Ex-Panthers RB Mike Tolbert Luke Kuechly Is A Hall Of Famer ... He'd Be a Great Coach!!

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NOT SURPRISED
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Even though Luke Kuechly only played 8 NFL seasons, his old teammate says he's a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame ... 'cause Mike Tolbert says the linebacker did more than enough to prove he's worthy.

28-year-old Kuechly abruptly put an end to his successful career earlier this week ... saying it was time to put the game behind him.

There's been speculation that health had something to do with it, but Tolbert tells us regardless of the reason, he's proud Luke knew it was time to walk away.

"He's my guy, I love him to death," Tolbert tells TMZ Sports. "I'm happy for him. There's not a lot of guys that can say they walked away from the game the way they wanted to."

Luke was arguably the best linebacker in the league ever since entering the NFL way back in 2012 as a first-round pick out of Boston College.

We asked Tolbert -- who played with the Panthers from 2012-2016 -- if he thought Kuechly could take his talents to the sidelines as a coach ... and he says it would be a natural fit.

"I don't think there's anybody better. He's the smartest football player I've ever been around. He and Phillip Rivers I'd put 1 and 2."

Kuechly was a stud on the field with Carolina ... making 7 Pro Bowls and earning 5 first-team All-Pro honors. He was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2013 and the defensive rookie of the year in 2012.

"I think Luke has that perfect mindset. He's not married, he doesn't have any kids. He can afford to spend those 20-22 hour days at the facility preparing. "

DOIN' WHAT I LOVE
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We also spoke with Tolbert -- a HUGE combat sports fan -- about his own life after football ... and he tells us all about RockBox Fitness, his very own boxing gym that he's opening in Charlotte!!

Chris Long Praises Kuechly For Early Retirement ... 'It's A Dangerous Game'

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Good For him
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Chris Long says he's proud of Luke Kuechly for hanging up his cleats early ... telling TMZ Sports the NFL is "a dangerous game."

"People got families," the former Eagles and Patriots Super Bowl champ says. "Good for him."

Kuechly, at just 28 years old, announced his retirement earlier this week ... and a lot of people are questioning whether it was the right call given what he's got left in the tank.

But, when we got Long out in D.C., he told us he's all for the move ... saying Kuechly -- who's battled head injuries throughout his career -- really has no reason to keep putting his body in jeopardy.

"I think guys are more financially capable to make that decision now," Long says.

"Where back in the day, you'd have to play 15 years to take care of your family, you don't have to do that anymore."

In fact, Long says he thinks retiring before 30 might become commonplace in the NFL ... telling us, "I think it might be a trend to watch."

Luke Kuechly Retiring From NFL After 8 Years With Panthers

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The Carolina Panthers are losing one of their best players to retirement ... star linebacker Luke Kuechly just announced he's hanging up his cleats after 8 seasons in the NFL.

It's a pretty shocking development ... Luke was arguably the best linebacker in the league ever since entering the NFL way back in 2012 as a first-round pick out of Boston College.

In an emotional retirement video, Luke says now is the right time for him to step away from the game. He says the decision to quit playing the game he loves was super tough.

"In my heart I know it's the right thing to do," Kuechly says. "There's only one way to play this game since I was a little kid, is to 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's the most difficult."

Kuechly was a stud on the field with Carolina ... making 7 Pro Bowls and earning 5 first-team All-Pro honors. He was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2013 and the defensive rookie of the year in 2012.

The Panthers have a new coach in Matt Rhule, but Kuechly says the coaching change did not weigh in to his decision to retire.

Baylor's Matt Rhule Spurns NY Giants ... Agrees To Be Panthers' Head Coach

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8:37 AM PT -- The offer Tepper gave Rhule really was one he couldn't refuse. Rhule will be getting a 7-year, $60 MILLION deal that could be worth as much as $70 MIL with incentives, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports.

Call this the Giants' 13th loss this season ... the Carolina Panthers just hired Big Blue's reported top candidate, Matt Rhule, to be their next head coach.

Rhule -- Baylor's head man since 2016 -- had been rumored to be the Giants' top choice since they canned Pat Shurmur last week.

It made sense ... the 44-year-old was born in NYC, and was previously an assistant O-line coach for the Giants in 2012 and was seen as a guy who could make an offense with Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley hum.

In fact, the G-men and all of their top brass were reportedly set to have a massive meeting with the guy Tuesday.

But, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, Panthers owner David Tepper spent the entire day with Rhule in Waco, Texas on Monday and clearly made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

It's a bummer for the Giants, whose candidate list is slowly shrinking after Ron Rivera (Redskins), Mike McCarthy (Cowboys) and Rhule all went elsewhere.

NY is still in the mix for NFL assistant coaches like Chiefs' Eric Bieniemy, Patriots' Josh McDaniels and Ravens' Don Martindale. The team could also take a look at fired Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.

As for the Panthers ... it seems they're more than happy with their new hire -- Rhule famously turned Baylor from a 1-11 team in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019.

Originally published -- 7:18 AM PT

Panthers QB Kyle Allen Praises Cam Newton After Going On IR ... Cam Responds

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Cam Newton's backup is showing love for the superstar QB after heading to injured reserve for the rest of the season ... with Kyle Allen praising Cam for being a great leader, despite his challenges.

The 30-year-old had been dealing with a nagging foot injury since the preseason ... and his 2019 campaign officially came to an end on Tuesday when the Panthers placed him on IR.

Allen -- who has done a solid job in 6 games without Newton -- showed major love for #1 following the news, saying "I watched this man do everything in his power to come back from his injury."

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"I watched him lead and be a great teammate day in day out. Thank you for setting the example. We got you."

Newton clearly appreciated the statement and responded with a nice comment saying, "Here for you my killa!!"

Of course, there have been rumblings that Carolina could part ways ⁣with Cam after this season ... given he's due at least $18 million in 2020 if he's on the roster. If the Panthers cut Newton, they'd be able to free up a bunch of cap space.

Allen's been taking advantage of his opportunity, throwing for 9 TDs and only 4 INTs and leading the Panthers to a 5-3 record as the starter.

NFL's James Bradberry I Got My Eyes On A Big Pay Day 'It Helps Me Play Better'

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MONEY IS THE MOTIVATOR
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NFL breakout star James Bradberry has been balling OUT OF HIS MIND this season ... and he's telling TMZ Sports his biggest motivation for putting in all that extra work -- getting a FAT new contract!!!

The 26-year-old Carolina Panthers cornerback is widely considered one of the biggest bargains this season ... considering he's still on his rookie contract (4 years, $3.69 million) and has racked up 3 INTs and 30 tackles.

Yeah ... he's a beast.

We spoke with Bradberry about going HAM during his contract year ... and he admits it's given him some extra oomph when he takes the field.

“I’d be lying if I said no," Bradberry tells us. "Definitely it’s always on my mind. And, you know, it just helps me play better. And, if I play good then the team does well. It helps on both ends."

And, what's really gonna make you root for this guy??? How he's gonna spend his money when he inks his new deal.

“The number one goal for me is to retire my mom. You know, my mom she’s worked hard. She’s pretty much a single parent for me and my sister. She’s taking care of my grandmother right now as well. So, if I can retire her, that’s my number one goal right now."

So, let's go Panthers ... PAY THIS MAN ALL THE MONEY!!!!

Greg Olsen Cam Newton Can Be NFL Star Again ... 'Don't Bet Against Cam'

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CAM'S OUR MAN
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Cam Newton's days as an NFL superstar are NOT over ... so says his Panthers teammate, Greg Olsen, who tells TMZ Sports he's got all the confidence in the world Cam will be back.

"Don't bet against Cam," Olsen says.

Newton has had a rough last few seasons battling injuries and poor play ... and the Panthers have actually been BETTER without him this season, going 3-0 in the games that he's missed.

So, when we saw Greg out in NYC this week ... we had to ask, is it over for the Carolina QB???

That's when Olsen told us no way, saying, "Don't bet against Cam. Once he gets himself right, he'll be ready to go."

As for the foot injury that's sidelined Newton for the past month ... Olsen says from everything he's seen, Cam is progressing just fine.

"I think he's feeling good," Olsen says. "I think he's feeling better."

By the way, Olsen also heaped praise on his team's star RB, Christian McCaffrey, saying if there's any non-QB in the league that can win the NFL MVP award -- it's McCaffrey!!!

Carolina Panthers Fans Create Stadium Fight Club ... During Rain Delay

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The action on the field was boring ... the action in the stands was VIOLENT!!

A bunch of Carolina Panthers fans decided to pass the time at Bank of America Stadium in NC by beating the the living hell out of each other while hundreds of people gathered around to watch.

No, it wasn't an "official" fight club ... but look at the crowd watching these people fight.

Old people, young people, men, women, children ... people in visors -- everyone stopped dead in their tracks to watch the idiots throw hands.

Unclear who actually won the brawl ... but the fans seemed to like it -- maybe they felt like they got their money's worth?!

As for the game, when the rain stopped ... the Panthers got back on the field and blew a few late game opportunities as they eventually took an L to the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Don't fight, people. You look stupid.

[h/t Barstool]

Cam Newton Shirtless Walmart Shopping Spree ... No Shirt? No Problem!!!

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Hey ... is that Cam Newton in the canned food aisle?! YEP!!!

Turns out, the Carolina Panthers QB doesn't just wear his bizarre outfits to training camp, he also rocks the look at Walmart!!!

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Newton was spotted at the store in Charlotte recently -- where the person who shot the pics told us Cam was cruising the aisles for about an hour before checking out.

Shoppers initially weren't sure if the man in the overalls, scarf and funky hat was actually Cam -- but, yeah ... that's definitely him. Who else would it be?!

Cam prides himself on his fashion ... nice to see the entire world is his runway, including supermarkets.

Newton is now with the Panthers at training camp where he's showing off his surgically-repaired throwing arm ... and so far, he looks pretty good!

Colin Kaepernick Eric Reid's Still Anthem Kneeling ... And I Love It!!!

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Colin Kaepernick is stoked his former teammate is continuing on with the national anthem protests this year ... shouting out Panthers safety Eric Reid as "unwavering" for carrying on the kneeling.

"Unrelenting. Unflinching. Unapologetic," Kaepernick added. "Love you Brother!"

Kaepernick first started kneeling during the 'Star Spangled Banner' back in 2016 when he was the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback. He was later joined in that protest by then-teammate Reid.

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After Kap was cut by the Niners ... Reid continued to protest in the NFL -- even after he was signed by Carolina last season.

But, after Reid and Kap both settled their collusion cases against the NFL earlier this year ... many wondered if Eric would keep up the protests.

Turns out, he will -- telling reporters this week at Panthers camp, "If a day comes that I feel like we’ve addressed those issues, and our people aren’t being discriminated against or being killed over traffic violations, then I’ll decide it’s time to stop protesting."

"I haven’t seen that happen."

Colin is clearly loving the message, 'cause he shouted out Reid on his social media page.

Even Kaepernick's girlfriend, Nessa, posted to her social media page praising the defensive star for keeping up the kneeling.

"Always clear and focused on the truth," Nessa wrote. "We love you ... #imwithkap #imwithereid #takeaknee"

Luke Kuechly Annihilates Kid After Getting Juked Out Of His Shoes!!!

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How did Luke Kuechly respond to getting juked by an 11-year-old kid??

HE LAID THE FREAKIN' HAMMER DOWN ... BOOOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!!

The Carolina Panthers superstar was hosting a camp for kids at a local high school earlier this week ... when he and teammate D.J. Moore decided to a drill with some of the campers for fun.

The drill was supposed to involve kids taking a toss sweep and playfully running around in circles while Kuechly "tackled" them.

But, things took a hilarious turn when a boy named KD stepped up to the drill ... and juked the living hell out of the All-Pro linebacker!!!!

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For real ... the kid totally owned Kuechly!!!

Luke, clearly embarrassed by the whole ordeal, made the boy take another rep ... and that's when things got violent -- 'cause Kuechly took the kid's face off!!!

Good news for all parties, nobody was injured and everyone laughed about it in a picture afterward.

Good times!!!

NFL's Greg Olsen Records Random Couple's Proposal ... 'Did She Say Yes?!'

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THE MAGICAL MOMENT

Some random dude in Nashville got on one knee to propose to his girlfriend ... and none other than NFL Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen was there to capture the whole thing on his phone!!!

Now, the Carolina Panthers star didn't know the couple before the magical moment ... but that didn't keep him from absolutely losing it with excitement when he finds out the girlfriend said "YES."

"Did she say yes??" Olsen asks ... "I got it on video, dude. I'm gonna send it to you!!"

The whole thing is kinda funny -- you can tell the future groom is super excited about the engagement ... but seems a little confused about why this 6'6", 255-pound man is shooting the whole thing.

Don't worry, after some celebratory kissing with his wife-to-be ... the dude seems grateful Olsen got the whole thing on video ... saying "oh my God, you're my hero!"

"This is the best thing I've ever witnessed," Greg told the couple ... "Dude, I am so sending this to you!!!"

Olsen explained why he whipped out his phone and captured it ... saying "I wish I had my engagement on video, so I pull my phone out and capture it. Glad I did even though I didn’t know who they were!"

"Congrats and wish you a lifetime of happiness!! #random"

XFL's 'He Hate Me' FOUND SAFE Family Tells TMZ Sports

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3:19 PM PT -- ROD SMART HAS BEEN FOUND SAFE!!

Family and police sources tell us Smart has been located and he's safe.

We're told Smart is surrounded by family and in the process of getting professional treatment.

Story developing ...

Rod Smart -- who shot to fame in the XFL using the nickname "He Hate Me" -- has gone missing and his family is extremely worried for his safety.

The Lancaster County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina has issued a Missing Person Advisory -- noting 42-year-old Smart was last seen on June 12 around 10:30 AM.

Cops say his family is "worried about his safety and well-being" -- adding, "It is unusual for him to be out of touch for this long."

He was last seen driving his silver 2016 Nissan Maxima with North Carolina tags.

Rod Smart -- real name Torrold Smart -- was a star running back at Western Kentucky back in the day ... and joined Vince McMahon's XFL football league when he wasn't selected in the NFL Draft.

In 2001, Smart was signed by the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws -- which encouraged players to select a fun WWE-style nickname to rock on their jerseys ... and Smart famously picked, "He Hate Me."

Why the nickname? Smart told reporters at the time, "Basically, my opponent is going to hate me. After I win, he's gonna hate me."

Smart was so good in the XFL, he got looks from NFL teams and eventually signed with the Carolina Panthers ... where he played from 2002 to 2005.

After his football career, Smart reportedly worked as a personal trainer and a high school guidance counselor.

Originally Published -- 9:34 AM PT

Cam Newton Opens Cigar Shop ... Continues Incredible Hot Streak!!

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YOU DO WANT THIS SMOKE

It's GREAT to be Cam Newton these days ... dude just officially opened up his own cigar shop -- AND he's having another baby!!!

Oh, and his hat game is still as strong as ever!!!!

The Carolina Panthers superstar was out in Atlanta on Thursday flaunting how amazing his life is ... posing with his mom and brother for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for "Fellaship"

It's a bar/lounge/club that's supposed to be awesome -- a cool hangout spot for drinks and cigars ... and Cam's been stoked about it for months.

Newton -- as always -- was dressed to the nines, rockin' an awesome hat and a fitted suit for its official opening ... and the place already looks like a hit, receiving tons of great reviews.

It's just the latest cool moment for the QB ... the NFL superstar's girlfriend announced just hours before the ceremony began that the couple is expecting their fourth child.

Cam's shoulder also seems to be doing better after the offseason surgery ... he had no problems moving around the venue with all his friends and fam.

Seems all that sex he's not having has really paid off!!!

Cam Newton Gives Up Sex ... To Be A Better QB!!!

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Cam Newton says giving up sex will make him a better QB ... so the Carolina Panthers superstar is done with it!!!

For real!!!

Newton went on "The Late Late Show With James Corden" and -- in the process of explaining why he's going vegan -- he dropped a bomb saying he's done banging!!

"I hope this is an adult crowd, it looks like it is," Newton says ... "No climax."

So, why?!?!

Cam says it's all part of a master plan to have a bounce-back season after a disappointing 2018.

The QB tells Corden he's taking on a different challenge every month -- it started with no gambling in January, no meat in February and now no sex OR WiFi in March -- in order to be mentally tougher.

"It makes my mind stronger," Cam explains ... "I feel like if I go back and I say I did those things, I'm mentally stronger."

The good news for Newton (and his GF)? He says the no-sex rule plan -- for now -- is only in place for one more week.

Good luck!!!

NFL's Taylor Hearn Apologizes for Street Fight 'No Excuse For My Behavior'

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Carolina Panthers lineman Taylor Hearn is breaking his silence on his Georgia street fight captured on video -- saying he takes "full responsibility" and will use the incident as a learning experience.

"‘Dear Panther Nation: I would like to offer my deepest apologies to the Panthers organization, my teammates and coaches, the fans and the league," Hearn said in a statement.

"I take full responsibility for my actions. There is no excuse for my behavior, and I will learn from my mistakes.''

THE BRUTAL KNOCKOUT
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TMZ Sports broke the story ... Hearn got into an altercation with several men on March 14 outside of a bar in Augusta, Georgia -- and was ultimately knocked out by a much smaller man.

Hearn -- a 6'4", 315-pound guard -- had been shoving people in the street and acting like a jerk after being kicked out of the bar earlier that evening.

Earlier this week, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton told us the situation was "unfortunate" -- but he hadn't spoken with Hearn at that point.

CAM'S TAKE
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23-year-old Hearn signed with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2018 after playing his college ball at Clemson.

During his college career, Hearn won a national championship while protecting Deshaun Watson.

The NFL is investigating the incident and he could still -- and most likely will -- be disciplined by the league for violating the Personal Conduct Policy.