At 28 years old, Kuechly’s retirement comes sooner than anyone around the NFL was expecting. In eight seasons with the Panthers, Kuechly racked up 1,092 career tackles, 75 tackles for loss 66 pass deflections and 18 interceptions.
“It’s never the right time to step away, but now is the right time for me,” Kuechly said. “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 and it’s my favorite thing in the world to do.”
Kuechly becomes the latest in a group of NFL stars to recently retire earlier than expected, joining the likes of Andrew Luck, Rob Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis and Marshawn Lynch (though that last one obviously didn’t stick).
The Panthers drafted Kuechly with the ninth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft after a decorated career at Boston College. They were immediately rewarded with one of the best middle linebackers in football, not to mention a vocal leader.
Through his decorated career, Kuechly was a seven-time Pro Bowler, five-time first-team All Pro, 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kuechly never posted fewer than 100 tackles in a season, and helped lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015.
The Panthers indicated those numbers are plenty to make him a team legend:
The only reason Kuechly gave for his sudden retirement was that he seemed to feel he had lost a step, a bit of a surprise considering he was a second-team All Pro this season.
“There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid: play fast, play physical and play strong,” Kuechly said, holding back tears. “At this point, I don’t know 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.”
Kuechly wasn’t without injury troubles on the field, suffering three concussions in as many years between 2015 and 2017 while also requiring multiple surgeries on his right shoulder.
Replacing Kuechly at this stage of his career, still seemingly in his prime, will be difficult for the Panthers. Especially this offseason.
Luke Kuechly through the years
Luke Kuechly through the years
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) reaches as New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (25) runs past Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly (59) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, left, and Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) speak following an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) runs a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly walks to an NFL football practice in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly (59) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2018, file photo, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) warms up before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Charlotte, N.C. With today's volcanic offenses, can't-hit-'em-too-hard rules and befuddled officials, linebackers aren't snarling 250-pound thumpers starring in running backs' nightmares anymore. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NFL - Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers poses in the press room with the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award at the 7th Annual NFL Honors at the Cyrus Northrop Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Jeff Lewis/Invision for NFL/AP Images)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR CAMPBELL'S - Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly volunteers on behalf of Campbell's Chunky Soup at House of Charity ahead of Super Bowl LII, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 in Minneapolis. Campbell's donated 250,000 bowls of Chunky MAXX to House of Charity to feed the Minneapolis community this winter. (Doug Benc/AP Images for Campbell's)
Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly (59) is helped on the field after being injured against the New Orleans Saints in the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Former Boston College player Luke Kuechly talks to the crowd as his number is retired during a halftime ceremony of an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly answers questions during a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 in San Jose, Calif. Carolina plays the Denver Broncos in the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2015, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Luke Kuechly poses with his AP Defensive Player of the Year presented by Surface award at the 3rd annual NFL Honors at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision for NFL/AP Images)
Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly makes a catch as he runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is pursued by Boston College's Luke Kuechly (40) during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 36-14. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro)
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
Kuechly’s retirement yet another upheaval for Panthers
With Kuechly gone, the Panthers lose one of their biggest locker room leaders at a time of transition. The team fired head coach Ron Rivera this season after nine years in Carolina and replaced him with Baylor head coach Matt Rhule.
Kuechly went out of his way to say the coaching change didn’t influence his decision.
“This decision has nothing to do with new coaches and Coach Rhule,” Kuechly said. “He’s going to do a fantastic job, his track record’s proven. For me, now is the right opportunity to move in a different direction.”