Some athletes pass through our city. Others become part of who we are. Luke Kuechly, the middle linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, is one of us.
So we wait, scrambling for news as if there's a family member in the hospital. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers ask if I’ve heard anything about Luke, never referring to him by his last name. Of course, they hope he's well enough to play. But first, they want to know he’s well.
Kuechly suffered his second concussion in 14 months Thursday in a nationally televised game against the New Orleans Saints. For too many seconds his chest heaved and eyes were full of tears. The image sticks, and it’s not going away.
I have another image of Kuechly that's equally indelible.
Practice finally ends on this late morning at training camp in Spartanburg, and the air is humid enough to make a mannequin sweat. Before Kuechly walks up the hill from the practice field to the air-conditioned locker room he: picks up his helmet and the helmet of Star Lotulelei and seeks Lotuelei so he can hand it off; plays with the toddler daughter of tight end Ed Dickson; shakes hands with a man and then the man’s two children and poses for a picture with the group; talks to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King; signs autographs, the last player to finish signing, signing all the way up the hill, signing so long he could be the first player to go on Injured Reserve with a cramp in his writing hand. His final act on this late morning is not to save a puppy. It’s to thank the two security guards who wait for him.
This is 2014, and Kuechly has been named 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. Yet he acts as if nothing has happened. There was no strut, no sense of entitlement, no How You Like Me Now? I ask him if, when nobody is looking, he catches his image in a mirror and shouts, “I am a defensive god!” or anything comparable. Come on, you were named the best defensive player in football.
Kuechly calmly says no, almost embarrassed by the thought of doing such a thing. He answers my question about his work by praising Carolina's defensive line for enabling him to thrive. Except he doesn’t say thrive. That would sound like bragging.
Here we are in 2016, and Kuechly somehow is merely 25-years-old. He's playing in only his fifth NFL season, each with Carolina, the team that drafted him.
Can you even remember when Kuechly wasn’t a Panther? Nobody is ready for that, least of all him.