An in­side look at what it’s like to walk away from the NFL

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY ALAINA GETZENBERG AND SCOTT FOWLER really The Ob­server aget­zen­[email protected]­lot­teob­ [email protected]­lot­teob­

Luke Kuechly’s re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment lasted 215 seconds. Its im­pact will last the rest of his life.

The 28-year-old Pan­thers line­backer elected to re­tire on his own terms. He didn’t nec­es­sar­ily want to, but said he knew it was the right thing to do. The right tim­ing.

Tim­ing doesn’t al­ways work out for NFL play­ers.

The end of play­ers’ ca­reers are of­ten dis­cussed and an­a­lyzed by out­siders, from their on­the-field im­pact to their legacy. But what does it

feel like on the in­side? We asked. spoke with six re­tired Pan­thers — most of them long­time starters, two of them mem­bers of the team’s Hall of Honor and one a mem­ber of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame — about their ex­pe­ri­ence in de­cid­ing when to leave the game. We also asked them about any regrets they may have had and what they thought of Kuechly’s de­ci­sion. Our panel was Kevin Don­nal­ley, Muhsin Muham­mad, Wes­ley Walls, Al Wal­lace, Jake Del­homme and Kevin Greene.

All had sto­ries worth telling. It’s hard to un­der­stand what goes into leav­ing be­hind an NFL ca­reer un­less you’ve lived it. But let them ex­plain.


Don­nal­ley played in the NFL as an of­fen­sive line­man from 1991-2003, in­clud­ing his fi­nal three years for the Pan­thers.

The re­al­iza­tion: “I played 13 sea­sons in the NFL and, for me, I ab­so­lutely loved it. If my body would have let me keep go­ing, I would have kept go­ing as long as it would have let me. You just start to feel the aches and pains so much more and it lasts fur­ther and fur­ther through­out the week. It was prob­a­bly some­thing that was rolling around in my mind since I played around my 11th or 12th sea­son, sort of started think­ing, ‘This is maybe the last one, is this one the last one?’ It got to to the point even with my wife say­ing, ‘I’ll be­lieve it when I see it.’

“I played of­fen­sive line and we have other peo­ple’s health in our hands, when you talk about quar­ter­backs and run­ning backs. I just felt like my last sea­son as I was go­ing through it that if my play de­clined any fur­ther be­cause of my age and wear and tear, I couldn’t go out there and feel good about the per­for­mance I was putting in and not be able to get my ab­so­lute best, it was time to re­tire. For me, that 13th sea­son (when the Pan­thers made the Su­per Bowl, with Don­nal­ley as a starter) was a year-long com­ing to a re­al­iza­tion that this would prob­a­bly be it.”

“Chas­ing that pay­check”: “You were really in some ways chas­ing that pay­check, you knew you wouldn’t really have the chance to earn this money again and so few play­ers get to tran­si­tion to a broad­cast job or some­thing that’s ex­tremely lu­cra­tive . ... Guys sac­ri­ficed a lot of times where maybe I can’t be the starter any­more, but I can be a ca­pa­ble backup, they do all th­ese things be­cause they want fi­nan­cial security for their fam­ily and make sure that they’re taken care of . ... The motto in the locker room was ‘They got to tear the jersey off my back.’ … that num­ber (of years) is re­duc­ing for th­ese play­ers (now). The ben­e­fits are so much bet­ter than they were for my gen­er­a­tion with the health and med­i­cal ac­counts that they have. It makes it eas­ier to walk away.”

Kuechly re­tire­ment: “He had con­cus­sions and you never know how that’s go­ing to af­fect you later in life. For him, he sur­vived. ... Know­ing Luke, he’s a guy that takes great pride in his per­for­mance, and I don’t think he would let him­self go out there if he thought he was slip­ping at all and if he was feel­ing that way this sea­son, plus with the his­tory with the con­cus­sions, it wasn’t sur­pris­ing to me that he would call it quits.

“I don’t want to speak for him ... but the de­mand of that po­si­tion is to be phys­i­cal, you’re that first line of at­tack. If any­one gets through there, you have to de­liver a blow, you’re ex­pected to try and make tack­les and jar the ball loose . ... If he lets off the gas at all, he’s not go­ing to be a very pro­duc­tive player . ... You take a look at what hap­pened to (Greg) Olsen (who suf­fered a con­cus­sion near the end of the 2019 sea­son) and how quick that was with his (con­cus­sion), some­thing he hasn’t dealt with all that much in his ca­reer and then sud­denly in one sec­ond you saw a prone Greg Olsen who did not look like he was all there. That can af­fect other play­ers, too . ... I know Greg and Luke are so close.”

The game to­day: “I don’t think I would have lasted 13 years in the NFL to­day. The game that I played in -- it was about tough­ness and phys­i­cal­ity and be­ing avail­able week in and week out. Train­ers weren’t pulling you for ‘vet­er­ans day’ (a day off for older play­ers), they weren’t hold­ing you out of a game to make sure you’re OK for the rest of the sea­son. … I def­i­nitely would have been a guy that re­tired ear­lier if I was play­ing in this era. Those last cou­ple years when I was mulling over re­tire­ment, I might have shaved off some years be­cause of the money. It’s a huge fac­tor, it really is.”


Muham­mad played 14 years in the NFL, in­clud­ing 11 with the Pan­thers, be­fore re­tir­ing fol­low­ing the 2009 sea­son.

Kuechly re­tire­ment: “The ini­tial re­ac­tion for me? I felt a lit­tle re­morse. I felt sorry for the kid. I really did. I sym­pa­thized with Luke a lot be­cause of who he is as a per­son, which is so much more im­pres­sive than what he does on the field. I don’t know his par­ents, but what a great job they did. ... Good guys de­serve to play a long time. And so I felt re­morse, see­ing such a great guy who loves the game with so much pas­sion have to leave the game early. I’m sad­dened by the fact his ca­reer has come to an end.”

The re­tire­ment de­ci­sion: “Af­ter my stint in Chicago, I signed a twoyear deal with the Pan­thers and I played ev­ery day and ev­ery down of that two-year con­tract, which took me to 14 years (at the end of the 2009 sea­son).

“My time was prob­a­bly com­ing close to the end. I was still healthy. But I was start­ing to take a really strong in­ter­est in off-the­field things . ... Af­ter I played that last game, I still had teams that were in­ter­ested in me, but I just made the same de­ci­sion that Luke made and I just de­cided to walk away from the game. I went out on my own terms.

“We didn’t have all the so­cial me­dia in 2009. I didn’t have the emo­tional Twit­ter feed. But I def­i­nitely can iden­tify with what Luke went through, be­cause I went through some­thing sim­i­lar, and it was just as dif­fi­cult.”

Health now: “I think it’s pretty good. I still can run. I only had two major surg­eries in my 14-year ca­reer — my wrist and my el­bow. I had some bone chips re­moved from my el­bow and I broke my wrist. All those hap­pened in the first three years of my ca­reer so I wound up play­ing without a major surgery or major in­jury (for his last 11 years). I feel like I dodged a bul­let a lit­tle bit.”

A re­gret: “For ev­ery pro­fes­sional ath­lete, you think about your legacy. I wanted to bring a Su­per Bowl to this city, and I was not able to ac­com­plish that. So you leave some things un­fin­ished. Those parts ob­vi­ously make it harder.”

Fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions: “A lot of the de­ci­sions that ath­letes made in the past about ex­tend­ing their ca­reer past that in­ter­nal clock that says, ‘Hey, it’s time’ were prob­a­bly driven fi­nan­cially.

“That’s not the case now. They make so much money in a short pe­riod of time, so this whole no­tion of ‘Play ‘til they kick you out’ — it doesn’t ex­ist any­more. What I made in my first four-year con­tract — maybe a lit­tle over $2 mil­lion — guys get that in a sign­ing bonus now for the ex­act same po­si­tion where I was drafted.

“... Some of the guys mak­ing th­ese (early re­tire­ment) de­ci­sions — you look at An­drew Luck. He’s com­ing from a fam­ily that has a good fi­nan­cial foun­da­tion, right?

“And that’s not the same for a lot of young play­ers in the league, they don’t all come from strong

fi­nan­cial back­grounds, where their fam­ily is in a po­si­tion to say: ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this.’ For some of th­ese guys, they are the sav­iors of their fam­ily. So the de­ci­sions of ‘to play or not to play’ are dif­fer­ent for those guys.”


Walls played 15 years in the NFL, in­clud­ing seven for the Pan­thers from 19962002. In 2019, the for­mer tight end was elected to the Pan­thers’ Hall of Honor.

Kuechly re­tire­ment: “I was kind of caught of­f­guard. I didn’t see that com­ing. I loved watch­ing him. He just brought so much joy to every­one.

“When you see your­self on film and it’s not as good as it was, though, it’s very frus­trat­ing. And I ad­mire play­ers like Luke who can make the step to say, ‘Hey, it’s time for me to re­tire.’ Some folks are like me; they are too hard­headed to do that. And then you get frus­trated at your in­jury, you get frus­trated you’re not play­ing at the same level.

“Then I see a guy like Luke Kuechly say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be­come like that.’ I ad­mire a guy who can make that choice.”

‘Fa­ther Time wins’: “You want to step on the field if you feel like you can com­pete at a high level. And a lot of it is ac­count­abil­ity to your team­mates. You don’t want to let your team­mates down, your fans down, your coaches down. Play­ers may be one of the last ones to re­al­ize: ‘Hey, I’m not play­ing at the level I did be­fore.’ Even­tu­ally, Fa­ther Time wins.

“I kind of had in my mind I would play un­til my body just couldn’t play any­more. So it fi­nally got to a point where I just couldn’t per­form at the level I ex­pected to play. The pains and the surg­eries — and I had 11 of them dur­ing my play­ing ca­reer — took their toll. Fi­nally, it took away my de­sire to play. It was time to hang it up.”

The right time to re­tire: “If I had it all to do over, I prob­a­bly should have re­tired a cou­ple of years ear­lier. And I prob­a­bly would have felt bet­ter about the way I ended my ca­reer than what ac­tu­ally hap­pened. In Coach (Ge­orge) Seifert’s last year with the Pan­thers (in 2001), I prob­a­bly would have re­tired that year if we hadn’t gone 1-15. But I came back (and played two more years).”

The con­stant pain: “You never feel good. And be­lieve me, I don’t care if it’s your first or sec­ond year or your 14th or 15th year. You don’t feel good. You’re al­ways hurt­ing. Some­times you feel bet­ter than oth­ers. Some games you feel bet­ter than other games. There’s al­ways some­thing both­er­ing you. You try to over­come it. That’s not just one player; that’s ev­ery­body on that field.”

Why play­ers like An­drew Luck, Rob Gronkowski

and Kuechly are re­tir­ing early: “You (cur­rent play­ers) see what has hap­pened to the older play­ers. And you worry. You al­ways worry about what the fu­ture looks like. If you get one or more to start do­ing it (re­tir­ing early), then it be­comes more of an op­tion. Back in the old-school days, no­body would do it, right? They all had the Brett Favre at­ti­tude: ‘Hey, I can walk, I can talk, so I’m go­ing to get out there.’”


Wal­lace was a de­fen­sive end in the NFL from 19972006, in­clud­ing five sea­sons with the Pan­thers.

Enough is enough: “The Pan­thers in 2007 (re­leased me). It was just a salary cap thing. I did not want it to end that way. We all kind of want to be in con­trol of how we walk away from the game. I wanted to still have my hat in the pot to play again and I trained and I stayed ac­tive. I got called in for a work­out in Buf­falo later dur­ing train­ing camp and was able to get signed and play in two or three pre­sea­son games.

“My ca­reer ended with a shoul­der in­jury, a bro­ken col­lar­bone, a rup­tured AC joint. I think I knew when the Pan­thers re­leased me that my body was tired. But it was some­thing about go­ing out on my terms that made me go to Buf­falo and made me con­tinue to try and play. It was the last pre­sea­son game in Detroit. It was pain, but it was also re­lief. I knew that was my way out. I knew I would be able to walk away. I knew there was noth­ing I could do. It was a tough tran­si­tion walk­ing away from that brother­hood, from the game, from the crowd and ev­ery­thing else.”

Out of his hands: “We all want to feel like we have some say in our ca­reer, in our path where we go. I played for five teams in a 10-year ca­reer . ... You re­al­ize you don’t have con­trol over your own path some­times, the ma­jor­ity of us. The guys who aren’t the top-10 play­ers. You want to be able to walk away, call it quits on your own terms, de­cide when you’ve had enough, but it doesn’t work that way for all of us for one rea­son or an­other. The game will just chew you up and spit you out and you don’t get to de­cide when it’s had enough of you.”

Kuechly re­tire­ment: “I felt his time was wind­ing down, be­cause you could see the toll that some of the head in­juries had played, just be­ing a stu­dent of the game. I watched him all year, he is a tack­ling ma­chine. I also watched how he played the game, his abil­ity or in­abil­ity to be as phys­i­cal as I think a mid­dle line­backer should be, told me that the game had slipped away. I think he was smart. My sec­ond re­ac­tion was so happy for him that he was able to make this de­ci­sion, 28-years old and be­ing able to walk away from the game rel­a­tively healthy and do what most of us can’t do, make a de­ci­sion to leave the game and not go with our heart.

“... Five years from to­day, when we’re talk­ing about Hall of Famers, I can al­most guar­an­tee you that Luke Kuechly … without a doubt he is one of the great­est foot­ball play­ers in the NFL. I be­lieve he will be a first-bal­lot, unan­i­mous Hall of Fame in­ductee.”


Del­homme played pro foot­ball for 15 sea­sons, in­clud­ing two in NFL Europe. He was the Pan­thers’ start­ing quar­ter­back for seven years and made the team’s Hall of Honor in 2019.

Af­ter Carolina: “I got re­leased from Carolina in 2010 and I still wanted to play. I had been pretty much in­jury-free, but I got hurt in Cleve­land in 2010,

I had two high an­kle sprains. That was just a mis­er­able sea­son for me phys­i­cally. The NFL went into the lock­out and I wasn’t sure what my plans were, to be quite hon­est. I was 36 at the time, so I knew it was close. I was pretty re­signed to the fact that I was (done play­ing). ... I ended up go­ing to Hous­ton late in the sea­son, they were rolling along, had a good foot­ball team, had some in­juries. The NFL was so great to me, but my ex­pe­ri­ence in Cleve­land, (where he played in 2010, but dealt with mul­ti­ple an­kle in­juries), be­ing hurt was such a downer that I wanted to end on a good note and I’m glad I did. But that’s when I knew it was go­ing to be it. In 2012, I had mul­ti­ple teams con­tact me about go­ing in as a backup, but I knew when I was done.”

Kuechly mov­ing on: “The last game (of 2019) against the Saints, I thought the first quar­ter watch­ing him play, dur­ing the broad­cast, he was just play­ing vi­o­lent. You could see the speed, how he was play­ing and I re­mem­ber say­ing to my­self, ‘Man, just get him out of this thing healthy.’ His hel­met was pulled from him late in the first quar­ter, early sec­ond. And I re­mem­ber think­ing I’m glad they did that . ... In the video, it took ev­ery ounce of his be­ing for him to say that and he didn’t like say­ing it. If I can’t play up to those stan­dards, I’m not play­ing any­more. And those stan­dards were the best line­backer in foot­ball.”


Kevin Greene is a mem­ber of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame. The line­backer played 15 years in the NFL, in­clud­ing three of his last four sea­sons with the Pan­thers. He is third on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 160 sacks.

Ad­vice from Bill Par­cells: “Year 13 or 14, we were play­ing the New York Jets in the Mead­ow­lands, and I was out on the field warm­ing up. Bill Par­cells came up to me and he goes, ‘How many you got left in you now, boy?’ And I said, ‘Coach, I really don’t know. I don’t know when the right time is to hang up the cleats.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m go­ing to tell you the same thing that I told all the great ones that I coached. When you wake up one morn­ing and you don’t feel like get­ting in the pile, and you don’t feel like hunt­ing the way you used to hunt, when you just don’t feel like hit­ting any­body, that’s really when you need to step away. And you know what, 91, there’s no shame in it, be­cause you’ve had a heck of a ca­reer.’

“That mo­ment really kind of opened my eyes about when the right time for me to re­tire was, be­cause I re­al­ized he just de­scribed what was slowly set­tling in to me at the time. Around Year 14 I knew my ag­gres­sive­ness, my abil­ity to hunt, hit­ting peo­ple, it started to leave me. I really wasn’t go­ing to come back from my 15th year, I knew I was done my 14th year, but my wife, Tara, ba­si­cally talked me into play­ing that fi­nal sea­son, be­cause I was un­der con­tract ... I re­luc­tantly went to mini­camp my 15th sea­son, but I hon­ored what my wife had men­tioned and played. I had a good year (12 sacks for Carolina in 1999), but I knew it was done. It was kind of cleared up for me when I talked to Bill Par­cells.”

Many surg­eries: “I’ve had is­sues. I’ve had both hips re­placed, ended up hav­ing four shoul­der surg­eries, I had two stents put in my heart and I lost count of how many con­cus­sions I had when I played. But I wouldn’t change any­thing. It is what it is.”

The love of the game: “When I re­tired, I wanted to show I could put bet­ter num­bers on the board than the great Lawrence Tay­lor, and I was able to do that . ... I did a func­tion in Hawaii dur­ing the Pro Bowl ... and Jon Gru­den tried to get me to come back and be a third-down pass rusher with the Raiders at the time (Jan­uary 2000). And I told him, ‘No, I’m done.’ I think I did some­thing that not a lot of peo­ple can do, which is play your pas­sion out, all your pas­sion for this game of foot­ball that I truly loved.”

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­

For­mer Pan­thers line­backer Luke Kuechly, 28, re­tired from the NFL on Tues­day. What does it take to walk away from the game? We asked some Carolina and NFL leg­ends.

RUSTY BUR­ROUGHS As­so­ci­ated Press

For­mer Pan­thers de­fen­sive end Al Wal­lace (96) cel­e­brates af­ter a touch­down. Wal­lace said that many play­ers, in­clud­ing him­self, didn’t get to choose ex­actly when to re­tire.

Char­lotte Ob­server file photo

Tight end Wes­ley Walls, who now says he should have re­tired two years ear­lier, was named to the Carolina Pan­thers’ in­au­gu­ral Hall of Honor class in 2019.

Muhsin Muham­mad


For­mer Pan­thers line­backer Kevin Greene is a mem­ber of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame. He had a 15-year NFL ca­reer. Greene said it was some ad­vice from leg­endary coach Bill Par­cells that opened his eyes about when to re­tire.


For­mer Pan­thers quar­ter­back Jake Del­homme played for Carolina from 2003-09, lead­ing the team to the Su­per Bowl in his first year.

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