At first glance, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly seem to have little in common.
Newton is African-American, stylish and the life of every party he attends. Kuechly is white, admittedly un-stylish and content to stay on the sidelines everywhere except on the field.
“Cam walks into a room and lights it up,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. “Luke has this ability to kind of sneak in.”
Newton said Wednesday that he and Kuechly were the “yin-yang twins.”
But look closer. The two best and most important Carolina Panthers players in Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 against Denver have far more similarities than you might imagine.
Among them: Relentless competitiveness. Great study habits. Superior talent. And a good sense of humor.
They tease each other constantly. Newton either calls Kuechly by his middle name (“August”) or ribs him with the “Captain America” nickname he once bestowed upon him. Kuechly surprised everyone – especially Newton – when he dressed up as the quarterback for a team meeting in celebration of Halloween.
In a prank helped along by linebacker Thomas Davis, Kuechly raided Newton’s locker for some way-too-big cleats and practice pants.
“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.
Rivera said it was “hysterical” to see the team’s reaction, although Newton tried to play it cool at first. “I think when he first saw me, he was trying to act like it wasn’t funny, but it was only a matter of time before his big smile came out,” Kuechly said.
Newton joined the Panthers as the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Kuechly came in 2012 at the No. 9 overall spot. Both were immediately successful, winning various rookie of the year honors. But Newton honed his work habits when he saw the way Kuechly prepared.
“He put so much pressure on me when he first got here, staying late, watching extra film, making sure that everyone on the defensive side knows what they’re doing,” Newton said of Kuechly. “For me watching, it was a competitive enviousness that I grew, and I was like, ‘Dang, he gets it.’ ”
Newton started staying later at Bank of America Stadium more frequently, and it has become something of a competition now. Kuechly likes to peek into the quarterbacks’ meeting room when he leaves at night, trying to see whether Newton is still in there studying opponents’ film for the next game.
“I want to see who’s going to be the last to leave,” Kuechly said. “It goes back and forth.”
Sometimes, Kuechly closes the building down – like when Rivera had to kick him out on Christmas Eve. Other times, Kuechly said, “Cam’s in there with all the lights off and his headphones on, watching film.”
Said Rivera: “They are opposites in some ways. But for the most part, I think they are a lot more similar than people realize ... Their commitment to whatever they do is tremendous.”
No foxtails, no Versace
The two have their differences, of course. Size is one.
Although you would think a linebacker would be bigger than a quarterback, it’s not true in this case. Davis snapped a photo at Halloween of Kuechly in Newton garb and Newton smiling beside him and in on the joke, posting it on Instagram. Kuechly – generously listed at 6-foot-3, probably closer to 6-1 – is standing on his tiptoes to try and approach the height of the 6-5 Newton.
And there’s the style question. Newton has his own clothing line, has posed for GQ and wore black and gold Versace pants (which retail for $849) on the team plane to the Super Bowl. Kuechly normally wears jeans and T-shirts and joked Wednesday that he needed to accept some fashion tips from Newton – within reason.
“There are certain things he can wear that I can’t,” Kuechly said. “I don’t think I can pull off the foxtail. I don’t think I’m cool enough to pull off the Versace pants. I’m going to start with baby steps.”
There’s also the likability factor. Kuechly is not as well-known nationally as Newton, but you’d be hard-pressed to ever find someone who says they can’t stand him. Women hold up posters at stadiums asking to date him. Men wear his jerseys, too. Everyone yells “L-U-U-K-E” after he makes a big hit.
As for Newton, his popularity among kids and young adults is tremendous. And no Panthers player has ever come close to the quarterback in terms of endorsement value and national commercials. But he has his share of detractors – those who don’t like the dancing, or the photo ops, or the Superman pose.
Newton described both sides of that fence Wednesday, saying there’s a “Damn, Cam’s cool” faction but also a “Hell, I hate Cam” faction.
Can playoff magic continue?
In the playoffs, Newton and Kuechly have both been wondrous. Kuechly became the first player in NFL history to return an interception for a touchdown in consecutive games in a single postseason. And he has been a sure tackler as always.
“He gets there very quickly,” Rivera, the former NFL linebacker, said of Kuechly. “And as the old saying goes, he arrives in a bad mood.”
Newton, who should win NFL MVP honors for his regular season on Saturday night, had two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in Carolina’s 49-15 whipping of Arizona in the NFC Championship Game. Las Vegas lists him as the favorite to win Super Bowl MVP on Sunday.
But both players face stern tests against the Broncos. When asked a question about the Cam Newton “brand” on Wednesday, Newton said: “My main focus right now is the Denver Broncos, specifically (linebackers) Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. I think Versace and everybody else can wait for the time being.”
For Kuechly, his defense will need to be very good to match a Denver defense that led the league in sacks and yardage allowed in the regular season. There’s a chance this will be a low-scoring game, which would mean Kuechly’s pre-snap chess match with Peyton Manning will take on huge importance.
Newton is 26, and Kuechly is 24. They have both signed long-term deals with the Panthers, meaning the “yin-yang twins” will be this team’s dual foundations for several years.
But as young as they are, they both know there is no guarantee they will ever play in another one of these. Newton and Kuechly will never be more linked to a common purpose than they are Sunday, when they try to win their first Super Bowl together.