Luke Kuechly: Football, And The Damage Done

Jan 20, 2020

The closest I’ve come to swearing off football was seeing Luke Kuechly cry.

It was back in 2016, in a Thursday night game against New Orleans. Kuechly went in for a tackle. The running back lowered his head, and the top of his helmet crashed into Kuechly’s face mask. Kuechly went down and didn’t get up. And when he took his helmet off, he was sobbing, his chest heaving, the tears pouring.

Kuechly was one of the best players in the NFL, a multiple Pro Bowler, and a former Defensive Player of the Year. He’s in the argument with Steve Smith and Cam Newton as the best Carolina Panther in history. But in that moment he looked like a little boy who had lost his mom.

And the truth is, he did lose something that night. It was his second reported concussion in the NFL. He would later have a third. Studies have shown that with each concussion, the brain is often damaged a little more, for a little longer, to the point where it can have permanent effects. And that brain damage – there’s no simpler way to say it – is part of the price of playing football.

Kuechly did not say the word “concussion” the other day, when he announced he was retiring from the NFL. Actually, he didn’t say the word “retirement” either. But barring some issue we don’t know about, it appears that concussions drove him from the game he loved, and was so, so good at.

A couple of years ago I spent some time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a story as he was making his return to NASCAR. He had sat out half a season after what was at least the fifth concussion he had suffered as a race car driver. After the last concussion, he couldn’t walk without stumbling. His eyes shook in their sockets. He fell into black moods. It took months of treatment before he could drive again.

He raced one more season and has spent much of his time since then evangelizing about better awareness and treatment for concussions.

Concussions are a problem in any sport that involves blows to the head. But football is the only major sport where the fundamental acts are collisions: blocking and tackling. The thrill of the game, for me, is the balance between the violence and the beauty. You watch all those terrible crashes, waiting for the moment when the man with the ball breaks into the clear.

Football is bound to wreck the bodies of those who play it long enough. Legions of former players hobble around on busted knees and shake hands with mangled fingers. And autopsies of many dead players – some of whom killed themselves – have shown alarming levels of CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.

Kuechly retired at 28 after playing just eight years. I say that word “just” out of reflex, because eight years feels like a short career for someone who played at a Hall of Fame level. But the truth is, eight years seems like an eternity to hit and be hit like that. It’s hard to justify watching football when you know what it does to people like Luke Kuechly. He played with such a furious joy. I hope he got out in time.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.