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The Panthers' Luke Kuechly leaving the field on a cart during a game in 2016.

“Now is an opportunity to step away with what’s going on here.”

And then he was gone.

Luke Kuechly, maybe the best linebacker of his generation, retired this week from the Carolina Panthers in a sudden and shocking announcement that leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the franchise.

What was already a formidable rebuild is now a complete reconstruction. Without its middle linebacker, Carolina is now a team without an identity.

Kuechly wasn’t just the Panthers’ best football player. He was the soul of the team.

The reaction from teammates and coaches was immediate and heartfelt, from Greg Olsen to Ron Rivera. There was a wistfulness about it, an acknowledgment of Kuechly as a great player and a great leader. Not since Sam Mills has there been a player of his caliber or a leader of his standing.

And his decision to walk away caught everyone off guard.

At 28, Kuechly would seem to be in his prime. But the truth is, he slipped at times this season. You could see it in the way he played and in the way the defense played around him. You don’t gradually slow down in the NFL, not playing middle linebacker. One day you’re at the top of your game and the next, you hit a wall.

Kuechly believes he has at least reached that wall, and with the Panthers’ plans to reconstruct the roster and coaching staff, Kuechly could see the writing on that wall.

“Now is an opportunity to step away with what’s going on here,” he said in a video recorded in the “linebackers room,” inside the stadium, the room into which he would disappear for hours at a time, studying film and basically designing a defensive game plan for himself, for the defense and for the coaches.

He was that good.

A series of concussions concerned his fans and his teammates, and until Tuesday night Kuechly seemed to be willing to play through them. The 2013 NFL defensive player of the year missed seven games because of concussions in recent years, the most jarring episode coming in 2017 when he was seen on the sideline in tears before leaving the field on a cart.

He missed significant time in training camp last summer for reasons not explained, though he insisted it wasn’t related to another concussion.

Carolina’s defense in 2019 was terrible, and a big part of it was the inability of the linebackers to plug running gaps. Kuechly seemed to be out of position at times, in part because Carolina’s defensive front was so thin. Only twice all season did the Panthers hold opposing teams to rush for less than 100 yards, and three teams ran for more than 200 yards.

Kuechly still led the team in tackles, but one year after making 20 tackles for losses, he made only four, and for the first time in his career he didn’t record a sack.

And yet he was still the focal point of the defense, the one player opponents had to account for on every play, if not for his physical presence then for his ability to read opposing offenses, positioning his teammates and calling out the other teams plays before they ran them,

He was set to play in the Pro Bowl for the seventh time in eight seasons, but he pulled out.

Everything began to change this past two seasons, from Rivera’s decision to reshuffle the defensive coaching staff, to the abrupt change from a base 4-3 defense to a more radical 3-4, altering the role of the linebackers. The firing of Rivera, himself a linebacker when he played in the NFL, sent a message to the team, one that Kuechly felt personally.

This was no longer his team, and he knew it.

But in the end, no one knew what he was really thinking.

“There's only one way to play this game since I was a little kid,” he said in the video. “Play fast, play physical and play strong. 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.

“I still want to play, but I don't think it's the right decision. I thought about it for a long time.”

Somehow, the Carolina Panthers will go on without No. 59 on the field, without the entire stadium calling his name play after play after play. The haunting sound of “Luuuuuuke!” has faded away.

Luke Kuechly has retired, and the Panthers are suddenly rebuilding from inside out. A middle linebacker for the ages has taken off his helmet for the final time.

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Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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