Carolina Panthers great Luke Kuechly promotes Q-Collar he believes extended his career

Former Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) in 2019, wearing the black Q-Collar around his neck, which he believes extended his playing career. Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire

INDIANAPOLIS – Luke Kuechly spent the 2021 football season hunting, fishing and traveling to beautiful wilderness spots he’d dreamed about, experiencing things he never had time for during his eight years as a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Carolina Panthers and one year as a scout for the team.

He got the same glow when he talked about shooting an elk with his dad as when he talked about the pick-six that finished off a win over the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFC Championship Game.

At 30, Kuechly looks as though he could still be one of the NFL’s elite defenders, although he insists the 20 pounds he shed since retiring in January 2020 would make that tough.

“I’d get beat up,’’ Kuechly said with a laugh.

But Kuechly misses football, and after a six-month hiatus connecting with nature and himself, he’s looking for ways to again be associated with the game.

That’s why he resurfaced last week at the NFL combine, two years after his retirement. Kuechly was there to promote the Q-Collar he wore in his final three seasons after suffering his third concussion in three years in 2016 during a prime-time telecast against the New Orleans Saints.

The thin collar wraps around the neck and applies pressure on the jugular vein to increase blood volume in the skull. That creates an airbag effect around the brain that inventor Dr. David Smith and some other scientists believe reduces the chance for concussion, particularly damage from repetitive hits.

“I love the game of football,’’ Kuechly said. “If I had the opportunity to play it forever, I would have.’’

While Kuechly won’t flat-out say concussions ended his career at 28, there is no denying they were a factor. There’s also no denying the Q-Collar he wore on an experimental basis will get more attention now that it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Kuechly believes the approval will convince more NFL players to wear the Q-Collar. The only ones who have worn it in games are Kuechly, Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Klein and former Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis.

There wasn’t much Kuechly or others could say about the collar in 2017 to convince other players to join him because it still was in the experimental stage. “Hush, hush,” as Kuechly likes to say when he’s not allowed to talk about something.

But now the future Hall of Famer wants to tell everyone about the device he believes helped extend his career.

“It’s one of those things, I trust that it works,’’ Kuechly said. “There’s a lot of other examples of it working. Did it help extend? I would hope so. Did it hurt? Absolutely not.’’

‘Luuuu-ke’ stamp of approval

Smith said he felt like a father watching his baby walk for the first time when Kuechly became the first NFL player to wear the Q-Collar in 2017. He’d seen positive results from Kuechly’s high school team, St. Xavier in Cincinnati, which had used the collar for four years.

He’d seen positive results from athletes on other high school and college teams.

But to see the collar in the NFL was a monumental step.

“The credibility Luke brings to bear, just his visibility and just the likable nature he is,’’ Smith said. “He’s just a football player’s player. That part has been a wonderful boon to having people immediately understand this just isn’t a toy.

“This is a real medical device; it’s really truly being used by the best of the best, and they’re getting huge benefits from it.’’

The NFL hasn’t officially approved the collar. A league spokesperson said only that it will be reviewed as “any technology that could have a positive effect on player safety.’’

Suzanne Williams, the vice president of sports marketing for Q30 Innovations, which produces the Q-Collar, said it’s acceptable in the NFL because it’s being promoted as a medical device, not as equipment.

The FDA approval in February 2021 said much of what Kuechly couldn’t until now.

“It’s critical,’’ Smith said. “We had a lot of back and forth with some of the best scientists in the world, helping the FDA understand all these microstructural changes we were seeing in the brain are drastically and dramatically diminished.

“Not just a little fraction. It’s dramatic. It took a while for the FDA to come around. The medical world has believed for decades that those microstructural changes are damage. The FDA finally came out and said they are damage.’’

Kuechly said he felt safer with the collar to the point where he seldom took it off as a player. He considered it a competitive edge that allowed him to play at a high level, comparable to film study or workouts.

He looked at the collar no differently than he did a mouthpiece or shoulder pads.

“Everybody is always looking for the edge, how can I be as healthy as possible?’’ said Kuechly, who is unsure what his role in football will be past promoting the collar. “That was a big reason for me [wearing] it.’’

‘Feather in the cap’

Kuechly began looking for that edge when he missed the final six games of the 2016 season after being carted off in tears following an awkward hit of Saints running back Tim Hightower. He heard from the St. Xavier High team trainer through his mother that results with the collar were good, so he tried it.

“Back then, he was like, ‘I don’t know if it works, but I’ve got nothing to lose,’ ’’ Q30 Innovations' Williams said.

Today, the science backs up what Smith and others were promoting -- that the collar helps protect the brain.

The FDA approval assessed the safety and effectiveness of the Q-Collar through several studies, including one with 284 high school football players 13 years or older. In the study, scans found no significant changes in deeper tissues of the brain in 77% of the players who wore the collar, compared with 27% who didn’t wear it.

Smith, whose son was the first to wear the collar in competition, was elated with the study results.

“I have a hard time thinking anybody that actually looked at the studies and seeing what it does wouldn’t feel the same way,’’ he said. “This is actual science.’’

There were skeptics in the science field when Kuechly first began wearing the collar, but that didn’t prevent the FDA from approving it. One expert in the world of concussion study who asked not to be identified in a 2017 ESPN.com article on the collar said “playing with blood vessels is really risky and could have negative consequences.’’

Eric Nauman, a professor of biomedical engineering and basic medical science at Purdue University, is part of the school’s Neurotrauma Group that has conducted studies on 550 football and soccer players. He, too, was skeptical in 2017.

“We actually did not pursue this one because we had concerns about the idea of pressing on the [jugular] vein, especially in an uncontrolled way,’’ he said.

The science that had Smith initially look at pressure on the jugular vein came from studying animals, particularly the woodpecker, earning him the nickname “the Bird Brain Doctor.’’

He spent nine months researching the woodpecker and other G-force-sustaining animals trying to figure out why, after repetitive blows to the head area, the bird could “fly away without a headache.’’

Smith determined that nature created internal devices to modulate and change the pressure and volume inside the cranial space to prevent concussive symptoms. He modeled the collar after that.

Kuechly was just looking for a device that would allow him to continue playing the game in which he accumulated 1,092 tackles from 2012 to 2019, more than any player in the NFL during that span.

To have Kuechly back now promoting the collar, Smith said, “is a feather in the cap.’’

“Nobody wants to wear more equipment, right?’’ Smith said. “Nobody wants to put another thing on. But this is protecting their most valid and most treasured part of your body, being your brain.

“And Luke knew that early on. To come back and say he wanted to give back and represent the collar, that’s just aces.’’