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Luke Kuechly’s retirement reminds us how hard it is for NFL players to call it quits

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Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz says that it’s never easy for athletes to acknowledge they’re not immortal.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

“Start taking care of y’all mentals, y’all bodies, and y’all chicken” Aristotle (or Marshawn Lynch)

After the Seattle Seahawks lost in the Divisional Round to the Green Bay Packers, newly unretired running back Marshawn Lynch walked to the podium. He spoke for nearly one minute. He used his time to speak directly to players about saving their chicken (money) and self-care of their bodies, especially their mentals (brain), after his experience being retired for over a year before making his short comeback to end the season.

While some people might ignore the message, Marshawn Lynch knows the truth: NFL players rarely retire when we plan to retire. The toughest part of retirement is that the moment almost never comes when you’re mentally ready to hang it up. The fairytale retirement is often saved for Disney movies and a select few players — like John Elway, who happened to retire right after two Super Bowls late in his career.

In fact, we just saw another player, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, retire before he planned.

Retirement is a difficult decision because it’s often the first time in life players acknowledge publicly that we aren’t immortal. We’ve played since we were little. We dreamt of playing college ball, being drafted, and the glory that comes with playing in the NFL.

We were often the best athlete in youth sports. We were the best athlete in high school. We were the best athlete in college. Everything on the field came naturally to us. Of course, techniques were learned and drills were mastered, but there’s something innate about being a professional athlete, especially one who plays at such a high level for so long.

And Kuechly was one of those special athletes and an eventual Hall of Famer. Kuechly was drafted ninth overall by the Panthers in 2012 after racking up an astounding 532 tackles in three seasons at Boston College. In eight NFL seasons, Kuechly was a seven-time All-Pro, three-time professional Butkus Award winner, led the league in tackles twice, and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Not only was he a tackling machine, but he also added 18 interceptions, running routes for the receivers and reading the eyes of the quarterback.

Unfortunately, and like most athletes, Kuechly encountered countless injuries, the worst of which were multiple concussions. These concussions wiped out a large part of the 2016 season and a couple games in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t derail his career. Kuechly started all 16 games in 2018 and 2019, and was playing well enough to make his seventh Pro Bowl at the end of this season.

What we saw from Kuechly’s retirement video was the emotional realization that he’s no longer immortal and his time in the NFL has come to an end by his own choice, even if future injury concerns drove the decision. It was gut-wrenching to watch, as you could tell that Kuechly struggled with this decision.

As he put it, “There’s only one way to play this game, since I was a little kid, is to play fast and play physical and play strong. At this point, I’m not sure 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.”

Just like you’d imagine, coming to the realization you can go longer play is a numbing feeling. You’ve been the star, or in Kuechly’s case, a superstar. Now, you have to accept you’re mortal.

It’s also time to put your “mentals” ahead of your love for the gridiron, as Kuechly is continuing the trend of players retiring earlier than expected. The same happened this past summer with former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who surprisingly retired before the regular season.

Far too many players stay in the game longer than they should and we should all be happy for Kuechly getting out when he could.