Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly on Tuesday night announced his retirement at the young age of 28. A seven-time Pro Bowler, Kuechly retired after just eight seasons in the NFL.
It was a shock to those who have followed his heralded career. Emotions from those responding to the Boston College product retiring ranged from sadness to see him leave the field to happiness for a healthy post-football life.
But it really shouldn’t have been a shock. We’ve seen star players call it quits in the prime of their careers. Most recently, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided to retire at just 29 years old.
This got me thinking. Voters’ focus on longevity as a determining factor for Hall of Fame worthiness should now be thrown out the window.
Here’s why: Star players are retiring earlier now than ever before. We’ve seen it on a near never-ending loop over the past half-decade. Players who would normally be considered first-ballot Hall of Famers deciding on health over that gold jacket.
Kuechly was not the first: We’ve seen Hall of Fame-caliber players call it quits either in the middle of their prime or just about to hit their prime.
- Patrick Willis’ decision to retire from the San Francisco 49ers back in March of 2015 was an absolute shock. Here’s a guy that had earned a Pro Bowl appearance in each of his first seven NFL seasons before an injury-plagued 2014 campaign. Willis was widely considered the best linebacker in the NFL when he called it quits.
- Back in March of 2016, the NFL’s best receiver retired at the young age of 30. Calvin Johnson’s decision to give up the gridiron life shocked a ton of people. He was coming off a 1,200-yard season for the Lions and had averaged nearly 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns throughout his career.
- Likely the most shocking retirement, news of Andrew Luck calling it quits came as his Indianapolis Colts were playing their final preseason game back in August. Luck had dealt with injuries over the past several seasons. This physical and mental toll was too much for the then 29-year-old.
The reasoning: All of these players who have decided to call it quits in their prime had different reasons for giving up the football life.
- Willis’ decision to retire was about maintaining his health after suffering multiple injuries throughout his career. “You’ve seen me break my hand on Sunday, have surgery on Monday and play on Thursday with a cast on,” Willis said at the time.
- As it relates to Johnson’s decision to move on from the NFL, he’s recently opened up about the physical toll it took on him, also focusing on widespread opioid use. That’s been a major issue for players, former Pro Bowler Eugene Monroe included. He retired in the prime of his career, too.
- As for Luck, it was all about the injuries he’s suffered in recent seasons taking a toll on him mentally. The former No. 1 pick used that as the guise for his shocking retirement back in August.
- As you can tell, the common theme here has been long-term health. Even players who suit up into their 40s have another three-plus decades of life. Why hinder that to play a dangerous game?
The Hall of Fame voting process: All of this leads me to a final conclusion. Longevity should no longer be a determining factor.
- Kuechly earned a Pro Bowl trip in each of his final seven seasons in the NFL. That included five All-Pro honors during this span. The determining factor should be whether a player was among the best at his position during his time in the league, no matter how long he played.
- Willis himself was snubbed of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the class of 2020. Why? Longevity. He played only eight seasons in the NFL, making it to the Pro Bowl seven times and earning All-Pro honors five times. If Kuechly is a Hall of Famer, as has been noted since his retirement, Willis should be, too.
- The same thing can be said about Johnson once he becomes eligible in 2021. Six Pro Bowl trips and three All-Pro honors in nine NFL seasons while suiting up for an historically bad franchise.
- See the theme here? The idea that a player must suit up for 10-plus seasons to be Canton bound is absolutely absurd. It’s no longer about longevity.
In the end
We know more now about the physical toll football takes on players than we did in the past. Players living with CTE. An uptick in suicides. Lives never the same. If that is the science of it, who are we to snub players for focusing on their futures?
It’s patently absurd to take into account a player deciding to hang up his cleats when determining Hall of Fame worthiness. It fits into the age-old idea that these guys are not more than the sums of their parts. That they are not human. They are merely stats and fantasy football names. How did that work out for Junior Seau and his family? A spot in Canton posthumously.
This time surely needs to come to an end. Kuechly’s shocking retirement adds another layer to it.
And, as other star players give up on their careers while in their prime, we need to take all of this into account. If not, the Hall of Fame in Canton will be nothing more than a watered-down product.