SPARTANBURG, S.C. - On Luke Kuechly's first night in Charlotte after being drafted by the Carolina Panthers, he stood outside his hotel in the dark, waiting for teammate Cam Newton to pick him up for dinner.
When a Ferrari pulled up, Kuechly reached for the passenger door, thinking it was Newton's car.
The door was locked. When the driver-side door opened, Michael Jordan stepped out.
“Hey, I'm Luke,” Kuechly said.
Jordan asked if he was going to dinner with Newton, who drove in behind the Bobcats' owner. Kuechly said yes, got in the quarterback's car and they followed Jordan to Selwyn Pub.
As a kid in Cincinnati, Kuechly had a Michael Jordan poster on his bedroom wall. Suddenly, he was headed to dinner with Jordan and Newton.
“I just watched the Yankees game on TV. The draft was on and I was watching that, too,” Kuechly said.
“I didn't know what to say. I just watched the Yankees and kept my mouth shut.”
For Kuechly, the evening opened a door into his new world. He was drafted by the Panthers to solidify the defense and, if the projections are accurate, grow into their next dominating defensive player.
He is understated, soft-spoken and respectful of others. He is loyal, dedicated and grounded in traditional Midwestern values. Kuechly may not be the biggest, the strongest or the fastest player on the Panthers' roster, but he has a natural talent that is difficult to measure and impossible to deny.
“I always told him it takes three things to succeed - the physical ability, the mental ability to understand it and the desire,” Tom Kuechly, Luke's father, says.
“If you don't have all three, it won't take you anywhere. That's true of anything. He understood it early on.”
The advice has led Kuechly to the Panthers and he will help lead them into the future.
Family over spotlight
Draft night is time for first-round picks to shine. They wear new suits, team caps and big smiles.
They shake hands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell when they're selected and they hold team jerseys for photographers after their name is called.
When Goodell announced Kuechly as the ninth pick in the draft, the former Boston College linebacker was on a couch in the basement of his family's house on Horncastle Drive in Cincinnati. He wanted to be with his family and friends and chose them over the ESPN spotlights.
“With all the stuff going on, flying around to different places I was just ready to hang out,” Kuechly says. “You only get about 15 people who can go to the draft. My family wanted to go, mom dad and two brothers. My grandmothers would want to go. By the time we got all that figured out it would be more than we wanted.”
In the afternoon before his name was called that night, Kuechly and his two brothers played whiffle ball in their yard.
Barry Gallup, the director of football operations at Boston College and a part of the program for 35 years, flew in to be with the Kuechlys.
An hour before the draft, Gallup got a tour of the Kuechly basement where a moose head is mounted on one wall. Kuechly took Gallup into the backyard where a full-sized deer target sits near the back of the property. Kuechly gave Gallup a lesson in how to shoot a pellet gun and bow and arrow at the deer.
Back inside, Gallup estimated there were 50 people at the party. Young kids were running through the house. Neighbors had come by. All the relatives were there.
And Kuechly was happy.
“He's so old school,” Gallup says.
A quiet leader
Steve Specht, the football coach at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati, remembers an acquaintance of his coming to scout a game against rival St. Ignatius in Kuechly's senior year. The man was a coach at Notre Dame and told Specht he was at the game to watch a player on the other team.
“You're missing it, man,” Specht remembers telling the coach. “You should be watching Luke Kuechly.”
In the overblown world of college football recruiting. Kuechly wasn't a five-star player. He was a 210-pound safety who visited Northwestern, Duke, Stanford and Boston College, where several top players from St. Xavier's had gone before him.
He had moved from offense to linebacker to safety in high school, doing whatever coaches asked and doing more of it than was required.
“When he was a sophomore in high school, he was at linebacker and they wanted him to play tight end,” Kuechly's father, Tom, says.
“He does not want to play on offense. He'd come home and complained about having to play tight end. It got to be too much. I told him we're not the coaches. You're playing. I told him if you don't do what coaches want, you'll never get to do what you want to do. He ran with it.”
It isn't Kuechly's style to be outspoken. He's a classic ‘lead by example' player.
When St. Xavier lost its final game of Kuechly's senior season and missed the playoffs, Specht found his star standing on the field alone crying.
“It wasn't because we lost,” Specht says. “Winning was important but it was more about playing to the best of his ability and he knew his high school career was over.”
When Kuechly had some of his Boston College teammates visit in Cincinnati, he called Specht and asked to show the guys around where he played high school football.
When Specht brought together some members of the 2007 state championship team for a New Year's Eve dinner, Kuechly attended. While others talked about going out to parties that evening, Kuechly took his younger brother, Henry, to a Xavier basketball game.
“I don't know of anyone I've coached who's had such a dynamic impact on people,” Specht says. “He made me a better coach. He made me a better person. He made me a better father.
”He's the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry.
“We talk about being men of character, of being good in math class, of giving back and of playing football recklessly. That's Luke. I love that kid.”
At Boston College, where Kuechly was twice an All-American and the ACC male athlete of the year in 2011-12, some of his teammates called him Superman.
Part of it was because of what he did on the field - he made an ACC-record 532 tackles in his career, the second-most in NCAA history while playing only three seasons. Another part was his resemblance to Clark Kent when he was in street clothes and wearing wire-rimmed glasses.
At a program that has produced Doug Flutie, Matt Ryan and Mathis Kiwanuka, Kuechly is the only true junior ever elected team captain.
He would sit with his parents at pre-game mass then turn into a destroyer on the football field. He had 10 or more tackles in 33 consecutive games, an NCAA record. He's the only player to lead the nation in tackles more than once, won the Bronko Nagurski award as the nation's top defensive player in 2011 and earned just about every honor a college football player can.
Kuechly made his decision to bypass his senior season after careful deliberation.
After deciding to enter the NFL draft, Kuechly called his Boston College coaches. Not just defensive coordinator Bill McGovern and head coach Frank Spaziani. Kuechly called all nine coaches and Gallup, telling them of his decision and thanking them for all they had done for him.
In his three seasons at Boston College, Kuechly's parents missed just one of his games.
Kuechly's 14-year old brother, Henry, will be a freshman in high school this year. If he makes the basketball team, Kuechly has told his parents to stay home and watch Henry's games.
“I told them it's Henry's turn,” Kuechly says.
Fitting in quickly
Kuechly won't celebrate his 21st birthday until Aug. 20 but he's being asked to play beyond his years for the Panthers.
He's expected to start at weak-side linebacker, flanking middle linebacker Jon Beason with James Anderson on the strong side. In training camp, Kuechly has quickly established himself as an impact player, bolstering a position where Thomas Davis is attempting to come back from a third ACL injury.
Kuechly plays on instinct as much as physical skill. He reads plays quickly, filling holes, sniffing out misdirection. He can cover receivers downfield or stop the run at the line.
“He's a very bright football player,” head coach Ron Rivera says. “He understands the game. He's everything we thought he would be.”
When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, they did it to add concrete to what had become a fragile linebacker group. Beason was coming off a torn Achilles while linebacker Thomas Davis was recovering from a third ACL surgery on the same knee.
Beason's personality can be as forceful off the field as on it. If the Panthers defense belongs to a single player, it belongs to Beason, one of the best at his craft.
“Right out of the gate, he's adjusted great,” Beason says. “I've never seen a rookie linebacker come in and pick it up as fast as he has. He's a pro about it. He stays late. He studies. He asks a lot of questions. Very athletic. Has great ball skills. Just prototype. He'll help our defense tremendously.
”I like him, too. He's a good kid.“
Cam Newton had a sense of what the Panthers were getting when they drafted Kuechly, having seen him up close at the IMG academy. In training camp, Newton says Kuechly's play recognition has forced the quarterback to throw passes into the ground because the rookie has destroyed the play.
”Luke is a wonderful person. Secondly, he's an unbelievable football player,“ Newton says.
”Looking at him, you don't think he has that fierce attitude on the field but looks may be deceiving.“
Beason says he and Kuechly have had several long conversations, not just about football, but about other things.
”Some guys could be real shut off to you. Jon and all the guys have been very helpful and willing to help me out,“ Kuechly says. For me, it's just go in and listen and do what I'm told at this point. I'm the young guy. You've got to earn the respect.
The veterans still make the rookie carry their shoulder pads as is NFL tradition - Kuechly could be seen trudging up the hill from practice Thursday night, carrying Beason and Anderson's equipment in the muggy heat - but they've brought him into their circle.
”He is a rookie but we've opened the door and said you're one of us,“ Beason says. ”We don't treat him like a rookie and we don't expect him to play like that, either.“
Adjusting to Charlotte
Kuechly is still settling into his new life.
He recently signed a one-year lease on a one-bedroom apartment not far from the stadium. His proudest purchase is a couch.
”It's a two-piece sectional. When they were bringing it in, one section ripped,“ Kuechly says. ”In my room now, there's a one-section couch with little metal bearings on it you connect the other part to. They're supposed to fix it.“
Kuechly didn't spend a chunk of his signing bonus on an expensive new car. In fact, he tried to talk his dad into giving him the family's pick-up truck with 125,000 miles on it.
”I said you can't have my truck. You need to get something reliable,“ Tom Kuechly says. ”You miss one plane to a game because that truck broke down you've paid for a new vehicle.
“He doesn't like to spend money.”
Kuechly drives a two-year old GMC Yukon.
“A simple car, that's all I need,” Kuechly says.
He's learning his way around his new home, which is similar in size to Cincinnati. Kuechly is proud to have figured out that Morehead Street turns into Providence Road without changing directions.
What Charlotte doesn't have is Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati treasure and one of the major food groups in Kuechly's life.
After helping him get into his new apartment, Kuechly's mother, Eileen, was in a Cincinnati home furnishings store when she saw a framed print of a Skyline Chili sign. It now hangs in Kuechly's apartment.
His loyalty extends to chili.
Kuechly sounds too good to be true.
“I finally asked his mother if there was anything wrong with him,” Gallup says. “She said he doesn't know how to make up his bed.”
His father, who has indulged Luke's passion for fishing with trips to Alaska, Canada, Idaho and other places, offers one hidden flaw.
In a friendly competition to see who could catch the biggest trout, father and son had similar catches. When it came time to weigh and clean the fish to determine the winner, Luke told his father to take his fish into the building to weigh his first.
While his father did that, Luke filled his fish with water to make it heavier.
“He cheats at fishing,” his father says.
)2012 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)
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