when luke kuechly retired from the NFL in 2020 at age 28, he had played a stellar eight years as linebacker for the Carolina Panthers and had suffered at least three documented concussions.
He joined other star players under the age of 30, including quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had chosen to leave professional football largely over concerns about the long-term health implications of playing. (Gronkowksi returned after one season.)
But Kuechly, 32, still maintains close ties to the game, having worked for a season as a scout for his former team and now coaches 12-year-old soccer with former teammate Greg Olsen.
In a phone interview from his home in Charlotte, NC, Kuechly discussed watching current NFL players like Tua Tagovailoa get hit in the head, whether he has concerns about their cognitive health, and what he tells his players’ parents about the dangers of American football.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
You visited Congress last month to speak about traumatic brain injury. What do you think the level of consciousness was?
I think everyone understands the situation around TBI and concussion in headspace. I think everyone understands that there are things that can be done. But the more we can go up and talk about this and explain perspectives and different ways of looking at it and little ways to help make a positive impact, I think the better off we’ll be.
You joined the NFL in 2012, when concussion awareness was changing dramatically. Did you notice that difference?
I think everything in the NFL has such a different microscope, really, a lot of times in a positive way. There is a very strict return to play policy, #1. #2, there are independent observers at every game, in every stadium, and there are a lot of them whose only job is to watch the game to see if anyone gets hit or acts abnormally. . So I think the NFL has done a very good job of trying to keep players safe on the field and giving them an opportunity to be safe coming back to the game as well.
You had multiple concussions. Were any of them more difficult to deal with than the others?
You look at other guys, you learn from other guys, you talk to a lot of guys, and that’s what you hear: “Hey, let yourself improve. Once you’re better, you can go back out there.” That’s what I learned, hopefully early on, from our coaches and our coaches and different doctors and guys I played with who said this isn’t like a sprained ankle where you can deal with it and get over it and hang on. . This is something you have to be smart about and understand that this is a different situation. You have to let it get better.
Do you think the culture of walking away from the game at a relatively young age has changed in your time in the NFL?
If you look back, Barry Sanders walked away a couple of years earlier. Obviously, Calvin Johnson walked away. Gronk walked away. I think it just happens at a different point for everyone. [Sanders and Johnson both retired at 30. Gronkowski announced his first retirement at 29.]
He worked as a scout for the Panthers in 2020. Why?
I love soccer, I love being around the game, I love being around the guys. And that was a really good opportunity for me to slowly transition, throughout the year, away from the team, but still be able to be close to it and the game, get involved and have some kind of impact. And obviously there’s quite a bit of structure involved in that just because we were there almost every day working on different projects, going through the waiver cables, looking for free agents.
I suppose you saw what happened to Tua Tagovailoa last year. Did that make you cringe a bit?
No. The most important thing to me is that I just want the guys to be safe. I want guys to have the opportunity to play as long as they can with the game they love. But I think everyone in the NFL understands that it’s a violent game. It’s physical, it’s tough. There are big, strong guys running around, and getting hurt is inevitable. I want Tua to play as long as Tua wants and I want him to play as safe as possible. But ultimately, it’s kind of a game right now: It’s just big guys running fast, hitting hard, lifting weights. Things happen very fast out there.
Last week a study was published which looked at not only the number of hits players receive throughout their careers, but also their cumulative impact. Are you concerned about your own long-term cognitive health?
It doesn’t bother me, but I’m well aware of it. Since I stopped playing, I have read a lot. I have done a lot of homework. I have talked to many people. I’m not worried about it, but I’m well aware of, “Hey, there are certain things you can do that will be beneficial, and you might as well take advantage of that.”
I think the most important thing for me is a healthy lifestyle. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, be outside, have good relationships with people. Keep your mind active.
When you train, what do you say to parents who are concerned about the safety of the game?
I tell a lot of people, “Hey, do what you think is best for your child. You are his father. Ultimately, you know what’s best for them.” I’m just talking about the positives, whether it’s what I’ve learned about toughness, how to fight things, how to build relationships, the people I’ve met through the game, the experiences I’ve had with the game.