CINCINNATI — It’s a story St. Xavier football coach Steve Specht loves telling.
He was meeting with Luke Kuechly’s parents, as is standard procedure with the parents of juniors Specht thinks can play at the college level.
“We were talking about the process,” Specht said. “I mentioned Stanford, Northwestern, the high-end academic schools. His mom, Eileen, stopped me and asked if I was sure Luke could play at that level.
“I told her if he stays healthy, he can play on Sundays.”
Playing on Sundays is football-speak for playing in the NFL. Specht saw that potential when few others did. Twelve players from St. X’s state championship team were named first-team all-Greater Catholic League in 2007. Kuechly wasn’t one of them. The big football powers in the area didn’t recruit him.
We all know now that Specht was right about Kuechly, but even Specht had no idea how well Kuechly would play on Sundays.
“Absolutely not,” Specht said. “The best defensive player in the NFL? A Hall of Famer? No one could predict that. It’s mind-numbing.”
But that’s what Kuechly has become. He is the defensive star of the Carolina Panthers, the Super Bowl favorites. Kuechly has been a star since arriving in Carolina four years ago. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. This year, he led the NFL in tackles for the third time and was named to his third straight Pro Bowl.
But going into his senior year at St. X, Kuechly wasn’t considered a big college prospect, much less a future All-Pro. Ohio State and Notre Dame did not recruit him.
“I probably hurt his recruiting,” Specht said.
Kuechly was moved from linebacker to free safety as a senior.
“In my defense, we put our most complete player there,” Specht said. “He played all over the field. College recruiters didn’t think he could play free safety. He was light for a linebacker at 215 (pounds).”
Kuechly went to Boston College where he played linebacker and developed into a star. He recorded 532 tackles in his three years at BC. He won the Bronko Nagurski Award as the top defensive player in the nation in 2011.
The Panthers made him the ninth pick overall in the 2011 draft. He’s still lean for a middle linebacker at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. But his speed allows him to cover from sideline to sideline and he is one of best pass defenders among linebackers. He’s returned interceptions for touchdowns in each of the Panthers’ playoff games this year.
Kuechly grew up in Evendale, the middle of three boys. His older brother, John, graduated from Ohio State’s ROTC program and serves in the Army Reserve. He’s working for the family business, J&N Auto Electric, while earning an MBA at Xavier.
Luke’s younger brother, Henry, is a senior at St. X. He plays on the basketball team.
In the age of specialization in youth sports, Luke did not go that route. He started playing football in the fourth grade, but that wasn’t all he played.
“Luke was always into sports,” his father, Tom, said. “He played everything growing up. We encourage that. We’d tell him once you start a season, you finish it. That was our only rule.”
By all accounts, Luke is a great guy. His teammate at Carolina, Roman Harper, calls Kuechly the nicest person he’s even met.
"I’ve got him fooled. I like to get to meet the new guys that come in,” Kuechly told the Carolina media. “Since I’ve been here, it’s kind of been that way when the new guy gets here and everyone welcomes him. But I think it’s just the appropriate thing to do. . . but I always make a conscious effort to go meet a guy and talk to him and see where he is from, that way you understand him.”
Specht saw that in Kuechly at St. X.
“He’s an unbelievable kid,” Specht said. “Whether he wins the Super Bowl or not, he’s going to be the same Luke Kuechly. “He’s a better human being than he is a football player. That comes from Tom and Eileen. They’re just a neat, neat family.”
The Kuechlys — Tom, Eileen, John and Henry — are going to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California. Tom went the first playoff game; Eileen went to the NFC Championship game.
“We swap, so one of us can go to Henry’s games,” Tom said.
Henry will miss a St. X basketball game to attend the Super Bowl. After all, your brother doesn’t play in the world’s biggest game every day.
That’s an adjustment even for Luke.
“I was talking to some of the other linebackers,” he told the Carolina media. “We’re saying we’ve never played football this long, not in high school, not in college, not to this point in Carolina. It’s kind of different. We’re excited. Going into the season, this is where you want to be.”
Kuechly still looks boyish at 24, and he still has the bitter of wonderment about him when talking about the big game and facing Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
“It’s cool for me to play against a guy like him,” he said. “You spend your life watching him. You know . . . Peyton Manning.”
Some day a young quarterback might say that about Luke Kuechly.