Sometimes we write about Luke Kuechly as if he comes not from Cincinnati but from the pages of a pre-teen sports book: “Luke Kuechly, Humble Prince of the Gridiron.”
After a defensive drill Monday players run to pick up their helmets. Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, probably could wait for a less-heralded or experienced teammate to deliver his helmet. Instead, Kuechly picks up his helmet as well as the helmet of second-year tackle Star Lotulelei and delivers the helmet to him.
After practice Kuechly encounters the toddler daughter of new Carolina Panthers tight end Ed Dickson.
“Is this Little Ed?” Kuechly asks, stopping to play with the girl.
Kuechly jogs from Little Ed to a man and woman with their two children. Kuechly shakes the hand of each family member and poses for individual pictures.
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and his Monday Morning Quarterback bus are in camp Monday. King stands on the side of the field, and Kuechly jogs up and answers King’s questions.
Kuechly jogs to the fence that fans stand behind and begins to sign autographs. The sun beats down, the temperature is 88 and the humidity is thick enough to make a mannequin sweat. Kuechly covers his head with a white towel – you thought only quarterbacks did that – and continues to sign.
Practice ended almost 20 minutes ago. Only two other players, Lotulelei and Byron Bell, sign as they work their way up the steep hill to the locker room.
Bell finally finishes and then Lotulelei does. Kuechly stays.
“Linebacker,” he says when asked what position he plays. “Defense. You like defense? Good.”
Unable to find any dogs to rescue, Kuechly finally leaves.
He could be the first Panther to go on injured reserve with writer’s cramp.
After Kuechly cleans up he meets with reporters.
Does your hand ever cramp?
“No, no, I’m good,” Kuechly says. “Those guys come out and watch us, so we got to show a little appreciation. We’ve got great fans, and we really appreciate those guys coming out for us.”
Has your life changed since becoming defensive player of the year?
“I think it’s been about the same,” Kuechly says. “There’re a couple things I had to do this offseason. Other than that its football time and everything’s the same and I just got to keep knowing what’s going on, doing my responsibilities and keep running around making plays.”
If you want attention, get a publicist. Some teammates hired one. Did you?
“No, no, I didn’t do that,” Kuechly says.
There has been one major change in the linebacker’s life, something he has not shared until Monday, and he didn’t need public relations help to make it.
It’s big, too.
Kuechly finally decided he could afford cable TV.
What do you watch?
“Discovery Channel, AMC movies, History Channel, and flip on ESPN every once in a while,” he says.
He named Discovery Channel first, so let’s see what Discovery offers Monday night.
Among the feature shows is “Vegas Rat Rods.” In Episode 3, “Steve’s excitement over rat-rodding a 1928 Buick turns to disappointment when the client tells him he wants it to be an electric car.”
When Kuechly doesn’t watch Steve, he listens to coaches.
“I came (to the NFL) with an open mindset to listen, to work hard, and see where it put me,” says Kuechly. “And that’s still my mindset – to learn as much as I can, to work as hard as I can and listen to the coaches. Because their jobs put us in good position to make plays, and I think there are still things I can improve on and I’m excited to keep on working in that direction.”
Kuechly, who somehow is only 23, is humble publicly.
I ask if, when he’s alone, when he knows nobody can hear, he ever screams, “I am good!”
“No,” Kuechly says. “One thing that I like about football is it’s a team. Those guys (the defensive line) make linebackers’ jobs easier. Those guys are great guys inside. They do a great job for us.”
Nobody, says Kuechly, can make it by himself.
That’s it. You decide.
But wait. I forgot one thing about the Humble Prince of the Gridiron .
After he finished signing autographs, he paused at the top of the hill to thank the security guards who waited for him.