CHARLOTTE – As a professional athlete who understands the impact of concussions on career longevity, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an understandably emotional connection to Luke Kuechly’s stunning retirement from the NFL.
“Relief,” Earnhardt said Wednesday when asked about his reaction to the Carolina Panthers star linebacker walking away from pro football at 28. “I think my feeling for Luke is relief.
“He had an amazing career. Obviously, I’m sure he would have loved to have played longer, but he’s made some amazing, great choices for himself and for his family and his future.”
Though Kuechly didn’t reference concussions during a poignant 5-minute video posted Tuesday night by the Panthers to announce his decision, he cited no longer being able to play the game “fast, physical and strong” as he always had. A history of concussions plagued an eight-year career for Kuechly, who missed the last six games of the 2016 season and another in ’17 with a head injury.
“I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision,” he said in the video.
That’s a similar sentiment to when Earnhardt announced nearly three years ago that he would be ending his career as a NASCAR driver at 43. Though healthy enough to have driven beyond the 2017 season, the 15-time most popular driver said the long-term quality of life with his family and the risk of another head injury weighed heavily in a decision to trade in his helmet for a headset as an NBC Sports analyst.
Earnhardt suffered several concussions during his Cup career. He admitted to hiding one for a few months while racing in 2002. Multiple concussions in the 2012 season sidelined him for two races, and he missed the final 18 races of ’16 while recuperating from another concussion.
“When you get in those types of situations that (Kuechly) was in, you have to make some difficult choices, and I think he made the right one,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like that a lot of people can learn from that. I think he set an amazing example for a lot of young folks to follow.”
Earnhardt has used his injuries as a platform for raising awareness about concussions, particularly in his candid 2018 autobiography, “Racing to the Finish.”
“It’s all improving across the board,” Earnhardt said about how concussions are handled in pro sports. ‘Especially when you see what Luke’s doing and making the choices he’s making, it’s obvious that we’re all a lot better off because of what we’ve learned as a society over the last decade about concussions and the seriousness of those situations, and how we need to take care of our bodies and when to step away and when to know that you need to take a break.
“I feel like we’re all much better off today than we were five or 10 years ago. And I can only see that improving. The understanding about concussions is always improving. The science behind it. Everything is getting better year after year. And that’s exciting. It’s good for our competitors today, no matter what sport you’re playing. It’s great for our veterans and guys who have retired because the science is just improving for everybody to diagnose and treat even years and decades after your playing days or being in a race car. You can still improve your quality of life and that makes me really, really happy.”
Earnhardt’s departure from the No. 88 Chevrolet received virtually universal support in NASCAR, and he was pleased by a similar reaction for Kuechly.
“(Kuechly) gave everything he could to when he was out on the field for the better of his team,” Earnhardt said. “If you listen to comments from his coaches and the players that he’s played with, you understand exactly what kind of person he was and how much of a teammate he was to the guys he played with. That speaks volumes.
“You just have to want to support his decision. (I’m) excited about his future and what he might do next and the next chapter for him. It’s going to be positive and successful, you’d imagine, because of the type of person that he is.”
As a broadcaster, Earnhardt has moved into a more ambassadorial role in his life after driving. That was evident Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which unveiled a new Glory Road exhibit that highlighted 18 championship cars personally selected by Earnhardt (including two driven by his late seven-time champion father).
“I do love to be acknowledged for the passion that I have for (NASCAR) history,” Earnhardt said. “If you’re a bit of a historian of the sport, any involvement in anything the Hall of Fame is going to be doing is awesome and going to be a great experience. I’m just glad that they asked me and hope that people appreciate what we created. I feel great and confident about it and hopefully feel good about it adding a lot to the experience when you come through here.”