Luke Kuechly and the Gruesome Part of Football
The Fine Fifteen

Luke Kuechly and the Gruesome Part of Football

The Panthers’ star linebacker is in concussion protocol with no timetable for his return, but his injury is already being used to teach high school athletes. Plus, the real reason Steve Smith Sr. came back this season and the Fine 15 power rankings for Week 12

The reaching effect of NFL injuries

The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas takes a look at the long reach of the latest concussion affecting the Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly

Last Friday night the football team at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati had a regional final against crosstown opponent Sycamore. During the school day, however, there was a lot of buzz in the hallways about a different topic: Luke Kuechly.

In the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ 23-20 win over the Saints on Thursday night, Kuechly was injured while trying to tackle running back Tim Hightower. Kuechly’s head was up, but Hightower lowered his helmet into Kuechly’s facemask and chest; as Kuechly fell backward, teammate Thomas Davis came in for support, and his helmet hit the back of Kuechly’s. In one of the most heart-wrenching NFL moments this fall, TV cameras captured Carolina’s star linebacker sitting on the turf, struggling to catch his breath between giant sobs.

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Kuechly is carted off the field in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ 23-20 win over the Saints last Thursday.

The scene resonated with viewers and football players everywhere—especially those in the St. Xavier community. Kuechly is a beloved alum who graduated in 2009. His older brother, John, was one grade ahead of him; his younger brother, Henry, graduated from St. Xavier last spring. Kuechly’s parents are big supporters of the school and its football team.

The MMQB visited St. Xavier during our Road to Super Bowl 50 cross-country trip last January and wrote about how Kuechly’s presence is still felt at the all-boys Jesuit school. “Luke was a nice boy, until he crossed that line,” St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht said then. “He could flip that switch like no one I ever coached.” He was talking about Kuechly’s competitive fire on the field. Last Thursday the nation saw a different switch flip, the scary kind that happens when a player’s body absorbs a traumatic injury.

“Everyone just kind of held their breath,” says Mike Gordon, the head athletic trainer at St. Xavier since 2005, who has cared for all three Kuechly brothers. “There are a lot of emotions going on. For any 16- or 17-year-old, this is my hero; this is the guy who went to my high school; he had my teachers. Just to feel that anxiety—he is one of the very best at his job, and can he continue to do his job?”

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Gordon estimates that at least 20 students—football players, athletes in other sports and even non-athletes—approached him and asked questions about Kuechly the next morning. Is this bad? Is his season over? Why was he crying? Kuechly’s injury presented a little differently than the “classic” signs of brain injury; there was not one brutal blow to the head but rather two smaller, successive blows, and his most noticeable symptom was his sudden burst of tears. The NBC broadcast team was initially unsure of the nature of Kuechly’s injury, speculating it might be his left leg, until the Panthers confirmed Kuechly was in concussion protocol.

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Kuechly is in concussion protocol, with no timetable set for his return.

Gordon told his high school students that not all concussions look the same, and that they can debilitate even a mighty 25-year-old NFL linebacker. “The pendulum has swung dramatically,” Gordon says. “I don’t think 15 or 20 years ago we would have been having these same kinds of conversations. Kids were concerned.”

St. Xavier is among the most aware high schools in the country when it comes to head injuries. Gordon, for starters, has worked at Bengals games as one of the independent ATC spotters, the eye in the sky that monitors for injuries on the field and communicates down to the team medical staffs. Last year and this year, a group of St. Xavier football players has been testing out a collar that, in theory, is designed to help prevent concussions by slowing the flow of blood from the brain to the rest of the body (it puts slight pressure on the jugular vein in the neck). These players undergo a full evaluation—brain imaging, EEG, vision tests and imPACT testing—before and after the season, and are compared to a control group of players not wearing the collar.

On game days, four doctors accompany Gordon on the St. Xavier sideline. Not every high school has the same resources as this well-funded private academy. Because of this, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has a firm rule that any athlete evaluated for a concussion in any sport—whether or not he or she is diagnosed with a concussion—cannot return to play within the next 24 hours. It’s a failsafe for kids whose schools might not have the qualified staff to properly evaluate players for head injuries on the sidelines.

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Football participation levels are robust at St. Xavier, where the team’s roster includes more than 100 players. There’s been a sea change in concussion awareness and recognition over the last several years, but the education is ongoing for the next generation. Kuechly’s injury served as a teaching tool for the kids. Says Gordon, “I told them there are a lot of symptoms of head injuries. Headaches and nausea and dizziness are things you might look for, but another one is emotional change, and Luke had that as well. Also, these are professional athletes, and they’re not immune to this. They’re not Superman. If you have a head injury, it’s important to not try to play tough and be a hero.”

“It reminds you of how gruesome a sport you play,” says Acho. “There’s a side of the game that can be a little scary.”

Three days after seeing what happened to Kuechly, Bears linebacker Sam Acho watched his rookie teammate, Leonard Floyd, collide headfirst with another teammate while trying to make a tackle in Chicago’s loss to the Giants. Floyd, whose head and neck compressed, lay on the ground for several minutes before being taken off the field on a backboard. He was released from a nearby hospital on Sunday night and flew back with the team to Chicago, where he is now in concussion protocol. Linebacker Pernell McPhee had tears in his eyes as the scene unfolded; after the game, Acho heard a group of teammates talking in the showers about head and neck injuries.

“It kind of brings you back to reality a little bit,” Acho said, standing next to Floyd’s locker, where the rookie’s clothes were hanging and his backpack was resting on the stool. “It reminds you of how gruesome a sport you play. There’s a lot of fun and games, people care a lot about records and wins and losses and stats … but there is another side of the game that can be a little bit scary, right? We don’t play with fear, by any means, but it’s just kind of a reality check for a lot of people. Not saying we were going out in the game, thinking, Oh, this could be me next. But it reminds you this stuff really can happen.”

Kuechly became the sixth Panthers player to be placed in concussion protocol this season. He previously suffered a concussion in Week 1 of last season, which sidelined him for three games. Last Friday, Davis posted a photo on Instagram of a smiling Kuechly giving the thumbs up. “Luke wanted me to let you guys know that he’s doing fine and thanks for your prayers!!” Davis wrote in the caption. Gordon was in touch with Kuechly and his family, offering both support and encouragement in the wake of the injury. He’s keeping the specifics of those conversations private but said Kuechly was well enough to track St. Xavier’s big overtime win against Sycamore and send a congratulatory text message on Friday night.

Multiple brain injuries bear special attention, and each subsequent injury can sometimes require a longer recovery time. Over the weekend, ESPN reported that Kuechly was considering visiting concussion specialist Micky Collins in Pittsburgh for a second opinion on how to proceed. Kuechly was absent when the Panthers returned to practice on Monday, and coach Ron Rivera said only that there is “no timetable” for his return.

“That is certainly in the back of people’s minds now, and it didn’t used to be,” Gordon says, speaking in general about the long-term view of brain injuries. “It’s a totally different conversation now than may have been had 15 years ago, when [someone would] just put towel over the guy’s head and say, he’ll be back next week. Luke is one of the smartest young men I have ever gotten to know, and I’m sure he and his family are going to get together and be patient and make the best decision for him moving forward. He is, unfortunately, well-versed in the process.”

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Steve Smith’s Real Reason for Coming Back

Against the Cowboys on Sunday, Steve Smith Sr. made the 1,000th catch of his 16-year career. It’s a remarkable milestone, one that only 13 other NFL players have ever reached. But it was not nearly as important to him as he made it sound this summer, when he cited 1,000 receptions as his motivation for reversing his 2015 retirement announcement and returning for another season.

“I keep telling people it was for the 1,000 receptions, because I think it’s an answer people would expect, a shallow answer,” Smith said, with a smirk, during training camp. “So I give them what they expect. I just say for the 1,000 [catches] because it kind of plays into how naïve people are to think that would be the only reason.”

Smith has always thrived on proving people wrong, a requisite personality trait when you enter the league as a 5'9" receiver regarded by many teams as too small to play in the NFL. And he’s still doing that this season, in (what we think is) his last hurrah. At age 37, coming off an Achilles injury and three years after being cut by the Panthers, he has 516 receiving yards through Week 11 (he’ll need to average just over 80 yards over the final six games to surpass 1,000 yards for the ninth time in his career.)

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You know the paradigm that once you talk about retirement, you are already retired? It doesn’t apply to Smith. He went into this season openly dreaming about where he’d be vacationing next spring. “I’m already starting to look,” he said in August. “One of my dreams has been to ski in the Swiss Alps. So next March, I will be in the Swiss Alps. It helps me grind through it.” (He added, as an afterthought, that he has never skied).

How is he able to be fully invested in this season, while also dreaming about the spoils of retirement? He smirked again.

“I’m a dirtbag,” he said.

He went on to explain that he is motivated in, well, unusual ways. “There are times when I go out there and play and I look at it like this,” he said. “Everybody has kids, right? I want my son, if he decides to play, he’s playing against a guy who possibly I played against his dad, and [he can say] my dad beat you like a drum, so I’m going to beat you like a drum. Generational a-- whoopings. I look at it like that. Just like anything else, an opportunity to brag. Or, I like playing a guy and the next time I’m on TV, his mom says, I hate him. Why? Because I beat your son. I got your son fired.”

Very few players are (or ever will be) wired like Steve Smith. He hasn’t made an official retirement announcement this time around, because the last time he did that he tore his Achilles halfway through what was supposed to be his final season. “I think that jinxed me,” he said, with what sounded like a tinge of real regret. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and teammates, have made it clear he is welcome back in 2017.

He hasn’t addressed his future publicly since the season began, but back in August, while he was still rehabbing his Achilles injury, he left no room for interpretation regarding his intentions.

“It’s my last one,” he said that morning during camp.

You’re sure?

“Oh, well, my contract is up,” he added. “And I’m not looking for an extension.” And then he let out a hearty cackle. The last thing anyone should do is try to predict what Steve Smith will do next.

 

THE FINE 15

1. Dallas (9-1). LW: 1. Tony Romo’s return was going to be a distraction for Dak Prescott? Ah, nope.

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2. Seattle (7-2-1). LW: 2. You know things are going well when the No. 1 receiver can flip off the offensive coordinator while breaking the huddle, and it’s hilarious instead of troubling.

3. New England (8-2). LW: 3. One aspect of Tom Brady’s game that doesn’t get enough attention is his feet. After a rocky start in San Francisco, it was his ability to slip and slither around the pocket that really saved the day.

4. Oakland (8-2). LW: 4. The Raiders were on the right side of a few officiating gaffes Monday night. Regardless, that was a gutsy “home” win in Mexico City to keep them atop the AFC West.

5. Denver (7-3). LW: 6. That would have been quite the bye if both the Chiefs and Raiders had lost. It was still pretty good for this reason: The Broncos are getting critical pieces of their defense (Talib, Ware, Wolfe) back from injuries just in time for the home stretch.

6. Kansas City (7-3). LW: 5. Watching the Raiders eke out a win against the Texans on Monday night was salt in the wound of Sunday’s home loss to the Bucs. Interesting schedule quirk to keep in mind for the division race: The Chiefs play the Broncos twice in the final six weeks, starting with this Sunday night. 

7. Atlanta (6-4). LW: 7. While the Falcons were on bye, the Bucs inched closer. They have two home games in a row, but the Falcons are just 2-2 at home this season.

8. Washington (6-3-1). LW: 10. There is no mistaking the meaning of Kirk Cousins’ “How you like me now?!” bellow aimed at GM Scot McCloughan. The team hadn’t seen enough from Cousins last season to sign him to a long-term deal. Cousins is certainly changing that with games like Sunday night’s.

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9. Detroit (6-4). LW: 8. The Lions beat the Vikings three weeks ago. If they do it again on Thursday, they’ll gain hold of the division.

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10. Giants (7-3). LW: 11. The only kind of game the Giants know how to play is a close one. But, unlike last year’s team, they’re closing these games out.

11. Pittsburgh (5-5). LW: 9. Mike Tomlin took out his frustration on the officials. More than anything else, he looked like a guy who’s frustrated with the entire season.

12. Miami (6-4). LW: 15. OK, the offense didn’t score until the last four minutes. But last year’s Ryan Tannehill couldn’t be counted on for that kind of late-game rally. Credit to Adam Gase for playing to win, rather than overtime, on that final drive.

13. Minnesota (6-4). LW: 15. Mike Zimmer’s team stopped its skid with—what else?—defense.

14. Baltimore (5-5). LW: 13. Joe Flacco’s confidence, even after a loss in Dallas, sounded a lot like a salvo at Ray Lewis, who’d questioned the QB’s passion. Who knows if the Ravens are any good, but in this year’s AFC North race, one team will just have to be good enough.

15. Philadelphia (5-5). LW: 12. Carson Wentz is going to be a really good one. But he just doesn’t have enough around him right now. Sunday’s loss in Seattle was another reminder of that.

Also receiving consideration:

16. Houston (6-4). LW: 16.
17. Tampa Bay (5-5). LW: UR.
18. Buffalo (5-5). LW: UR.
19. Indianapolis (5-5). LW: 20.
20. Carolina (4-6). LW: UR.

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