Questions about his health remain, but Luke Kuechly is focused on returning to the field

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Thursday December 22nd, 2016

On Wednesday afternoon, officially facing media for the first time since his frightening concussion on Thursday Night Football, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly raised his left hand to give a thumbs-up to assure us all that he is OK.

He’s been getting the question for a month. Texts from family and friends and high school acquaintances and teammates. Inquiries from fans at the Panthers’ annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and patrons at his favorite restaurants.

Kuechly is fine, he says. He wants to play the final two games of the regular season and the Pro Bowl but it’s unclear if he will be allowed to. And, no, he’s not considering retirement.

But is he considering the potential long-term effects? This is the second concussion he’s suffered in 14 months—the look of both could twist you in knots—and he was forced to miss a combined six games under the league’s protocol. With what we know about head trauma, is there a worry about his post-playing career—whenever that may come?

“I’m not worried about that,” Kuechly replied. “I think there’s still a lot to be learned from it. I think there are some studies out there that can say that, but I’m not a doctor and I trust what our guys say.

“I’m going to play football and that’s what I do and that’s what I like to do. I’m not concerned with that stuff until somebody tells me otherwise.”

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Kuechly is not a meathead, but this quote, in print, looks like it came from a meathead. Most of the science and courtrooms and reasonable people agree that repeated head trauma could eventually have negative effects on the body and brain. Boston University states that CTE “symptoms often begin years, or even decades, after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.”

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a review of the NFL’s concussion settlement, and SI legal analyst Michael McCann wrote that it means “retired players with qualifying neurological conditions will soon obtain thousands of dollars and healthcare benefits. Players with serious neurological problems will obtain much more. For some players, the settlement will significantly prolong their lives and improve the quality of those lives.”

Of course, Kuechly knows this. It is probable that he knows more about concussions, their symptoms, CTE and other neurological effects than I do, and I asked the question. For weeks he’s seen and heard fans, as well as former and current players, mostly anonymous, say he should consider retiring from what he loves to do—at the peak of his game—at age 25. He was on the defensive Wednesday, as he continued to be asked by a roomful of familiar faces about what was likely one of the most embarrassing and worst days of his life.

After taking a blow against the Saints on Nov. 17, the best middle linebacker in football stayed on the ground. NBC cameras captured Kuechly openly sobbing while sucking for air.

“I got to go out there and see him, and hear him,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday. “You hear the frustration. You hear the disappointment. There was so much more to what the picture says.”

The picture says a lot, Ron.

“I know but I don’t think people really understand the picture. That’s one of those things that you’d have to ask Luke about… That’s my opinion. That may not be what he felt.”

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Kuechly was in no mood to talk about that image on Wednesday. It’s said that weeping uncontrollably can be symptomatic of a brain injury. Kuechly told NBC’s Michele Tafoya before Carolina’s Week 13 game against Seattle that he couldn’t explain the tears and hoped, because of it, that it was related to the concussion. On Wednesday, he said that play and the image are in the past.

“I appreciate that question but I don’t want to get into that,” Kuechly said about the sobbing. “For me, that’s some personal medical stuff that you don’t want to get into.”

Kuechly cleared the protocol on Saturday but was a healthy scratch for Monday night’s game against Washington. Somehow, the 6–8 Panthers remain alive in the playoff hunt (they need a lot of help including Washington losing one game and tying the other), and they have a better chance to beat Atlanta on Saturday with their All-Pro linebacker on the field. Rivera will make a decision on Kuechly for this week’s game by Friday.

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Kuechly made two things clear. He has no plans on retiring for “a little ways down the road,” and he’s ready to play immediately. He would reluctantly accept a coach’s decision to sit him for the final two games of the year, but it would not be his preference.

So he’s thankful for the support and well wishes and concerns. But there are a lot of people telling Luke Kuechly what Luke Kuechly should do who are not his trainers, doctors and coaches. They’ve given him the thumbs-up just like he did to the media Wednesday. 

“I think a lot of people have an idea of what’s going on and they don’t necessarily know what’s going on with each individual person,” Kuechly said. “There’s a stigma of what a concussion is and stuff like that, but they don’t know each individual’s situation and what’s going on with them. I appreciate everybody for the support they have, and like I said the doctors have done a great job, but I’m going to get out there as soon as I can.”

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