Just about everyone around the Carolina Panthers has a story of good deeds involving linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Panthers center Ryan Kalil invited Kuechly to his house for Christmas. Kuechly brought presents for Kalil’s two young daughters, then gathered the wrapping paper around the tree, bagged it and took it to the garbage can.
Kuechly always texts linebackers coach Al Holcomb on Wednesdays, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year asking if Holcomb wants him to pick up food for him.
He sends his girlfriend postcards from the road.
Kuechly is what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott calls a “servant leader.”
“He puts others before himself, both on the field and off the field,” McDermott said. “That’s probably the greatest compliment I could give someone.”
While leading the NFL in tackles this season, Kuechly gained fans inside and outside Bank of America Stadium with his humility, work ethic and Midwestern values.
“He’s a different kind of breed, that’s for sure. He’s like something out of Mayberry,” Kalil said. “That’s not like a made-up thing. That’s just how he is.”
Kuechly is trying to dispel the adage that nice guys finish last.
But don’t get it twisted.
When Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks begins at CenturyLink Field, a different Kuechly will emerge.
Underneath all of Kuechly’s good-guy qualities is a fierce competitor who is not satisfied with finishing second – even engaging occasionally in some PG-rated trash talk.
“He can turn it on and off. He’s as good a guy as I’ve ever been around as far as a person. He’s almost so nice you can’t believe how good of a guy he is,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “But then he gets on the field and he plays what’s necessary. He plays the game the way it should be. He’s tough. He flies around. That’s the way it should be.
“Just because you play an intense game doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk.”
‘Be nice to everyone’
Kuechly grew up in Cincinnati, the second of Tom and Eileen Kuechly’s three sons. Kuechly’s parents didn’t have a lot of rules for their boys to follow, and kept things simple.
“Just be nice to everyone,” Kuechly said, “because that’s the right way to do it.”
Kalil, who is among Kuechly’s closest friends on the team, said meeting Kuechly’s parents shed light on his character.
“He just was raised right. I met his parents and I get it. They’re just an All-American family and do things the right way,” Kalil said. “How you are off the field is a direct correlation with how you play on the field. A guy who works hard all the time, does the right thing all the time, that’s how he does on the field.”
Kuechly devours game film the way he knocks back the take-out dinners on Wednesday nights. After many of his teammates have gone home, Kuechly holes up in the film room, looking for that one tendency or key that might make the difference between a win and a loss.
After his dinner break, Kuechly will watch another hour or so of film and then call it a night. He said he doesn’t like leaving the stadium much later than 7 p.m.
“It’s like doing too much schoolwork,” Kuechly said during an interview with the Observer this week. “Once you’re done, you’re done.”
Kuechly is a fast, athletic linebacker with great instincts.
He set NCAA records for tackles per game (14.0) and consecutive games with at least 10 tackles (33) at Boston College before the Panthers drafted him ninth overall in 2012.
After taking over for an injured Jon Beason four games into his rookie season, Kuechly’s play took off. He finished with a league-leading 164 tackles and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors over Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner by a wide margin.
But for all Kuechly’s physical gifts, he puts himself in position to make tackles through his preparation.
“It’s not an accident that he’s successful. He spends as much time (studying) as anybody, if not more, that I’ve been around,” McDermott said. “He knows what he wants. He’s as good as I’ve been around.”
Superman-Clark Kent thing
Veteran safety Roman Harper didn’t know much about Kuechly when Harper signed with the Panthers during the offseason, except for watching Kuechly put on one of the best tackling displays in league history last season.
Harper was with New Orleans when Kuechly tied the NFL single-game record with 24 tackles in the Panthers’ division-clinching win against the Saints on Dec. 22, 2013. Kuechly added an interception and pass breakup in the victory.
“He’s all over the place. He’s yelling. He’s talking trash. Then you meet him, he doesn’t even remember any of that,” Harper said. “He’s just a nice guy, talks about his mom all the time. It really is like the Superman-Clark Kent thing.”
When he wore glasses prior to undergoing Lasik surgery, Kuechly did bear a slight resemblance to Clark Kent. But the Panthers already have a Superman in Cam Newton.
Kuechly might not paint his face, wear colored contacts or foam from the mouth, but teammates say he’s a different person on Sunday, when his focus and intensity ramp up.
“It’s just amazing to play alongside somebody like that and see him go into the zone. And when he’s in the zone, how much of an impact – he can really affect the game,” Harper said. “The guy can literally take over the game from the middle linebacker position. That just doesn’t happen on an every-Sunday basis, and we’ve got that guy week to week.”
Kuechly says his gameday demeanor is pretty easy to understand: They’re keeping score.
“We practice, we work out, we go to camp, we go to OTAs to win games. So all that work goes in and you want to win games,” he said. “I think the competitive aspect comes out and you get a little more intense.”
Intense, but polite
Kuechly’s intensity boiled over in the second half of a 38-17 loss at Green Bay on Oct. 19. With the Panthers trailing 35-3 near the end of the third quarter, Kuechly was ejected for his throwing his elbow back toward an official as players and officials tried to break up a scrum after a fumble the Packers recovered.
Kuechly took responsibility after the game, but the NFL later said Kuechly should not have been ejected. He was not fined for the incident.
It was a rare display of frustration for a player who has been told by more than one teammate he’s too nice.
Harper claims Kuechly’s trash talk even is polite.
“It’s not that bad. It’s not very harsh. He doesn’t try to go at your mom or say anything personal. It’s just right to the point,” Harper said. “I did hear him say he told a lineman one time, ‘You’re going to get a minus on that play.’ ”
Olsen says Kuechly is “not out there snorting and cussing guys out on the sideline.”
But like Harper, defensive end Wes Horton said Kuechly is not afraid to offer a critique of an offensive lineman he’s beaten.
“He doesn’t take low blows, shots at guys. But he will tell you, ‘You suck,’ ” Horton said. “Some guys will try to egg him on, try to get him out of his game. I think he responds by just talking crap back to the guy. He’s not taking any crap from anybody.”
Kuechly laughed when asked about the trash talking.
“I might have said something one time, and it’s getting a lot of hype,” he said.
‘He does everything’
The hype surrounding Kuechly will only continue to grow as long as he stays healthy and keeps stringing together games like he had against Arizona in the wild-card round and seasons like he’s turned in his first three years.
Kuechly had a game-high 10 tackles against the Cardinals, and showed his improvement in pass coverage – a stated goal for his third season – with an interception and a tipped pass that was picked off by safety Tre Boston.
Kuechly’s 11 pass breakups during the regular season were tied with Julius Peppers for second most among linebackers behind St. Louis’ Alec Ogletree, who has 12.
“He’s a phenomenal player. I mean, he does everything,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said during a conference call this week. “He’s dominant in his presence whether it’s the running game or the passing game.”
Harper called Kuechly the best linebacker in the league, and “probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life, which is kind of weird.”
Kuechly concedes he’s not comfortable talking about himself. But during an interview at his locker a day before the Panthers left for Seattle, he spoke excitedly and at length when asked what beating Seattle would mean for a franchise that hasn’t been to the NFC Championship Game in nine years.
“I think you win one game in the playoffs and then you don’t go any further than that, it’s obviously good but it’s not like something that you’re like, ‘Yeah!’ ” Kuechly said. “You go to the playoffs to win the Super Bowl. You don’t go to the playoffs to win one game.”
Kuechly will be heading to Arizona in two weeks whether the Panthers win or lose Saturday: He’ll either be there for the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl, though he made his preference clear.
Olsen, selected to his first Pro Bowl this season, will have at least one more game after Saturday to play alongside Kuechly, whom he views as one of the NFL’s best players and ambassadors.
“He’s just an awesome dude. He’s a great teammate. He’s a good friend. You can’t say enough good things about him as a person,” Olsen said. “And he’s also an All-Pro middle linebacker. It’s a pretty good combination.”