"In my heart, I know it's the right thing to do." pic.twitter.com/mSDyJ0iEMw— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 15, 2020
"There's only one way to play this game since I was a little kid -- play fast, play physical and play strong,'' Kuechly said. "And at this point I don't know if I am able to do that anymore. That's the part that is the most difficult.''
Kuechly paused to gather his emotions.
"I still want to play, but I don't think it's the right decision,'' he continued. "I thought about it for a long time. Now is an opportunity to step away with what's going on here.''
Kuechly didn't explain exactly why he can't play fast, physical and strong at this point in his career. What is known is that from 2015 to 2017, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year missed seven games due to concussions.
He wore an experimental device named the "Q Collar'' around his neck the past three seasons; the inventor claimed it reduced the risk of concussions. Kuechly was last officially ruled out for a concussion after he was carted off the field in tears during a Thursday night game in 2017. He did miss time during training camp for an undisclosed injury, but he later insisted that wasn't a concussion.
Kuechly said his final farewell from his favorite place besides the field, the linebackers room at Bank of America Stadium where he watched countless hours of film to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
"I think now is the right chance for me to move on," Kuechly said. "It makes me sad because I love playing this game -- I've played it since I was a kid. It's my favorite thing in the world to do. The memories I have from this place and this organization and being on the field with these guys -- they'll never go away.''
Former Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who selected Kuechly out of Boston College with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft, expressed to ESPN.com via text that it was good Kuechly gets to "go out on his own terms.''
"One of the really good, young men to play the game, and I am proud to be able to say I got to coach him,'' wrote Rivera, now the head coach of the Washington Redskins.
Rivera was fired with four games left in the regular season, and Baylor coach Matt Rhule recently was hired to replace him. Kuechly said his decision had nothing to do with the coaching change.
Owner David Tepper praised the "tremendous impact'' Kuechly has had on the organization.
"In my two seasons with Luke, I quickly recognized how special of a person he is,'' Tepper said in a statement. "The respect he gives and garners from others as well as the positive impact he has on his peers is second to none.
"It's obviously going to be very difficult for all of us because we know that no player can replace what he's been for this organization for the last eight years. His presence can't be replicated."
Tight end Greg Olsen was one of many teammates who expressed how they felt about Kuechly on Twitter.
Words can't describe who Luke Kuechly is as a person, friend, and teammate. We have shared countless memories together both on the field and away from it. I feel honored to be his friend and I'll always appreciate the impact he has had on my life. Love you buddy pic.twitter.com/0DHYkOwDp1— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) January 15, 2020
Kuechly recently pulled out of the Pro Bowl, his seventh in eight NFL seasons. Nicknamed a "tackling machine'' at Boston College, he finished his NFL career with 1,092 tackles, the most by any player since 2012.
But what made Kuechly one of the best all-around linebackers in the league was his versatility. His 18 interceptions are the most by a linebacker in the league since 2012 and the third most in franchise history. His 75 tackles for loss are tied for fifth among linebackers during that span.
Two plays he'll be remembered for were interceptions returned for touchdowns in the playoffs against Seattle and Arizona en route to Super Bowl 50.
Whenever he made a tackle, fans in the stands shouted, "Luuuuuke!''
"While I wish we could have him for many more years, he has done everything the right way and we respect the decision that he's made,'' Tepper said. "Luke is a once-in-a-generation player and someone we want every member of this organization to emulate.''