Cinncinati’s St. Xavier football coach Steve Specht had seen linebacker Luke Kuechly sob like that once before.
In 2008, Kuechly’s senior year in high school with the Bombers, the team lost 10-7 in its last home game. After everyone went home, Kuechly went out to the empty field and bawled.
“Just that look. There was a sadness,” said Specht. “I just gave him a hug. And that’s what I saw (last Thursday night). That look of sadness, just an empty feeling. And I felt that emptiness for him.”
Kuechly was carted off the field in tears last week in the Carolina Panthers’ Thursday Night Football game against the Saints after suffering a scary double-tap of hits. He then entered the concussion protocol. His progress hasn’t been updated by the team other than linebacker Thomas Davis posting a picture of himself and Kuechly, with the latter flashing a thumbs-up.
“My heart went out to him. I mean, you’ve seen it,” said Specht. “He wears his heart, his passion out on his sleeve. He’s passionate about the game, he loves what he does and you could just see the hurt in his eyes. I just prayed for him.”
Specht sent him a text immediately telling him as much, and Kuechly responded in the most “Luke Kuechly” way possible: He thanked his former coach, then wished the Bombers luck in the playoffs.
St. Xavier is still very much alive with the presence of Kuechly, said quarterback Sean Clifford, who has committed to Penn State’s class of 2017 and is leading the Bombers through the playoffs. There are billboards all over town with Kuechly’s name or face, and the school is full of his awards and accolades.
“If you’re not a Panthers fan (here), you’re at the very least a Luke Kuechly fan,” said Clifford. “A lot of people look up to him, including myself.”
He is even more important to the program for who he is off the field, Specht said.
“It’s more important that it’s not about Luke as the football player, it’s about Luke as the person,” he said. “That’s the thing we hammer all the time is the fact that Luke went back and finished his degree at Boston College. That was important to Luke. It was important to his mom and that it was a great message for kids to hear. We remind the kids of that all the time.”
The team got together before last weekend’s Bombers game and made a few signs of support for Kuechly. They then posted them on social media.
“Obviously Luke Kuechly is a model for every St. Xavier student, and especially to the football program,” Clifford said. “He means a lot. He’s kind of like the picture-perfect kind of guy that we want all our guys to come out of St. X like. When he went down, that’s our guy. We wanted to make sure that he knew we had his back.”
Specht is also a master trainer in USA Football’s Heads Up program, and travels around the country to speak with youth football clinics about player safety and concussion awareness. St. Xavier is very well-documented as one of the leading high school programs in the country in terms of concussion awareness and protocol.
“The concussion, in my opinion, isn’t the issue right now for Luke,” said Specht. What concerns him personally, he said, is the fact that it’s his second (Kuechly missed three games last season while in the protocol).
“(I know) they won’t rush it, they’ll do the right thing by him,” he said. “But again, the second one. ...That’s what makes you a little nervous.”
Kuechly’s recovery has no timeline, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. Meantime, the linebacker knows he has a fervent group of supporters with his best wishes in mind.
“Well, the motto of our school is ‘Men for Others,’” said Specht. “We’re constantly praying after practice. Our kids get it. They understand that the only way you survive in this world is by supporting one another. ...We’re thinking about (Luke), we’re praying for him, we’re supporting him.”