Scott Fowler

Spartanburg trash-talk battles between Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly have a hidden meaning

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly -- shown at training camp this week -- said Friday he only thinks about concussions when someone else brings the subject up. Kuechly has been trash-talking with quarterback Cam Newton more frequently in this camp.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly -- shown at training camp this week -- said Friday he only thinks about concussions when someone else brings the subject up. Kuechly has been trash-talking with quarterback Cam Newton more frequently in this camp. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly have begun their daily training camp battles once more for the Carolina Panthers. But what is different about this season is that they are now trash-talking each other more than ever.

“As each year goes by,” Newton told reporters this week, “Luke is slowly but surely getting into the ‘Must Talk Crap To’ list – my to-do list. Every day in practice. Because Luke, to y’all – he’s the golden boy.”

To Newton, Kuechly is something else entirely – a worthy rival that he tries to one-up every day in practice. The teasing also speaks to the growing friendship between Carolina’s quarterback and middle linebacker – the two most important players on a squad trying to rebound from a 6-10 season.

Ever since his rookie year in 2011, Newton has had veteran linebacker Thomas Davis as his primary verbal foil when the No. 1 offense faces the No. 1 defense in practice. Although he has previously been named the NFL’s Man of the Year for his community service, Davis relishes trash talk and loves to prick Newton’s balloon whenever he can.

When Luke Kuechly was a rookie, he followed the veterans around asking question after question now a veteran, Kuechly sees similar traits in rookie linebacker Ben Boulware.

Kuechly, more of a “yes-sir, no-sir” sort who Newton long ago nicknamed “Captain America,” was slow to get in on the incessant talking at first. But in this training camp he seems happy to do it, which I believe is a sign of how happy he is simply to be on the field after a concussion wrecked the second half of his 2016 season.

“I’ve got to help Thomas out sometimes,” Kuechly said Friday of the trash-talking. “It’s a good back and forth. Thomas and Cam have a little bit higher level of trash-talking than I do. Thomas doesn’t need a whole lot of help, but sometimes you’ve got to get in there and reinforce something Thomas has said. My skill level at that is not very good – I just try to run around and make a play. And every now and then, when something’s easy, I’ll throw a jab in.”

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Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (left) and linebacker Luke Kuechly have been engaging more and more often in friendly trash-talking at the team’s training camp at Wofford College. They are shown here before the Super Bowl in January 2016, which Carolina lost 24-10 to Denver. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Newton likes to tell Davis he’s not scaring anybody on blitzes. Newton also takes pains to run 40 yards downfield to celebrate touchdown passes with wide receivers, even if he wasn’t the one throwing the pass. Kuechly likes to fire back at will, Newton said gleefully, with words that are “not adequate for a children’s book.”

Not worried about concussions

Both Newton and Kuechly are coming off injury-plagued seasons that ranked as the worst of their careers. Newton had offseason shoulder surgery and is on a pitch count at training camp, although the ball is coming out with good velocity. Kuechly has no restrictions.

But the fact that Kuechly has missed nine games over the past two years because of the lingering effects from two different concussions is the dark cloud that hangs over his every move. Panthers fans will cringe on most of Kuechly’s tackles during the first part of this season until the linebacker puts together a number of injury-free games.

“I’m not worried about it,” Kuechly insisted of his concussion history Friday. “It’s not a concern of mine. I only think about it when it gets brought up. It’s not going to be an issue.”

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Luke Kuechly was dazed and sobbing when he was carted off the field in Charlotte after sustaining the second concussion of his NFL career against New Orleans. Kuechly would ultimately miss the final six games of the 2016 season due to that injury -- he was cleared for the last three, but the Panthers chose not to play him as a precaution. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

This is what he must tell himself, of course, and hopefully it is true. But no one knows for sure. Every Carolina fan remembers the sad story of Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan, who was great for awhile but then was undone by concussions.

Kuechly, entering his sixth NFL season, is on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – as long as his brain doesn’t betray him. It is hard to forget the scene of Kuechly being carted off the field in Charlotte, dazed and sobbing, in November while Cris Collinsworth said on-air: “He was sobbing out on the field. I don’t know what’s going on here. ... Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh! I mean nobody loves the game of football and is loved by this city and is loved by his teammates more than that guy.”

‘Headphones and a Gatorade towel’

Kuechly does appear to try hard not to think about any long-term risk associated with football. A study published this week showed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was found in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains that have been donated to scientific research. The neurodegenerative brain disease can be found in individuals, like football players, who are exposed to repeated head trauma.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton met with the media on Thursday, July 27, 2017. He talked about why the game wasn't any fun at the end of the 2016 NFL season and his desire to win.

While Davis called the study “alarming” this week, Kuechly said Friday: “Honestly, I haven’t read it.”

Kuechly added: “I think everybody understands in football, there’s a knowledge of risk.”

Clearly, Kuechly doesn’t want to talk about his head. He doesn’t mind at all talking about Newton, though, who the linebacker believes will rebound with a big year this season. The two are more similar than you might think if you looked at their closets – Newton’s drips with Versace and other designer labels while Kuechly seems to own about 100 T-shirts. Their personal style is so different that one of the best jokes in Panthers history came when Kuechly dressed up as Newton in 2015 for Halloween, in a prank aided and abetted by Davis, and shown to the world via Instagram.

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Cam Newton, left, photobombed Luke Kuechly (right) and teammates Derek Anderson and Greg Olsen in 2016 before the Super Bowl. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

At the time, Kuechly raided Newton's locker for some practice pants and cleats. “Then all you've got to do is find some headphones and a Gatorade towel, throw that on, smile, put the kneepads on and all that stuff and you're good to go,” Kuechly said then.

Now that teasing has progressed to a daily routine on the practice field.

Sometimes one wins a battle in Spartanburg. Sometimes the other does.

What Cam and Luke are both most tickled about, though, is that they are both on the field again, ready to engage with each other and anyone else who gets in the way.

And if some of the words that get them there aren’t suitable for children’s books, that will be just fine with everyone.

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