Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was a ball of grinning, thumbs-up-flashing, chuckling energy when he spoke to reporters for the first time since his scary Thursday Night Football collision a month ago.
So his response to a reporter’s question about whether he had considered the long-term effects of his concussion, the second he has sustained in as many years, was jarring in juxtaposition.
“You’re a smart guy, and you understand what happens to guys with multiple concussions at 50, at ...” a reporter started.
“What happens to ‘em?” Kuechly said with a half-grin.
In March, the NFL’s top health and safety officer, Jeff Miller, publicly acknowledged for the first time that a link between football and neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE exists, and cited findings by Dr. Ann McKee according to a report by ESPN’s Steve Fainaru. McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University, conducted a study that diagnosed diagnosed CTE in the brains of 176 people, including 90 of 94 former NFL players.
“I’m not worried about that,” said Kuechly. “There is a lot to be learned from it. There’s some studies that can say that, but I’m not a doctor and I trust what our guys say. I’m going to play football, that’s what I do. I’m not concerned with that stuff until somebody tells me otherwise.”
Head coach Ron Rivera spoke almost immediately after Kuechly, but could not speak as to how much information is provided to players by medical staff about studies done on CTE and the effects of concussions on the brain.
“That’s something they have to do with the doctors,” said Rivera. “I can’t tell you what they talk about because I haven’t been a part of it. I just do what the doctors tell me and we go from there.”
Concussions seem to be a weekly topic around the league, and seven of Kuechly’s teammates, including quarterback Cam Newton and fellow linebackers A.J. Klein and David Mayo, were in and out of the protocol this season alone.
Kuechly spent three weeks in the protocol before he was cleared and made it obvious he didn’t want to sit out, although he respected his coach’s decision.
“There are steps in place that you need to take,” he said. “Like I said, our guys do an excellent job of making sure that every aspect of it is crossed off. You just got to go through the necessary steps to get through it. There are a couple doctors you have to see, there are some tests you have to pass.
“The whole time I’m in it, you just want to make sure you get out there as soon as you can to play. It’s a process. ... Everyone knows I want to be out there as soon as I can.”
‘Protect them from themselves’
The concussion protocol, said teammate Colin Jones earlier this year, exists in the minds of some players to “protect them from themselves” when they can’t physically see the injury to their body and want to play through it as they are accustomed to doing for, say, a broken finger.
Kuechly said several times on Wednesday that he wanted to get back on the field. He exited the protocol on Saturday, but Rivera made the call to sit him Monday night at Washington with Kuechly’s long-term health in mind.
“He’s very active in practice,” said Rivera. “He’s running around, probably trying to show me (he wants to play).
“But we’ve got to do things the right way.”
Rivera said he will make a decision later this week as to whether Kuechly will play against Atlanta this weekend. Kuechly will remain week-to-week, he said.
Kuechly said coaches would also factor into his decision regarding his participation in the 2017 Pro Bowl, for which he was selected on Tuesday night.
There also had been some speculation (based largely on his tearful, hyperventilating reaction on a national level to the hit that gave him his concussion and his history with the injury) that Kuechly might mull retirement. This came in part from social media and in part from several anonymous players interviewed by Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman.
Kuechly did not want to discuss the night he suffered the concussion, and shot down retirement speculation.
“No. You appreciate those guys wanting what is best for you. It’s a thing that we’re learning more about,” he said. “I trust what our doctors have to say and I trust (head trainer Ryan Vermillion) and our coaches. ... I want to get out there and play, and this most recent time, just like the last time, everyone said ‘You’re good to go.’
“I’m holding off that ‘retirement’ word for probably a little ways down the road. So it’s something you appreciate everybody concerned with how you’re doing, but whenever my opportunity comes back I’ll be back out there.”