CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Football is a game filled with clichés that are impossible to avoid. You “gotta go for it” on some fourth downs. Receivers “catch the ball at its highest point.” When a player goes down, “it’s next man up.”
The next-man-up idea is a cold reality in football. Injuries are inevitable in this brutal sport and replacement players are necessary. If they subscribe to the next-man-up mentality, then the unit should not miss a beat, the team should win the game and you go on to next week.
But flip next-man-up on its head. What about last-man-down? What happens when that last man is former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly? And what happens when Kuechly is openly sobbing on the field, begging for air, allowing himself to be carted off the field because he’s been rendered so helpless?
This was Luke Kuechly’s reality with five minutes left in Carolina’s 23–20 win against New Orleans Thursday night. It’s impossible to tell or even imagine what he was thinking as NBC cameras showed no mercy with their zoom. He was evaluated for a concussion, and was placed in the league’s protocol on Friday, but it could have been more. Not only did he take a shot to the back of his helmet from teammate Thomas Davis, but he also absorbed the crown of Tim Hightower’s helmet to the chest.
Unlike the last time he was concussed, Kuechly couldn’t walk off the field on his own power. He had to be helped to the cart that took him into the tunnel as he continued to fight back the tears that had to have flowed once the eyes of millions were off him.
“Obviously it was tough to see him carted off. It’s tough to see anybody carted off. He means a lot to a lot of us, more than just as a player,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Obviously he’s in good hands with the doctors and they’ll do the appropriate steps. It was tough. It takes a little bit of the wind out of your sails.”
To see Kuechly in this state was nothing short of surreal. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times at the combine and could no doubt do more four years later. He’s performed a 60-inch box jump. His 459 career tackles are more than any other player in the NFL since he entered the league in 2012. Kuechly played the entire postseason last year with a partially torn labrum and was still the best linebacker in football.
In short, if he’s left in this kind of state after those hits, what would happen to a normal human being?
But there’s another layer to it—the kind of personal layer Olsen alluded to. Kuechly is probably the most photographed person in Charlotte. There is no record of him ever turning down a photo request. He’s so good-natured that his trash talk comes out awkwardly. He’ll ask a media member how his family is doing just because.
There is no pretense to Kuechly. He’s one of few professional athletes where you can say he’s a good guy and not worry about that statement coming back to bite you down the road. So, again, there was a harshness when his teammates talked about the immediate aftermath of his injury when second-year linebacker David Mayo came in for Kuechly.
“Just not to let them score when one of your leaders go down like that so you have to have the next-man-up mentality,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “I just didn’t want people to get frustrated. Just got to motivate our guys for the next-man-up and get ready for the next play because you can’t control what goes on.”
The reality was the Panthers were close to blowing another fourth-quarter lead at home for the second time in four days when Kuechly went down. They needed a third-and-10 catch from Kelvin Benjamin (last game’s goat) to seal a game that they led 23–3 at one point.
And the other truth is that maybe they didn’t see Kuechly the way the rest of America did. They may not have had the benefit of looking through the team of doctors and see the man struggle for breath, fear burning in his eyes, all in 1080i.
Kuechly missed three games last season with a concussion. Carolina next plays in Oakland on Nov. 27, and the game will go on with or without Kuechly. If it’s next man up again, at least remember the guy who’s down.