Luke Kuechly can find comfort in retirement knowing he's the best player in Panthers history

Here's the video statement in its entirety:

Kuechly, 28, exits the game having left nothing on the table, playing his entire career for coach Ron Rivera, a former linebacker. Kuechly hangs up his helmet as a seven-time Pro Bowler, five-time first-team NFL All-Pro. He also was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after being drafted No. 9 overall out of Boston College in 2012.

During his second season in 2013, he was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. In regular-season play, Kuechly racked up 1,092 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 18 interceptions. He also helped lead the Panthers to an NFC championship in '15, before the team lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

Luke Kuechly's injury, concussion history

Kuechly retired three months short of his 29th birthday on April 20. Although he continued to play at a high level in his final season in 2019, past injuries took their toll. 

Most recently, in February of 2018, he had right shoulder surgery following the 2017 season. He also tore his labrum in Week 17 of the 2015 season. He also had three known concussions from 2015 through 2017.

The first of the concussions in September 2015 caused him to miss three games. From the last, in October 2017, he was able to clear protocol and play the next week. The worst, however, was the middle one, a Grade 3 concussion in November 2016 that cost him the final six games of that season.

Sporting News covered that Thursday night home game against New Orleans in which Kuechly suffered his scariest head injury, silencing the crowd and creating a somber mood for his teammates. When Kuechly went down then, he struggled to catch his breath from the shock of the hit, which came from tackling Saints running back Tim HIghtower late in the fourth quarter.

At the time, the severity was unknown, but Kuechly made a full recovery. Remarkably, with his fast, furious, freight train-like playing style, Kuechly missed only 10 career starts, playing 118 out of 128 games.

Kuechly is the second star player from the first-round of the 2012 NFL Draft class to retire in the past six months, joining No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck, who announced his decision to walk away from the Colts in August

MORE: NFL players react to Luke Kuechly's abrupt retirement

Before Kuechly burst on the scene in 2012, the NFC's premier inside linebacker was the 49ers' Patrick Willis. Willis also was a rangy playmaker and prolific tackler in the NFL who played eight seasons. He decided to retire at 30 after a painful toe injury curbed his perennial Pro Bowl and All-Pro career.

In a league where more players than not last five seasons or fewer, Kuechly's retirement can't be considered an "early" one. And although the timing may have been a surprise, Kuechly was headed down a familiar path of many players of his relentless style, including Willis. Kuechly walks away with two years left on a five-year, $61.8 million second NFL contract.

Seeing Kuechly slow down and play at half speed wouldn't have been right and that's not the way he wanted to be remembered as a player, either. He was the epitome of mental and physical toughness in a sport that required giving all of one's mind and body, year-round. For the long-time fearless defensive leader of the Panthers, having the strength to walk away was as courageous as anything he did so well on the field.