CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was an outpouring of sadness in the Charlotte area after Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly made a surprise retirement announcement Tuesday at age 28. Even Kuechly said he was sad to step away from the game he loved after eight NFL seasons.
Former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he felt relief.
In 2017, Earnhardt retired from the sport he loved at age 42, even though NASCAR’s most popular driver believed he had a few good years left in him. He retired after more than a dozen concussions, saying the decision came down to wanting “the opportunity to go out on my own terms."
Kuechly has suffered three reported concussions since 2015. While the seven-time Pro Bowl selection didn’t mention concussions or his health as reasons for retiring, Kuechly expressed doubt that he could “play fast and play physical and play strong" anymore.
“When you get in those types of situations that he was in, you have to make some difficult choices, and I think he made the right one," Earnhardt told reporters on Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I feel like that a lot of people can learn from that. I think he set an amazing example for a lot of young folks to follow."
At his retirement announcement, Earnhardt said he realized after missing races in 2016 that his career could have ended “without me having a vote at the table."
“I’m sure he would have loved to have played longer, but he’s made some amazing, great choices for himself and for his family and his future," Earnhardt said about Kuechly. “And he feels strongly about that decision. All you can do is support that. ... You have to want to support his decision."
Part of Earnhardt's post-racing mission has been educating people on the impact of concussions. In 2016, after missing the second half of the season with concussion-like symptoms, he announced his brain would be donated to CTE researchers after his death. In 2018, in his book “Racing to the Finish," Earnhardt went into great detail about his battle with vision problems, disorientation and mood swings.
He also wrote a firsthand story published in the New York Times about how he managed to keep most of his concussions a secret for a long time.
“But then my symptoms got too severe to keep up the charade, and I was forced to get help," Earnhardt wrote.
Earnhardt hopes Kuechly’s decision to retire early will influence others.
“Especially when you see what Luke’s doing and making the choices he’s making, it’s obvious that we’re all a lot better off because of what we’ve learned as a society over the last decade," Earnhardt said.
“It’s good for our competitors today, no matter what sport you’re playing. It’s great for our veterans and guys who have retired because the science is just improving for everybody to diagnose and treat even years and decades after your playing days. You can still improve your quality of life, and that makes me really, really happy."