The outcome of Thursday night’s Panthers-Saints game will not be remembered. It was a relatively uneventful, mundane NFL contest. A few turnovers by New Orleans, some good play-making by Carolina, and an important third-down throw by Cam Newton to seal the win. It looked like thousands of other games we’ve seen between a pair of teams that may miss the playoffs.
Nothing looked quite like the hyperventilating by linebacker Luke Kuechly, though. That will be replayed on screens and in minds for a long time. It’ll end up becoming one of those impressions zapped onto a wall in your brain, like LeBron’s cartoonish expression when he hit the 3-pointer to beat the Magic, or Michael Jordan’s ruthlessness when he hit the shot over Craig Ehlo.
The difference is those were moments of exhilaration and celebration, emotions that are easy for us to feel good and comfortable about. One of our gladiators, one of our tough guys, sitting on the field helpless and sobbing is jarring. It is jarring not because of the tears, we have seen that before in defeat hundreds of times. Heck, we have seen tears in victory plenty as well. We have most certainly seen tears from injury. But tears out of fear of something so nebulous like brain trauma… that would be new ground.
When Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth reacted to Kuechly’s moment of pain, their reflex was the simple one: He was devastated by what appeared to have been a leg injury — a guy who loved the game so much he couldn’t bear thinking about missing time or not being there with his teammates. This was an understandable reaction from the booth because we’ve seen that scene play out many times before. The image of a football player being carted off the field, holding his knee, contemplating a shredded ligament, fighting back tears is commonplace.
But this was different, or at least it seemed so as we watched the pain on his face over replay. When it happens on national television in primetime we have more time to focus on it, digest and discuss. It would’ve been startling as a highlight in the middle of a suffocating Sunday worth of football. But as the only game of the moment, happening to a star player, with an entire business day of the media cycle to dissect, this becomes even bigger.
The leg injury theory was punctured quickly, and after the game the Panthers confirmed the rising speculation: he suffered a concussion. And with the information we’re presently armed with, the knowledge brain injuries have led some players down such a dark road they have taken their own lives, Kuechly’s sobbing takes on an even starker picture. Could it have been fear? Fear of long-term effects? Fear of confusion? Fear of attempting to regain some stability when your brain’s circuit board is resetting itself?
Super Bowl champion Christian Fauria works for WEEI radio now in Boston. He tweeted, “Kuechly tears are from concussion symptom. Not BC of injury. Tears arrive BC of fear of NOT knowing what the hell is going on. #helpless.”
Jason Davis writes for ESPN.com. He tweeted: “Can’t bring myself to watch the video of Kuechly weeping. Watched my brother suffer something similar and break down crying. It wasn’t out of fear or pain. It was the concussion scrambling his emotional controls. Incredibly scary.”
We know playing doctor is a losing proposition. Every body and impact is different, every brain is wired differently. But undoubtedly Kuechly was dealing with a very powerful and emotionally arresting moment. Those were not tears from physical pain. Those were tears of emotional distress, maybe because he sat out more than a month last year with a concussion. Maybe he was scared. When the tears come from fear, unknowing, or perhaps too much knowledge, it grabs us all by the throat.
At the risk of wading into the modern, knee-jerk hyperbole pool, this may well be one of the watershed moments in football’s history. Not because of the game itself, but because of where we stand in the timeline of concussion awareness. The league is attempting to de-sanitize the sport from this head-cracking violence with every rule change. Parents are asking tough questions about letting their children play. Renowned sports surgeon Dr, James Andrews believes the creation of football today wouldn’t even be allowed. Could this become a symbol of our growing discomfort with the sport?
Though, most of us are usually looking for a rationalization to keep loving football and to feel good cheering it on. So that if/when Kuechly is cleared and playing again, we may see it merely as a guy upset about having his passion taken away temporarily.
In the middle of this, with parts of the media looking to tap into that concussion sensitivity, and another part blindly defending it as a “War Against Football” this is a powerful image and a piece of fertile battleground. We understand and accept crying in sports. We explain that away easily. But we are fearful of the unknown. And that seems to be what Luke, and the rest of us, have been faced with.
D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.