No one questions that quarterback Cam Newton is the face of the Carolina Panthers, their emotional leader and most dominant talent. Yet there’s another force that has carried the Panthers to Super Bowl 50. A Clark Kent to Newton’s Superman, the inside linebacker who couldn’t be more different than his high-strung teammate — or alike for that matter.
Meet Luke Kuechly, who, like Newton, can dominate games from sideline to sideline — even if he cannot seem to grow whiskers. Whether Kuechly helps the elderly cross the streets isn’t clear, but he has been known to assist fans while the game is in progress.
Kuechly attended St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, the largest all-boys Jesuit prep school in the country. There he became known as Clark Kent, the result of his dark glasses, kind, considerate manners and then short, dark hair.
“When you meet Luke, you’re never going to guess that guy is a vicious linebacker,” said Steve Specht, his high school coach.
But to see Kuechly on the field is to know it.
“Luke was a nice boy until he crossed that line,” Specht said. “He could flip that switch like no one I ever coached. He could literally take on a new persona on the field. It’s an interesting case study.”
The Panthers drafted Kuechly out of Boston College in the first round of the 2012 draft. There, he was the roommate of Mike Morrissey, whose father Jim once played with Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the Chicago Bears.
“So we’re getting ready for the draft, and I get this call from Jim and he says, ‘Hey Ron, you gotta check this guy out — he’s Michael’s roommate,’” Rivera recalled. “I knew who he was. So I said, ‘Tell me about him.’ So he starts describing this guy, who he is. I ask, ‘Can I talk to Michael?’ He gives me his son’s number. I call his son.
“Then I talk to Jim’s wife, Amy, and they told me this story. When their daughter went to go visit their son, they said, ‘Make sure you introduce her to Luke.’ When I heard that, I was like, ‘OK, this kid has gotta be a good kid.’”
The Panthers thought so much of Kuechly that they signed him to a five-year, $62-million contract extension last fall, which made him the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history. The three-time Pro Bowler led the league in tackles in the 2012 and 2014 seasons.
Kuechly hasn’t experienced much failure in his career, but there is one noticeable thing that he can’t do to save his reputation. That’s grow a playoff beard.
“I tried, and it looked terrible,” Kuechly said.
Teammates Ben Jacobs, Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen and Mike Remmers had no such problem, which prompted them to cut a deal.
“They said, ‘All right, well, if you can’t grow your beard you have to grow the hair,’” Kuechly said.
He can’t remember his last trip to the barber, but the results have been good enough to satisfy his teammates for now.
In the NFC Championship Game, a rout of the Arizona Cardinals, Kuechly helped set the tone when he returned an interception for a touchdown. He ran to the stands to celebrate, handing out high-fives and fist-bumps to fans along the way.
But when one Panthers backer tumbled out of his seat onto the field, Kuechly stopped in his tracks. He checked on the fan and assisted him to his feet.
“You probably would have [stopped to help], too.” Kuechly reasoned with reporters later. “He fell out of the stands, and his face didn’t look like he was feeling too good. He fell right in front of me, so I couldn’t just step over him.”
But wouldn’t some players have been too caught up in the moment to notice the fall guy?
“Well, I don’t know,” Kuechly replied. “He looked like he wasn’t doing so good, so I had to make sure he was doing all right. … He got up and he kind of smiled, and once he smiled, I figured he was all right.”