Luke Kuechly can find comfort in retirement knowing he’s the best player in Panthers history

The scene was ordinary. A kid, roughly 13 years old, combing through a pile of shirts at a Charlotte-area Dick’s Sporting Goods looking for the right size. He had help from an adult, a relatively tall and athletic-looking young man but an unsuspecting figure wearing a plain gray tee.

Outside of the Carolinas, a bystander likely would have assumed this was a Dick’s employee assisting a young customer, or maybe an older brother buying his sibling some new threads. In Charlotte, even with such a conventional appearance, Luke Kuechly could not be ignored.

It was the summer of 2015, and Kuechly and Panthers legend Steve Smith Sr. were at Dick’s to serve as personal consultants for 10 youth football players who had been gifted $100 shopping sprees. Kuechly had not yet reached the legendary status with which he retired Tuesday night. The linebacker, 24 at the time, was coming off his second consecutive All-Pro season in three years with the Panthers. Smith, who had recently left Carolina for Baltimore, was considered the greatest ever to wear black and teal.

That fall, Kuechly and the Panthers went 15-1 and reached Super Bowl 50 as the linebacker earned a third straight All-Pro nod. He would add two more in 2017 and 2018. His status as a mainstay Pro Bowl selection persisted. Along the way, he surpassed Smith as the greatest player in franchise history.

MORE: Luke Kuechly explains decision to retire from NFL

Kuechly’s retirement announcement was shocking in the context of his age (28) and still-elite skills. He had two years left on his contract with the Panthers and was set to earn almost $11 million in 2020 as the franchise transitioned to a new regime under recently hired coach Matt Rhule.

But in the context of the concussion issues that have plagued Kuechly over the last four years, clearly at least one of the primary culprits of what’s being viewed as a premature retirement, his decision to walk away from football is understandable and admirable.

“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,” Kuechly explained, perfectly describing the attributes that made him such a special player. “At this point I don’t know that I’m able to do that anymore.”

Added Kuechly with additional emotion: “That’s the part that’s the most difficult is … I still want to play but I don’t think it’s the right decision.”

From a health perspective, if Kuechly believes retirement was the right decision, then it was indeed the right decision. Less important but surely a consideration for such a competitive individual is Kuechly’s legacy. He can rest easy knowing no Carolina player has ever been better.

Since 2012, when the Panthers drafted Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, no NFL linebacker has recorded more tackles, interceptions or pass breakups. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year in his first season and Defensive Player of the Year in his second. In eight years, he was named first-team All-Pro five times and was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection.

Anecdotally, he was considered the best linebacker in football for most of his NFL career.

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Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, might be the most brand-defining player the Panthers have employed. Quarterback Cam Newton, the team’s all-time leading passer, is undoubtedly the most important player in Panthers history given the national relevance he delivered the franchise. The 25-year-old team can also tout legends like Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Thomas Davis.

But no Carolina player has been considered among the very best at his position for as long as Kuechly has owned linebacker.

“One of the greatest players of our time,” Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster tweeted when he caught wind of Kuechly’s retirement.

Added Panthers safety Eric Reid: “After playing with (Patrick Willis) I didn’t think it was possible for me to touch the field with another LB of his caliber. Then I went to Carolina.”

Willis, of course, also retired after eight seasons due to nagging injuries. From 2007-14, he compiled the same amount of All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections Kuechly managed from 2012-19. Willis just missed the cut when the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently announced its modern-era finalists for the class of 2020, but he’s likely to be enshrined in Canton soon.

Kuechly should have no such wait, even after a comparable career. Few NFL players have accomplished so much in such a short period of time, and certainly no Panthers players have done so.

Hopefully Kuechly can find solace in that amid what appears to be a difficult retirement decision.

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