CHARLOTTE – When the Panthers drafted Luke Kuechly ninth overall in 2012, most everyone struggled to pronounce his name and couldn't figure out why Carolina selected a linebacker with their first pick.
It didn't take long for everyone to get it – the proper pronunciation and Kuechly's value to a defense, or better yet an entire organization.
Given Kuechly's history with head injuries and the particularly violent nature of the position he plays, many assumed he wouldn't play well into his 30s. There seemed to be an early acceptance of that likelihood.
But even if you sort of saw it coming, when the 28-year-old announced to the world he was stepping away from the game he loves with a heartfelt goodbye on Tuesday night, it was shocking. And heartbreaking.
Ever since he arrived with the long curly hair and glasses, Kuechly has been beloved – not because he's an amazing football player, but because of the way he treats people.
Teammates, coaches and opposing players have always marveled at his uncanny ability to diagnose and make plays on the field. His unrivaled study habits combined with his pure athleticism made him the gold standard MIKE linebacker. To steal Kuechly's favorite word to describe players who impress him – he was simply a stud.
And quite possibly the nicest guy you'll ever meet.
This statement from owner David Tepper sums it up: "Luke is a once-in-a-generation player and someone we want every member of this organization to emulate."
Teammates want their kids to be like Kuechly. Coaches want their sons to be like Kuechly. High school football players want to be Kuechly.
Once that ball was kicked, the switch flipped and he transformed into a football-seeking machine.
He wasn't a rah-rah guy in the Carolina locker room. That's not how he led. But he set the standard, as all good leaders do.
As I wrapped my head around the news last night, the last one-on-one interview I conducted with Kuechly came to mind.
It was ahead of the 2019 season finale against New Orleans and I asked Kuechly about the ways running back Christian McCaffrey had grown as a leader.
"He's a guy that does everything the right way," Kuechly told me. "Naturally, people are going to follow him. He also understands the dynamics of teams and the dynamics of locker rooms. He understands that he needs to show everybody before he starts telling people what to do. He's shown everyone who he is."
Sounds a lot like Kuechly's rise, doesn't it?
Then he said this.
"And as older guys move on, it presents opportunities for other guys to step into that role."
At the time, I thought Kuechly was referring to departed leaders like Ryan Kalil and Thomas Davis. He was actually referring to himself.
As he said in the announcement video, he's thought about this for a while. He's known.
Seeing a superstar with Hall of Fame credentials walk away so suddenly is difficult to digest, but let's celebrate those eight seasons for what they were.
Kuechly played the linebacker position as well as anyone ever has. On his best days, he was an absolute terror for offenses to deal with.
For the rest of his days, he'll be remembered as an absolute legend.
View photos of Luke Kuechly from his record-breaking eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers.