Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is making dreams come true on – and off – the football field.
Jessica Hayes, who has been featured as one of WBTV’s Molly’s Kids, is one of Kuechly’s biggest fans.
Hayes has cerebral palsy, autism, cortical blindness and hydrocephalus, an excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain. She recently moved to Catawba County and lives with her parents, two sisters and a brother.
“She’s always positive,” mom Leslie Burleson told WBTV, the Observer’s news partner. “We go and we do. We experience and live big. Jessica helps me around the house, and her brothers and sisters involve her in ways they can.”
Hayes turned 21 last week. And she had just one dream when asked what she wanted for her birthday: “To meet Carolina Panthers player Luke Kuechly and give him one of my famous hugs.”
On Friday, she had a birthday party where she could dance from her wheelchair and hang out with her friends. It was organized by Dream on 3, which helps children with chronic illnesses, developmental disabilities, or life-altering conditions.
What Hayes didn’t know was that Kuechly was coming to surprise her.
WBTV anchor Molly Grantham met Kuechly in uptown Charlotte where the pair hopped into a limo to meet Hayes.
“Have you ever done stuff like this?” Grantham asked. “Yes and no,” the Panthers superstar answered. “(Nothing) as organized as this.”
“I just like to think of myself as a normal guy,” Kuechly said. “But if I can go down there and make her happy for her birthday, (it) makes it fun and worth it.”
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Meanwhile, as Hayes waited for her party, she could tell something was going on. She’s mostly nonverbal, but facial expressions and constant kisses to mom gave her away.
Organizers told Hayes someone was there to meet her.
In walked Kuechly.
“Hey, Jessica!” the Panthers linebacker said. “I hear you give famous hugs.”
Jessica held on tight to Kuechly. He hugged her right back.
“I got some flowers for you,” he said. “We’re going to make our way over to your birthday party, sound good?”
Jessica’s bewildered mom followed, softly whispering “My daughter is leaving with Luke Kuechly!”
Mom put Jessica in the limo, while Luke put her wheelchair in back. They drove back uptown and Luke wheeled her into the party.
After giving her a tour of the party, she showed Luke her favorite dance move: the whip and nae nae.
Kuechly signed Jessica’s new Panthers jersey, talked with every one of her friends and took photos. He even led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”
WBTV’s Grantham asked Kuechly why he was willing to be there for Hayes’ surprise.
“I hopefully can make her night fun, and she’ll make my night fun in return,” Kuechly said. “It’s kinda cool because it’s not a one-way street. It goes both ways and it’ll definitely be exciting.”
WBTV is a media partner of The Charlotte Observer.