ORLANDO, Fla. — On Dec. 17, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was selected to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl.
Twenty-eight days later, he retired.
“There is only one way to play this game since I was a little kid, (and it) is to play fast and play physical and play strong,” an emotional Kuechly said at the time in a 3-minute, 35-second video statement released by the Panthers. “At this point, I don’t know if I’m able to do that anymore, and that’s the part that is the most difficult.
“I still want to play, but I don’t think it is the right decision.”
Kuechly came to that difficult realization, determining that retiring early was his best option.
Others have as well.
In March, fresh off his third Super Bowl victory with the New England Patriots, tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement on Instagram. Four months later, while injured quarterback Andrew Luck watched his Indianapolis Colts host the Chicago Bears in a preseason game, a buzz around the stadium grew as media outlets reported the 2018 Comeback Player of the Year was leaving the game. Luck confirmed his decision at a hastily called postgame news conference.
Gronkowski, Luck and Kuechly had not celebrated their 30th birthdays at the time they announced their exits, and all battled injuries during their careers. They had something else in common. With a combined 16 Pro Bowl nods, three of the league’s top players at their positions seemingly left their physically demanding sport years before their time.
“Every time a guy retires, I respect it because this game is so hard and takes so much from you to be good at it,” Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said. “When you no longer want to put that in or you no longer can put that in, you know when to shut it down. You know.”
With 88 of the NFL’s most talented players in Orlando for the Pro Bowl — set for 3 p.m. Sunday at Camping World Stadium in a game that will be broadcast by ESPN, ABC and ESPN Deportes — how many have entertained thoughts similar to Kuechly and the others?
That is a question without an easy answer, as each player’s body, tolerance for pain and how much he is willing to sacrifice to deal with it is different. Increased awareness regarding chronic traumatic encephalopathy — the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma, such as concussions — has enlightened some players about what they want out of life after football.
Other quality-of-life factors and personal reasons may come into play, too. With the implications of a player walking away from a sport he has loved and played since he was a little boy, this is not an easy one-size-fits-all decision.
Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis does not think players retiring early will become a trend.
“I don’t see enough players doing it,” said Davis, one of the AFC’s legends captains for the Pro Bowl. “If they were doing it in droves — if you look up and see 20 players a year retiring early, then you might be alarmed by that.”
Davis, 47, stepped away after seven seasons and two Super Bowl championships with the Denver Broncos because of knee problems. Through the years, other NFL players have retired early for myriad reasons.
Running back Jim Brown announced the end of his nine-year career on the set of the movie “The Dirty Dozen” in 1966. At the time, he was the NFL’s leading all-time rusher, a record broken by Walter Payton in 1984. (With 18,355 yards, Emmitt Smith is the current record-holder.) After 10 seasons, Hall of Famer Barry Sanders stunningly walked away the day before the Detroit Lions opened training camp in 1999. Sanders was coming off a season in which he ran for 1,491 yards.
Other notable players retired early, including Bears great Gale Sayers in 1972, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis in 2015 and Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2016, but three in 11 months?
“I don’t think it causes me to reassess my career,” said Colts tight end Jack Doyle, who was Luck’s teammate from 2013-18. “Everybody has a different journey in the NFL. Injuries happen to everybody and at different rates to different guys, how you get through them and all those things. Everybody’s story is different.”
Said Houston Texans offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil: “Does a player have injuries that people don’t know about, his body can’t handle it or he’s just worried about his family? It’s a lot of things that go on in a player’s head.”
On the field, few could match what Gronkowski, Luck and Kuechly produced.
Gronkowski, 30, entered the league as a second-round draft choice in 2010. He used his 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame, sometimes to his detriment, to devastating effect to shield defenders on pass routes and to block on running plays. He departed with 521 career catches for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns.
Luck arrived in Indianapolis as the top overall choice in the 2012 draft, the heir to Peyton Manning. He did not disappoint, throwing for more than 4,000 yards in a season four times and leading the NFL with 40 TD passes in 2014. Luck, 30, sat out the 2017 season after shoulder surgery, once sustained a lacerated kidney and battled calf and ankle injuries last preseason before he retired.
In the same draft that the Colts plucked Luck, the Panthers took Kuechly ninth overall. The selection came one season after Carolina chose Cam Newton No. 1 overall, giving the franchise another cornerstone. Kuechly, 28, was selected to the NFL All-Pro first team five times but sustained a concussion that caused him to miss the final six games of the 2016 season.
Kuechly incurred other head injuries during his career but left while playing at a high level. He finished this past season with a team-high 144 tackles.
“I hate to see him go, because I love the way that guy plays,” Davis said.
Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green retired in 2002 after 20 seasons with the Washington Redskins. Green, 59, said he never heard players in the locker room discuss retiring early when he played.
“I guess people retire for different reasons, whether you are a school teacher and retire or a painter or bus driver,” said Green, an NFC Pro Bowl legends captain. “I don’t know why they are retiring, so I don’t have a comment one way or the other about it.”
Campbell appreciates how agonizing the decision to retire early must be.
“I understand that any time a guy shuts it down, I take my hat off to them and tell them I respect their games because I know what it takes to be at this level,” said Campbell, a 12-year NFL veteran who will appear in his fifth Pro Bowl on Sunday.
The Pro Bowl will provide only the latest example that the NFL has no shortage of outstanding players. Kuechly won’t be there; his roster spot was taken by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Luck and Gronkowski aren’t in Orlando, either.
Rest assured the void left when great players retire, however prematurely, will be filled.
“In my opinion, the NFL is not losing anything,” Tunsil said. “Those players left their mark, and they did their thing, and it’s on to the next. It’s the next-person-up mentality.”
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)