During the National Football League’s most recent era, Luke Kuechly established himself as arguably the best linebacker in the game.
In fact, he eventually became considered one of the best linebackers the league has ever seen.
His ascent to elite status happened fast, and once he got there, it was almost as if it happened with no warning.
In eight seasons as a member of the Carolina Panthers, Kuechly made a living by regularly throwing opposing offenses into chaos.
His resume is long and thick, and as his retirement fades further into the rear-view mirror, his legacy will likely continue to grow stronger like a fine wine.
Idyllic Beginnings in Middle America
Many athletes, especially NFL players, grew up with little and used it as motivation.
Kuechly, on the other hand, seemed to have a typical middle-class upbringing. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Evendale, a comfortable village in the Cincinnati metro area.
As one would expect, he was a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals as a kid. Once in a while, he would make his way to a game in person.
One memory that stood out in his mind was when, at the age of eight, he went to a Bengals game and witnessed running back Corey Dillon run through and around the Cleveland Browns for 192 yards and three touchdowns in a 1999 regular season game.
“They played 25 minutes from where I grew up, so obviously I was a Bengals fan,” said Kuechly, who mostly watched his childhood team on television. “I watched them on Sundays, and a couple of my friends had tickets so I’d go every once in a while.
“I remember when they played at old Cinergy Field. I went with my granddad, and Corey Dillon had a million yards on that old AstroTurf. That was cool.”
Kuechly ended up attending St. Xavier High School, an all-boys private Catholic school located on the outskirts of Cincinnati. While there, he had his first job at his father’s auto shop, and it made another lasting memory for him.
“I worked in the warehouse, and I would pick up orders,” he says. “I would go to the computer screen, print off the order from a customer and then it would have where all the stuff was located in the warehouse. I’d go get a big gray cart, and you had to fill up these bins with all the parts. And it wasn’t air-conditioned in there.”
Working long hours in an uncomfortable environment for meager pay, Kuechly said that it helped him appreciate the dignity and value of work.
“And you start to realize that stuff costs money, and then you start to assign value to money,” he explains. “Like if my mom goes to the grocery store and she buys a gallon of milk and the gallon of milk costs this, then you start to run it back in your head, and you’re like, ‘Dang, that’s a half hour of work!’”
It’s a lesson that seems to have stuck with him into adulthood.
“Because once I was working, my Dad’s like, ’You’ve got money now. You can go buy things if you want them. And then it starts to teach you: ‘Oh, do I really need it?’ You start to understand what 20 bucks really means.”
At St. Xavier’s, he wasn’t an instant sensation, playing his freshman and sophomore seasons on the junior varsity football team. He moved up to varsity in 2007 as a junior, and he saw action as both a linebacker and safety.
That is when the world was introduced to the legend of Luke Kuechly.
He recorded 147 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and a touchdown as a linebacker. Going into the season, the St. Xavier Bombers were ranked by many as one of the two best high school football teams in the nation, and they certainly met expectations, as they went undefeated.
The hype surrounding the Bombers was so big that one of their games, against DeMartha Catholic High School in Maryland, was broadcast on ESPN.
By blanking Mentor High School 27-0, the team captured the Division 1 Ohio state title and the National Prep Poll’s mythical national championship, giving Kuechly an early taste of what it’s like to go all the way and experience the fruits of his labor.
The next year, as a senior, he put up 130 tackles, a sack, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. He graduated from St. Xavier’s as a two-time All Greater Catholic League selection, and he earned first-team honors in his senior season.
Here are some Luke Kuechly high school highlights, just because.
— Josh Klein (@joshkleinrules) May 28, 2020
For his efforts, Kuechly was considered a three-star college recruit. He considered the University of Virginia, Duke University and Stanford University, but he decided to head north and suit up for Boston College.
Beastin’ at Boston College
In 2009, the Boston College Eagles already boasted Mark Herzlich Jr., a talented linebacker who was entering his senior season. Herzlich had just been named a First-team All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and it looked like Kuechly would have to pay his dues early on.
But when Herzlich was forced to miss the 2009 season due to a bout with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, Kuechly got an early opportunity to shine.
Starting at outside linebacker, he notched 158 tackles (87 solo) as a freshman, leading the Eagles as well as the ACC and finishing second among all players in the nation.
The Cincinnati-area native was named 2009 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts, and he also made it onto the College Football News (CFN) All-America Team.
Kuechly won the Defensive MVP award of the 2009 Emerald Bowl, although Boston College ended up losing to the University of Southern California 24-13.
In 2010, he moved to middle linebacker, and he built on his success as a freshman. He logged 183 tackles (110 solo), which led the nation, and by the end of the season, he had put up at least 10 tackles in his last 21 games in a row.
Kuechly ended his sophomore year as a unanimous All-American, as well as the defensive MVP of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (the same bowl game he played in the previous year; it had new corporate sponsorship) once again.
In his junior season, Kuechly outdid himself again, recording 191 tackles (102 solo), again leading the nation. Averaging 15.9 tackles a game, he broke the record for highest tackles-per-game average, and nearly broke the mark for most total tackles in a season.
Kuechly decided to forego his senior season and declare himself eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft. He ended his time at Boston College as the school’s all-time leader in career tackles with 532. It was also the ACC’s all-time record.
His monster junior season earned him the 2011 Butkus Award. Dick Butkus, the Hall of Fame Chicago Bears linebacker for whom the award is named after, surprised Kuechly by personally presenting him with the honor at a Boston College banquet.
“Just checking up on him a little bit, he makes tackles,” Butkus said of Kuechly. “You’re on defense a lot, you’re making plays. You just don’t make him if you’re not any good. I just like his speed, he’s an intelligent player and a good guy.”
The linebacker also again won unanimous first-team All-America honors, as well as the Lombardi Award, the Lott IMPACT Trophy, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the ACC Athlete of the Year award.
Luke Kuechly was a DUDE at Boston College pic.twitter.com/waDIZqayup
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) June 26, 2021
A Panther on the Prowl
The 2012 NFL Draft was one of the better draft classes in recent memory. It is largely known for its crop of strong quarterbacks, which included top overall pick Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson.
Some may have initially wondered if Kuechly had the athleticism to duplicate his college success in the NFL, but he performed ably at the NFL Combine, impressing scouts with his exceptional pass coverage skills.
As a result, Kuechly was considered the top linebacker going into draft day. If he was hoping to the drafted by his hometown Bengals, who held the 17th overall pick, he got an assist from Marcus Lewis, the son of longtime Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
Kuechly met the younger Lewis in high school, as both played lacrosse, and the latter kept an eye on Kuechly as he rose to stardom at Boston College.
“He was a fine athlete as a young guy throughout his career at Saint X,” said Lewis. “Mr. Brown had asked me when Luke was coming out to take a look at him early on, even before we got in the draft process. I told him he was the best collegiate linebacker I thought I had ever seen at that point, and he hasn’t disappointed.”
Ultimately, Kuechly was snatched by the Carolina Panthers with the ninth overall pick.
Under head coach Ron Rivera, who was heading into his second season, the Panthers were hoping to build something significant. Quarterback Cam Newton was coming off a strong rookie year, and they were looking to improve their defense, which was one of the NFL’s worst in 2011.
Rivera decided to play Kuechly at outside linebacker instead of middle linebacker to start the 2012 season, opting to play veteran Jon Beason at middle linebacker. When Beason tore his Achilles several weeks into the season, Kuechly was moved to middle linebacker, a change that became permanent.
His impact was felt right away. He had 164 tackles for the season, which led the league, and for good measure, he added eight pass deflections, one sack, sack interceptions, and three fumble recoveries.
In fact, the Panthers coaching staff, after reviewing tape, felt that Kuechly should’ve been officially credited with 205 tackles, which would’ve been a franchise record.
In Week 14, he had 16 tackles against the Atlanta Falcons, which would continue to stand as a career best mark.
Kuechly won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and he was even ranked 79th on the NFL Top 100 list, which lists the 100 best players in the league each season.
Some linebackers excel in defending the run, some are adept at rushing the quarterback and some do well dropping into pass coverage. At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, Kuechly was very strong in all those areas. He had uncanny vision and strong defensive instincts, which helped him disrupt the other team time and again.
Off the field, he was humble and mild-mannered.
“I love that when that passion comes out of him, maybe a sprawl or a flex or something like that,” said Beason of Kuechly. “But then, off the field? Completely unassuming, we’d walk right by him, and you wouldn’t even know he was an NFL player… kind of has that Clark Kent air about him. That’s why I call him ‘Super Luke’.”
Carolina’s defense had significantly improved in ’12, but in 2013 it would reach new heights, finishing second in both points and yards allowed with Kuechly’s help. In a late-season win against the New Orleans Saints, he had 24 tackles, narrowly missing the NFL’s single-game record for most tackles.
On December 22 2013 @LukeKuechly put up a dominating performance:
“The Saints had 81 offensive snaps, of which 12 were incompletions and seven were punts. So out of 62 offensive plays, Kuechly ended 25 of them himself.”
— 𝘌𝘙𝘐𝘊 𓃴 (@ericmagoon) December 5, 2021
The Panthers finished 12-4 and made the playoffs for the first time in five years. The Associated Press named Kuechly the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, making him the only other player besides the legendary Lawrence Taylor to win the award the year after being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Kuechly continued his assault on NFL offenses in 2014, although it wasn’t an easy season. He again led the league in tackles with 153, and got his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod.
The former Boston College standout even won the Butkus award again, making him only the third player to do so in both college and the pros.
In an October loss to the Green Bay Packers, Kuechly was trying to pull free from a pile-up after a fumble. An official grabbed him from behind, and the linebacker swung his arm, not realizing it was an official who grabbed him.
Kuechly was ejected as a result, although the league later admitted its error and said he shouldn’t have been thrown out.
The Panthers regressed a bit, finishing 7-8-1, although they made the playoffs again, eventually losing to Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Round.
Getting to the Brink
With Newton continuing to improve, the Panthers put together their best season ever in 2015. They won each of their first 14 games, making it the best start to a season by an NFC team since the NFL-AFL merger.
Carolina finished the season 15-1, giving them the best record in pro football. Still, it had its share of critics heading into the playoffs, as its passing attack wasn’t particularly strong.
Indeed, it did much of its damage on the defensive side of the ball, and Kuechly was a chief reason why. Emboldened by a new contract extension worth $62 million, he overcame an early season concussion to make it to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, and he was also recognized as the seventh-best player on the NFL Top 100 list.
In a November contest against the Dallas Cowboys, Kuechly became the first player in nearly two decades to record interceptions on back-to-back plays.
The Panthers travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys on Sunday.
Carolina’s last visit to Dallas was a blissful Thanksgiving feast.
Luke Kuechly, ladies and gentlemen:
— John Ellis (@1PantherPlace) September 28, 2021
On the season, he would tally four picks, as well as 10 deflected passes.
He continued to shine in the playoffs, achieving a pick-six in the Divisional Round against Wilson and the Seahawks, and another in the Panthers’ trashing of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
Carolina had made it to Super Bowl 50, which would pit them against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It was also a matchup of perhaps the game’s two best linebackers – Kuechly and Denver’s Von Miller.
The Panthers did a decent job on defense, as Manning didn’t have one of his greatest games, failing to record a touchdown pass. Kuechly had 10 tackles while sacking Manning once, but Newton struggled on the big stage, and the Panthers lost 24-10.
It was a heart-wrenching loss for the young Panthers, which left the mercurial Newton unwilling to engage in the usual give-and-take during postgame interviews. With Kuechly in the prime of his career, it looked like perhaps Carolina would be back in the league championship game before long.
Hi next two seasons, however, would be marred by concussions. He missed the final six games of the 2016 season with a concussion, but it didn’t prevent him from tallying over 100 tackles on the season.
A concussion in October 2017 kept him out of just one game, and he was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, while earning First-Team All-Pro honors for his fourth time. After a weak ’16 season, the Panthers won 11 games in ’17, losing in the NFC wild card game.
Although the Panthers’ fortunes declined in the next two seasons, Kuechly continued to play well, recording at least 130 tackles both years. In doing so, he reached 1,000 career tackles, becoming the first player to do so in his eighth season and the fastest to ever reach the milestone.
For his efforts, he earned his seventh straight trip to the Pro Bowl in 2019.
At age 28, it seemed like Kuechly had plenty of football left in his body, but he decided to call it a career in January 2020.
“In my heart, I know it’s the right thing to do.” pic.twitter.com/mSDyJ0iEMw
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 15, 2020
“There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid — play fast, play physical and play strong,” Kuechly said. “And at this point I don’t know if I am able to do that anymore. That’s the part that is the most difficult. I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision. I thought about it for a long time. Now is an opportunity to step away with what’s going on here.”
He still had the desire to be involved with the game on some level, and he decided to spend the 2020 season as a scout for the Panthers.
A Sterling Resume
Kuechly’s career accomplishments stack up nicely with some of the NFL’s other great linebackers. But it’s the impact he had, not just in terms of being able to tackle opponents, but also in terms of his ability to pressure quarterbacks and passes, that made him legendary.
His peers, coaches and analysts consistently rated him to be the game’s best linebacker and one of the NFL’s best players.
In fact, in 2015 Pro Football Focus rated him the best coverage defender among all defensive players, a very tough honor for a linebacker to win given the position’s requirements.
Some have compared him to Brian Urlacher, who was an elite linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 2000s.
Not too long from now, Kuechly will be eligible to be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Many feel he should, and will, get the nod to be enshrined there with the game’s other legends.