The Carolina Panthers are entering a transition period in 2020. Ron Rivera is no longer the head coach, questions are being raised about the quarterback situation and Carolina's longtime defensive captain .
Luke Kuechly, a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who spent all eight seasons of his NFL career with the Panthers, announced earlier this month that he was hanging up the cleats for good. The No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft showed no signs of slowing down this past season, recording 144 combined tackles, 12 passes defensed and two interceptions -- but said in an emotional video that he believed it was the right time to "move on."
In his goodbye announcement, Kuechly said that he hopes to "still be involved in some way," but in what capacity remains to be seen. In a recent interview with CBS Sports, Kuechly's former teammate, fullback Mike Tolbert, spoke about the kind of man Kuechly was, what retiring was like and how he found his new life after football.
"Luke is an amazing person," said Tolbert, who spent five seasons with Kuechly in Carolina. "He's a better friend and person and man off the field than he has ever been a football player -- and that's saying something, because he's been the best linebacker in the league since the day he stepped on the field. He's so selfless, he does whatever he can to help guys out in the community, he's genuinely a good dude."
Tolbert says he still talks to Kuechly, and wasn't surprised to hear his former teammate was ready to retire after just eight seasons. It's much better to go out on your own terms than experience the slow, gradual decline many players do.
"I'm happy for him," said Tolbert. "Who's to say that you got to have a long, illustrious career -- you don't have to play 17, 18 years in the NFL to be successful. I'm happy that he took it upon himself to end it on his terms and be able to start a beautiful life for himself and his family."
When NFL players finally make the decision to hang up the cleats, many are often not aware of what lies ahead. A life that is full of practices, meetings and travel is swapped out for a blank schedule. Some make the transition to life after football easier than others. Players are getting more involved in sports media, some turn their attention to coaching and others focus on different passions. That's exactly what Tolbert decided to do.
Tolbert played 10 seasons in the NFL, racking up 2,649 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns. He earned three trips to the Pro Bowl and two First-Team All-Pro nods -- pretty good for an undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina University. He spent four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, five with the Panthers and then one with the Buffalo Bills before calling it quits after the 2017 season.
"It was weird," Tolbert said when asked what the early stages of retirement were like. "It's one of those things when I retired a couple of years ago ... I'll be honest, I was lost. I didn't know what was next. I use the analogy of trying to get to the bathroom with the lights turned off. It takes some time to figure out your way from your bedroom to your restroom with the lights off, but once you get comfortable, you can find it. It was tough, but now I figured out what I'm doing post football and I'm enjoying it."
What Tolbert decided to do was to get involved in the boxing business. He recently signed a development agreement with RockBox Fitness, a Charlotte-based franchise, and plans to open a state-of-the-art fitness studio in SouthPark.
"It's kick-boxing, boxing, cardio circuit training," said Tolbert. "It appeals to me because I did a lot of boxing workouts during my career -- that was my offseason workout. My wife found RockBox and I said, 'Hey! This is where it is!' I have a good time doing it."
Tolbert's wife, Shianette, found out about RockBox via an advertisement on social media. Once she tried it for herself, she got Mike involved, and the two decided to take their new interest a step further.
"We should take our love for the brand and boxing to the next level and own one of these," Tolbert remembers telling his wife.
The couple met with an owner quickly after they had the idea, and their business venture began to take shape. Mike and Shianette's studio is set to open in Charlotte this summer. Tolbert is not the only former Panther getting involved in the movement, as former Panthers CFO, Mike Dudan, who played a key role in the team selling last year for $2.3 billion, committed to opening five studios himself throughout North and South Carolina.
"It supports the incredible advantages of being fit," said Tolbert. "Not just in sport, but in our everyday lives. It's this last point that encouraged me and Shianette to want to open a RockBox studio and share the experience with everyone who wants the same out of life."
While it took some time to figure out life after football, Tolbert found a way to "keep pounding" in retirement.