On Tuesday evening, Luke Kuechly announced he’d had enough.
During his retirement video, the Carolina Panthers’ 28-year-old star linebacker tearfully explained that he still loved football, and after watching him terrorize offenses for eight years, that was easy to believe.
Every Sunday, No. 59 was a whirling dervish, a Tasmanian devil who lived in opponent’s backfields, and routinely sniffed out plays with his killer instincts.
For any football lover, Kuechly was a joy to watch, one of the best inside linebackers to ever do it. As a Hall of Fame voter, he absolutely passed the “you just know it when you see it” test and his vast accomplishments back it up.
Five-time first-team All-Pro. Two-time second-team All-Pro. Defensive Player of the Year (2013). Defensive Rookie of the Year (2012). Seven Pro Bowls.
Kuechly’s retirement is also the continuation of a trend. Calvin Johnson retired in 2016 after nine seasons at age 30. Patrick Willis retired in 2015 after eight seasons at 29. Rob Gronkowski retired last offseason after nine seasons at 29. Andrew Luck retired in August after seven seasons, one of which he missed entirely, at 29.
That’s five great players, four with Hall of Fame pedigrees, who stepped away sooner than anyone anticipated, and with many more years of great football ahead of them.
Oh yes, we’re witnessing a sea change in pro football, folks, one where players who love the game and are great at it are still deciding to retire. Back in the day, you’d have had to drag these guys off the field, and not until after you painfully watched them run around on Sundays with a gigantic fork in their backs.
Now, players are more knowledgeable than ever about football’s dangers, about the business nature of it. That’s what Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch revealed Sunday, with a postgame media session that may have been confusing for some.
“It’s a vulnerable time for a lot of these young dudes — they need to be taking care of their chicken right, you feel me?” Lynch began. “If it was me, or if I had an opportunity to let these little young [players] know something, I’d say, ‘Take care of your money, African, cause that [expletive] don’t last forever.’ Now I’ve been on the other side of retirement and it’s good when you get over there and you can do whatever the [expletive] you want to, so I’ll tell y’all right now while y’all in it, take care of your bread so when you’re done, you go ahead and take care of yourself.
“So while y’all at it right now, take care of your bodies, take care of your chicken, take care of your mentals. Because we ain’t lasting that long. I had a couple players that I played with that they’re no longer here. They’re no longer. So start taking care of your mentals, your bodies and your chicken so that when you’re ready to walk away, you walk away and you can be able to do what you want to do.”
Now is as good a time as any to mention that Kuechly has a history of concussions, at least three of note.
Pro football has been built on the backs of past warriors it used up, spit out and discarded. And while the money, prestige and everything that comes with being a bonafide football star has always been nice, today’s players have learned from previous generations that the price they pay with their bodies doesn’t fully come due until their 40s, 50s and 60s — and it’s one hell of a tax.
So if you’re wondering why players seem to be holding out more than ever before, if you’re wondering why players are trying to negotiate their own deals and cut agents out of the process so they can save on fees, if you’re wondering why players are retiring so quickly … well, that’s why.
These days, players now enter the NFL with the knowledge that the game is a business first, and that team owners, coaches, suits and fans who profit from the toll they extract on each other will soon forget most of them not even five years after they retire. These days, players enter with the knowledge they will be used by all those parties for America’s entertainment. They also have learned there’s a difference between being used by these parties and being used up, like previous generations.
So now, more and more, they’re playing their asses off on their rookie deals, securing the biggest second contract they can, then retiring in their late 20s, when they can preserve enough of their minds and bodies to enjoy in retirement the millions they’ve earned, and the peace that should come with having generational wealth before 35.
Good for them!
While I am only one Hall of Fame voter, just one member of the 48-person selection committee that meets before every Super Bowl to immortalize the next group of football legends, I won’t be holding early retirements against these great players, provided more continue to do it.
In a case like, say, Frank Gore, longevity will be used as a plus. Not having a relatively “short” career won’t be a negative for others.
So when it comes to the Hall of Fame, Johnson is an easy yes vote for me.
So is Willis.
So is Gronk.
So is Kuechly.
It’s about asking whether said players improved the game while they were in it, and whether they were truly elite at what they did year after year. It’s about asking if said players earned the respect of their opponents with their play on the field, and whether they brought new fans to the game by showcasing their prodigious talents for a sustained period.
The eye test matters. All-Pro selections matter. All-Decade selections matter. So do annual awards like MVP, offensive and defensive player of the years. Hell, even Pro Bowls matter for my vote. Because when taken as a collective accumulation, they reflect the impact a player has had on the game, number of years be damned.
I’d like to think that all this has long been the kind of loose criteria the many HOF voters before me have used, criteria that should go beyond just years played. And while we still get great players who do it forever — legends like Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis and Tom Brady — my hunch is that we’ll see fewer graying players as this newest generation sees the wisdom of collecting their honors, stacking their money and getting out while the getting is good.
We all should be grateful for this evolution. If more players wise up and leave the game sooner, it will not only open up jobs for more players, it may also reduce the number of post-football horror stories we see involving players who stuck around too long and accumulated damage that makes their lives after the game extraordinarily difficult and sad.
This evolution is a good thing, and it should be celebrated. So don’t be mad over Luke Kuechly’s departure from the game. Be grateful for the years he gave us, and for joining several others who, by retiring relatively early, are showing the path for a more humane ending for the football careers of an entire generation of future players.
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