Tuesday was a good day in the life of Luke Kuechly.
After exactly one month of no real football due to a concussion he suffered Sept. 13, Carolina’s star linebacker got to rejoin his Panthers teammates and go through a whole practice.
If life is fair, Tuesday will only be the first of many more good days for Kuechly. He is only 24. Last month he signed a five-year, $62 million contract extension with Carolina that keeps him under contract with the Panthers through 2021. Kuechly is so talented and so smart that he could end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.
That’s the high end. Then there is the low end, which can be evoked with just two words:
We all know that life is not fair sometimes, and that’s why I will worry about Kuechly and his head for the rest of this season. He believes he’s not going to get another concussion, and everyone involved has been very careful by having him sit out 14 of Carolina’s 16 quarters this season. But there’s no way to know for sure.
Kuechly, of course, would have liked to have come back earlier. If it were up to only him, as he said on Tuesday: “I would have played as much as I could. But what’s the smart thing to do, and what’s the right thing to do, versus what you want to do. That’s kind of the balance you’ve got to find. Obviously, I want to play every game. But you have to understand stuff needs to be taken care of, or you may get another one.”
You may get another one.
Those are five haunting words – the very five words that ended Morgan’s career prematurely.
Morgan, remember, was Kuechly before there was a Kuechly. In 2003, the Panthers’ Super Bowl season, Morgan was truly one of the best middle linebackers in the game. In that Super Bowl loss, Morgan set a Panthers record of 25 tackles – a number so astounding only Kuechly has surpassed it for Carolina, and then only once. In 2004, Morgan made the Pro Bowl.
But Morgan also missed nearly half of his potential starts in seven years as a Panther. By his count, he had at least five concussions. He tried different sorts of helmets. He wore a mouthpiece. He sat out. Nothing worked for long.
The late Sam Mills once told me Morgan could have had a Hall of Fame career if Morgan could have only stayed healthy. Instead, he retired way earlier than he wanted to.
This was only Kuechly’s first concussion, he said Tuesday, and medical science has advanced a lot in the decade since Morgan was at his peak. The NFL’s concussion protocol can be frustrating for fans because it slows things down for players in terms of returning to the field, but it is a hugely positive step.
“I was told that as long as you give it time and let it heal, you’re not going to be any more susceptible to one in the future,” Kuechly said. “If you can be smart about it and let it heal, then like they told me, you don’t have to worry about it in the future. Because once it heals, it heals, and you’re good.”
Brain injuries aren’t quite that simple – anyone who has ever had one or knows someone who has had one can tell you that. But the “once it heals, it heals” mantra may be absolutely true in Kuechly’s case, and he absolutely needs to believe it. A middle linebacker worried about getting another concussion cannot last in the NFL.
In the short term, I have no doubt Kuechly will play again, play well and play a lot. Coach Ron Rivera can talk about putting Kuechly on a “pitch count” against Seattle all he wants to – he used the term a couple of times Tuesday. But when it’s the fourth quarter in Seattle and it’s a one-score game as it always is, you better believe Kuechly plays every snap.
“I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to rock,” Kuechly said, and he sounded like he had no doubt he would be.
As Tom Petty sang, the waiting is the hardest part – and Kuechly has had enough of that in the past month to last him the year. He called the past month “like detention at recess” at one point Tuesday. While it’s hard to imagine the Panthers’ golden boy ever getting assigned detention, you could understand his point.
There is not a whole lot in Kuechly’s life besides football, which is fine.
It reminds me of something Morgan once told me.
“Football is me,” Morgan said. And it was, until it wasn’t.
Like Kuechly, Morgan was one of the Panthers’ truly fine human beings. He deservedly found a different version of a happy ending. Morgan is director of pro personnel for the Seahawks. He ended up with a Super Bowl ring after all, just not in the way he originally dreamed.
Kuechly got hurt in the second quarter of Carolina’s opening game against Jacksonville. From then until now, Kuechly has slowly let his brain heal. The doctors have cleared him. He believes he’s good to go – that the one tackle against Jacksonville was an anomaly. That it will never happen again.
But no one really knows.
Kuechly climbs back onto the horse Sunday. We all should hope and pray he never falls off again.