An inside look at what it’s like to walk away from the NFL
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.
KEVIN DONNALLEY: “I DON’T THINK I WOULD HAVE LASTED 13 YEARS IN THE NFL TODAY.”
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.”
MUHSIN MUHAMMAD: “I FELT SORRY FOR THE KID. I REALLY DID.”
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.”
WESLEY WALLS: “YOU DON’T FEEL GOOD. YOU’RE ALWAYS HURTING.”
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.’”
AL WALLACE: “THE GAME WILL JUST CHEW YOU UP AND SPIT YOU OUT.”
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.”
JAKE DELHOMME: “YOU JUST KNOW WHEN YOU JUST CAN’T DO IT ANYMORE.”
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: “I PLAYED MY PASSION OUT.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.