The shocking injury to Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly – who sustained a concussion in Carolina’s 23-20 victory over New Orleans Thursday night and is now in the NFL’s concussion protocol – is causing a rare emotional reaction in many fans. Here are five reasons I think that reaction has been so intense:
1. The tears.
Kuechly was sobbing and having trouble catching his breath going off the field. He looked a lot like an innocent kid who had just gotten badly hurt and had no idea what was wrong but who needed his parents to scoop him up.
To see one of the finest players the Panthers have ever had uncontrollably crying like that was a stunner. Kuechly looked so vulnerable – dazed, tearful and unable to think clearly enough to wave at the fans as he left the field. I have had a number of fans contact me Friday and say that the dramatic scene made them cry in front of their TVs, too.
2. NBC’s coverage.
Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth are two of the best announcers in football. They picked up quickly on Kuechly crying, and Collinsworth spoke for many as he talked over the replays and NBC’s merciless (but effective) zooming cameras that focused on Kuechly sitting on the ground afterward. Collinsworth said Kuechly looked “just broken-hearted.”
“He was sobbing out on the field,” Collinsworth said on-air. “I don’t know what’s going on here. ... Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh! I mean nobody loves the game of football and is loved by this city and is loved by his teammates more than that guy.” The fact that the game was nationally televised in prime-time hours made those TV images stick in the minds of millions.
3. The cart.
If Kuechly had walked off, this would have had a different feel.
I am sure he really wanted to walk off. Every NFL player has pride. No one wants to be carted off. But Kuechly was.
The cart’s long journey onto the field – and then its long journey back off, with the fans giving Kuechly a standing ovation and yelling “Luuuuke” – stretched the emotion out like taffy. So did the fact that so many players came up to check on Kuechly, including New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and several other Saints.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday that Kuechly had no other serious injuries, although many including Cam Newton thought the linebacker had sustained a foot or knee injury on the play. (He had been limping the play before).
So it is “just” a concussion – but remember this is Kuechly’s second in the NFL, and his first concussion in the 2015 season opener meant that he missed the next three games in a row. This could be very serious. Everyone must think not just about this season – in which the Panthers’ playoff chances are very remote – but about the next five seasons. I would not be surprised at all if that down was the last one Kuechly plays in 2016.
Longtime Panthers fans remember promising Pro Bowl linebacker Dan Morgan, who loved football as passionately as Kuechly does but whose career was ended prematurely by a series of concussions. No one wants Kuechly to wind up like that.
4. The game situation.
The Panthers already had their fans in knots, and those fans were due for an emotional outpouring.
If this had been the second play of the game, that would have been one thing. But Carolina had already let a 23-3 lead get cut in half to 23-13 when the injury occurred with 4:41 left in the game. Everybody in Bank of America Stadium was anxious and already somewhat distraught, hoping the Panthers weren’t about to blow another close one. Instead, this injury happens. And then the Panthers did end up winning, which pushed the team’s many other problems to the background and brought Kuechly’s injury even more to the fore.
5. Kuechly’s remarkable popularity.
Just before the Super Bowl, Kuechly’s No. 59 was revealed to be the second-best selling jersey in all of America at that time, trailing only Tom Brady (Cam Newton was fifth).
While some fans – particularly the older generation – are less than enamored with Newton’s look-at-me celebrations, Kuechly receives universal praise from everyone.
Kuechly is “Saint Luke.” Many parents want their children to emulate his manners. Many men want to be like him. Many women want to mother him, date him, or at least have him show them how to set their house alarm in a platonic but sweet way (as he does in all those local commercials).
In the Panthers’ stadium, there are more No. 59s in the stands now than No. 1s every week – that’s simply a fact. And those 59s are worn by men, women and children in roughly equal numbers. Cam Newton’s jersey, on the other hand, is more likely to be worn by a young man based on my observation. In my view, Newton is far more popular and well-known nationally, but Kuechly is the most popular Panther in the Carolinas.
When you’re wearing a No. 59 and No. 59 is down and crying on the field, there is a visceral reaction. That’s the guy on your shirt.
That feels like part of you down there, and that’s what happened Thursday night to thousands of Panthers fans when Kuechly couldn’t get up.
Their guy was down. He was crying.
And although maybe it will all be OK at some point, it sure doesn’t feel like that right now.