If NFL players don’t like getting hit by Luke Kuechly now, imagine him with a 4-foot metal stick in his hands.
Before Kuechly became the Carolina Panthers’ four-time All-Pro middle linebacker, he was a two-sport athlete at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati. He was a tight end (who later switched to linebacker in perhaps one of the most obvious-in-hindsight coaching moves ever made) for the Bombers. And he played lacrosse.
Kuechly was a faceoff player. He didn’t score much, but he racked up 26 assists during his brief high school lacrosse career, according to MaxPreps.
“Lacrosse was a fun sport, I had a lot of fun playing it growing up,” he said.
It’s all about football now, but when Kuechly’s hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals, travels to Charlotte for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against Carolina, Kuechly will actually see one of his old lacrosse teammates.
He’s now on the Bengals’ coaching staff.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis’ son, Marcus, used to play junior summer lacrosse with Kuechly back in the day. Now, the younger Lewis is a defensive quality control and assistant linebackers coach for Cincinnati.
Lewis lettered in lacrosse and football at Indian Hill High before playing linebacker in college at Indiana State from 2008-11.
At that time, Kuechly was playing linebacker for Boston College and drawing the attention of many NFL coaches, including Marvin Lewis.
“I think his suddenness is incredible. I told our people here … (Mike Brown) had asked me when Luke was coming out to take a look at him early on before even we got into the draft process,” Lewis said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “I told him he was the best collegiate linebacker I think I’d ever seen at that point and he hasn’t disappointed me. We got to spend a little bit of time here with him and just love everything about him. ... He’s a great person and a very, very fine player.”
When Kuechly took a predraft visit to Cincinnati, his younger self was thrilled.
“I had never been in the Bengals locker room, had never had the chance to meet any of the coaches,” he said. “Obviously I grew up watching them and wondering what it was like to have the opportunity to be in the NFL. To go in the locker room and see behind the scenes for me was something that was really cool.
“I took a bunch of visits at other places, but it was the hometown team so that kind of made it cool.”
When the Panthers scouted Kuechly before the draft, head coach Ron Rivera said they didn’t have a single “red flag” come up where he was concerned. And they had a little extra intel, too.
“What’s interesting is, I had a teammate (who) I played with with the Bears, Jim Morrissey. ... And his son was Luke’s travel roommate,” Rivera said Thursday. “And so going into the draft, he called me about Luke. So I talked to his son about him and I think that kind of helped me get on the ball as far as Luke was concerned.”
Lewis didn’t see problems with Kuechly either. Instead, he saw how Kuechly could embody the future of the position: Linebackers with the ability to cover and run sideline to sideline to handle the spread trickling up to the NFL from college football.
Of course, Kuechly was selected No. 9 overall by Carolina in the 2012 NFL draft. The Bengals didn’t pick until No. 17.
A Very Kuechly Christmas
In the teams’ last matchup in 2014 at Cincinnati, which resulted in a 37-37 tie, Kuechly had 13 tackles.
Lewis saw firsthand the ability of the player they had scouted so heavily two years earlier.
“We’re trying to clone guys like Luke Kuechly here,” he laughed this week.
But if Lewis wants Kuechly clones in Cincinnati, he had better invest in some locks for the film room doors.
Rivera said in 2015, he caught Kuechly in the film room at 5:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Kuechly informed him his family wouldn’t be in town until the next day.
“I said ‘Well, it’s Christmas Eve. I think you need to go home,’ ” Rivera said. “I said, ‘I’ll come back in an hour. I hope I don’t catch you.’
“So I come back an hour later, and I heard this door close as I came around the corner. So I went in, looked up and the light was still blinking so I knew he had just left. But that’s just what he does.”