When Luke Kuechly retired from the N.F.L. in 2020 at 28, he had played eight stellar years as a linebacker for the Carolina Panthers and had sustained at least three documented concussions.
He joined other star players under the age of 30, including quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had opted to leave pro football largely over concerns about the long-term health implications of playing. (Gronkowksi returned after a season.)
But Kuechly, 32, still keeps close ties to the game, having worked for a season as a scout for his former team and now coaching football for 12-year-olds with his former teammate Greg Olsen.
In a phone interview from his home in Charlotte, N.C., Kuechly discussed watching current N.F.L. players like Tua Tagovailoa receive hits to the head, whether he worries about his cognitive health, and what he tells his players’ parents about the dangers of tackle football.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
You visited Congress last month to discuss traumatic brain injury. What did you think the level of awareness was?
I think everybody understands the situation around T.B.I. and concussion in the head space. I think everybody understands that there’s stuff that can be done. But the more we can get up there and talk about it and explain perspectives and different ways to look at it and small ways to help to have a positive impact, I think the better off we are.
You joined the N.F.L. in 2012, when the awareness of concussions was changing dramatically. Did you notice that difference?
I think everything in the N.F.L. has such a different microscope on it, really, a lot of times in a positive way. There’s a very stringent return to play policy, No. 1. No. 2, there’s independent spotters at every game, at every stadium, and there’s multiple ones that their sole job is to watch the game to see if anybody gets hit or acts abnormal. So the N.F.L., I think, has done a really good job of trying to keep the players safe on the field and give them the opportunity to be safe in their return to play as well.
You had several concussions. Were any of them harder to deal with than the others?
You look at other guys, you learn from other guys, you talk to a lot of guys — and that’s what you hear, is: “Hey, let yourself get better. Once you’re better, you can go back out there.” So that’s what I learned, fortunately early on, from our trainers and our coaches and different doctors and guys that I played with who said this isn’t like a sprained ankle where you can just deal with it and get through it and tough it out. This is something where you’ve got to be smart and understand that this is a different situation. You got to let it get better.
Do you think that the culture of stepping away from the game at a relatively young age has changed in the time that you were in the N.F.L.?
If you look back on it, Barry Sanders stepped away a couple of years early. Calvin Johnson obviously stepped away. Gronk stepped away. I think it just happens at a different point for everybody. [Sanders and Johnson both retired at 30. Gronkowski announced his first retirement at 29.]
You worked as a scout for the Panthers in 2020. Why?
I love football, I love being around the game, I love being around the guys. And that was a really good opportunity for me to slowly, over the course of the year, transition away from the team, but still being able to be around it and be around the game, be involved and to kind of have some impact. And obviously there’s quite a bit of structure involved with that just because we were there pretty much every day working on different projects, checking the waiver wires, looking at free agents.
I assume you watched what happened to Tua Tagovailoa last year. Did that make you cringe a little bit?
No. The biggest thing for me is I just want guys to be safe. I want guys to have the opportunity to play as long as they can with the game that they love. But I think everybody in the N.F.L. understands that it’s a violent game. It’s physical, it’s tough. There’s big strong guys running around, and getting hurt is kind of inevitable. I want Tua to play as long as Tua wants to, and I want him to play as safe as he can. But ultimately it’s kind of the game right now: It’s just big guys running fast, hitting hard, lifting weights. Things happen very quickly out there.
A study was published last week that looked at not just the number of hits that players take over the course of their careers, but also their cumulative impact. Do you worry about your own long-term cognitive health?
I’m not worried about it, but I’m very aware of it. Since I’ve got done playing, I’ve read a lot. I’ve done a lot of homework. I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’m not worried about it, but I’m very aware of like, “Hey, there are certain things that you can do that are going to be beneficial and might as well take advantage of it.”
I think the biggest thing for me is healthy lifestyle. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, be outside, have good relationships with people. Keep your mind active.
When you’re coaching, what do you tell parents who are concerned about the safety of the game?
I tell a lot of people: “Hey, you do what you think is best for your child. You’re their parent. You ultimately know what’s best for them.” I just talk about the positives, whether it’s what I’ve learned about toughness, how to fight through things, how to build relationships, the people that I’ve met through the game, the experiences I’ve had with the game.