Amid the orange and black jungle at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, there will be a contingent of fans in the northwest corner wearing the Carolina Panthers’ colors and waving the white towels the Panthers passed out for their game against Pittsburgh last month.
Many will be wearing Luke Kuechly jerseys for the Panthers’ game against his hometown Cincinnati Bengals.
Tom Kuechly won’t be one of them. He doesn’t own one.
It’s not that the father of the Panthers’ middle linebacker and the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of Year isn’t proud of his son.
But Tom and his wife, Eileen, have three boys, and none is more important than the others.
Hanging in Tom’s office in the family’s five-bedroom ranch is a portrait of the three boys – oldest son John in his U.S. Army Reserve uniform, Luke in his Boston College jersey, and youngest son Henry in his basketball uniform.
The Kuechlys have stressed to their sons the importance of keeping things in perspective, even as their middle child leads the NFL in tackles and has become arguably the league’s best middle linebacker.
Luke Kuechly has absorbed the lessons well.
He tried to downplay his return to Cincinnati this week, saying once the ball is kicked off Sunday it will become just another game. He has played two previous games at Paul Brown Stadium – as a high school player at St. Xavier. How did Kuechly do?
“Shoot, I don’t remember,” he said. “We won. As long as we win, I don’t care.”
An athletic family
Both of Kuechly’s parents were athletes while growing up in Cincinnati.
Tom was a goalie on Xavier University’s soccer team from 1979-83, and Eileen played volleyball and basketball through high school before going to the University of Cincinnati.
They met a couple of years after college through a mutual friend after Tom started working for J&N Auto Electric, the company his father started in 1954.
What began as an automotive repair shop out of a garage has grown into a large automotive after-market distributor, featuring a 111,000-square foot warehouse and 125 employees who rebuild alternators, starters and other electrical parts and ship them all over the world.
Tom and Eileen settled in Evendale, a small, tree-lined community north of Cincinnati. But with a dog and two boys a year and a half apart, they outgrew their two-bedroom home and moved across the street, exchanging houses with a doctor who’d lost his wife and was looking to downsize.
It was there the Kuechly boys – Henry is 7 years younger than Luke – played basketball on a driveway hoop that is still there, threw the football in the yard and were taught to treat people with respect.
“There weren’t really rules. It was more just do the right thing,” Luke Kuechly said. “It was pretty straightforward. Do what you’re told, treat your mom the right way, be nice to people, be respectful.”
Kuechly first played organized football for the Golden Bears in Cincinnati’s Catholic Youth Organization when he was in fourth grade. He was a linebacker and offensive lineman, and remembers blocking on coach Kevin Harris’ favorite call.
“Our bread and butter play was 56 Power,” Kuechly said. “We lined up all the guys on the right side and ran the ball. We literally ran it every play.”
The third- and fourth-graders ran wind sprints at the beginning and end of practices. Harris said Kuechly was fast, but other players were faster, so Kuechly would try to get an edge.
“I remember him trying to cheat a little bit, maybe get a step or two ahead of those guys before the whistle blew so he would be in first place,” Harris said.
Harris also recalls Kuechly quizzing him on coverage responsibilities against certain formations and pass patterns.
“He was constantly asking questions – good questions,” Harris said.
At a family picnic shortly after Kuechly began playing, he was sitting with his cousins and his older brother when the topic turned to football. John Kuechly said Luke explained how he could read a running play when he saw the guard pull.
“I think back on it and now and it’s like, yeah, he knows his stuff,” John Kuechly said.
Tom Kuechly worked the first-down chains during his sons’ games and had only one rule: If you start a sport, you finish that season. That wasn’t an issue for Kuechly, whose CYO teams twice went undefeated and won city titles.
He was a fan of the sport, but watched more college games than NFL games.
“I always watched football on Saturdays and never did homework,” Kuechly said. “On Sundays I had to do my homework. I didn’t get a chance to watch games.”
Eileen Kuechly said all of her sons were respectful and seldom got in trouble. Kuechly doesn’t remember ever getting grounded.
“It wasn’t like there was a list (of rules) up on the wall or anything,” Eileen Kuechly said. “I think you just have to be respectful of other people. They knew they shouldn’t cross a line. Don’t do anything you’re going to be sorry for.”
Kuechly starred in football and lacrosse for St. X, and drew interest from Ohio State and Dartmouth in lacrosse. Weekends meant more sports – pickup games of basketball or football.
“That’s what I did in high school. (Partying) didn’t really cross my mind,” he said. “The kids who would go to parties, I wasn’t friends with them. I was cool with them at school, but I didn’t hang out with them.”
Kuechly was a tight end on the junior varsity team as a sophomore at St. X, an all-boys Jesuit school with an enrollment of 1,600, including about 300 who go out for football each year.
Kuechly would come home from practice complaining about having to play offense, until his father heard enough.
“Tom finally told him, ‘Luke, we don’t want to hear about it anymore. This is what the coaches want you to do,’” Eileen said.
Kuechly moved to linebacker for his junior season in 2007. St. X coach Steve Specht had a team loaded with college prospects, but needed another playmaker on defense.
“After a couple days we looked at him and said, ‘That’s the guy,’” Specht said. “That was the missing piece.”
The Bombers rolled to a state title with Kuechly at outside linebacker. His brother John was a reserve offensive lineman on a team that finished 15-0.
Kuechly’s athleticism and ability to read plays were on display during the state championship game against Mentor in Canton, Ohio. In the second half, Kuechly knifed in from the left side, shed two blockers and, with one hand, ripped the ball from Mentor’s running back.
But the officials blew the play dead because, in Specht’s view, they weren’t prepared for a high school player to pull it off.
Those refs weren’t the only ones who doubted Kuechly.
Before Kuechly’s senior season, Specht met with Tom and Eileen and told them to expect to hear from a lot of college coaches. Specht also told them he wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuechly playing on Sundays.
Kuechly was 16 at the time.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s crazy,” Eileen recalled thinking.
When Eileen bumped into Specht after the Panthers drafted Kuechly in the first round in 2012, she told him: “I have to apologize to you because I thought you were nuts.”
Kuechly changed positions again as a senior. Specht moved him to rover, a hybrid safety/linebacker position aligned 8 yards off the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a glorified linebacker that never gets blocked,” Specht said.
With Kuechly’s speed and tackling skills, it was a good fit.
Cincinnati was the first school to offer Kuechly a scholarship, but he didn’t want to play in his hometown. Ohio State and Notre Dame, which the St. X coaches believe would have been Kuechly’s first choice, never showed much interest.
When then-Notre Dame assistant Jon Tenuta came to a St. X game to scout Cleveland St. Ignatius linebacker Dan Fox, who signed with the Fighting Irish, Specht told Tenuta he was “missing the boat” on Kuechly.
“Everybody looked at him and said, ‘He’s a little stiff to play safety, and we’re not sure he’s big enough to play linebacker,’” Specht said.
Specht said some college recruiters also wondered if the “gangly high school player with the tuft of black hair” and wire-rimmed glasses would succeed on the college level.
Brian Fowler, Eileen’s brother-in-law, suggested Kuechly look at strong academic schools he might not get into otherwise. Kuechly narrowed the list to Duke, Stanford and Boston College before choosing BC, a Jesuit school where a number of other St. X players had gone before him.
In three seasons with the Eagles, Kuechly broke several school, ACC and NCAA tackling records. His average of 14 tackles a game set an NCAA mark, as did his streak of 33 consecutive games with at least 10 tackles.
He entered the draft after his junior season, and was picked ninth overall by the Panthers. After taking over the middle linebacker spot from Jon Beason, Kuechly became the first rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the league in tackles.
Kuechly and Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor are the only two players in NFL history to win the Associated Press’ Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in consecutive seasons.
Kuechly’s 381 tackles since entering the league in 2012 are the most by any player over that span.
None of that comes as a surprise to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose son played lacrosse with Kuechly in Cincinnati.
“I thought he was one of the best players in the draft. He’s done just what we expected him to do, and on top of that he is even a better person,” Lewis said in a teleconference last week. “He’s a fine player and a fine kid. I’m probably the biggest fan of his from Cincinnati other than his parents.”
A low profile
Kuechly is approaching rock-star status in Charlotte, but he’s managed to maintain a low social profile, just like he did in high school. Two of his closest friends on the team are Greg Olsen and Ryan Kalil, both of whom are married with children.
“I don’t really go out. I don’t know, it just doesn’t really do anything for me,” Kuechly said. “Being around a loud environment with a bunch of people is just not my thing.”
Kuechly likes to fish during the offseason, and often joins his dad and brothers at a fly-fishing club two hours north of Cincinnati. During the season, Kuechly said he goes to movies or hangs out with Kalil and Olsen.
He went trick-or-treating with Olsen’s children last Halloween and plans to again this year, and went to a birthday party for one of Kalil’s daughters.
“They’re not going partying,” Kuechly said of his older teammates. “If your friends aren’t doing it, you’re not doing it.”
While Kuechly has said he has a couple of beers occasionally, Eileen said she never worried about him drinking or experimenting with drugs.
“I really think Luke is concerned about how it affects his body,” she said. “So he doesn’t want to do anything that is going to negatively affect how he is going to perform.”
While many players spend lavishly on custom cars or SUVs after making the NFL, Kuechly called his dad not long after signing his four-year, $12.58 million rookie contract and asked if he could have his 10-year-old pickup truck.
Tom told him to buy a more dependable vehicle.
Until recently, Kuechly did not have Wi-Fi service in his uptown apartment. He was taking online classes through Boston College, though, and would have to go to a common area in his building to access the Internet.
“He’s very low-maintenance,” Eileen said. “He’s not about flash.”
Kuechly stepped out of his comfort zone for his CPI Security and Pepsi TV spots, both of which were filmed in Charlotte last spring. The first Pepsi commercial features a group of fans trying to come up with a nickname for Kuechly, only to be shot down by Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
And it’s true: Kuechly doesn’t have a nickname. Around his house, he’s Luke – no different than John, 24, who works for his dad while getting his MBA at Xavier, or Henry, a 16-year-old who plays basketball at St. X.
Humility reigns at the Kuechly home.
After Kuechly left Boston College early, he was living at home before the draft. One night, he and Henry started arguing over something, and Henry told his older brother, “Luke, what do you know? You’re a worthless, unemployed college student.”
And while John Kuechly thinks the Pepsi ads are amusing, he also views them as fodder for jokes around the dinner table.
“If we start going back and forth, I might bring it up,” he said.
Even Sunday, when 142 friends and family members will join Tom and Eileen to watch their son play in his hometown, the Kuechlys aren’t making too big a deal of it. Tom arranged to get the tickets together and the Panthers shipped a couple of boxes of white towels left over from the Steelers game, but there are no plans for a tailgate or post-game party.
That is just the way Kuechly would want it.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “I’m telling you, though, once the game gets kicked off, other than the orange and black, it’s going to be football.”