Like many kids around the United States, Luke Kuechly dreamed of being an NFL player. After graduating from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kuechly , the 19th ranked linebacker in his class, headed to Boston College.
In Chestnut Hill, Kuechly played in every single game in his three years on campus, starting all but one. In that time, Kuechly was twice named a First-Team All-American, and in his junior season, he won the 2011 Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player and the 2011 Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
After his junior season, Kuechly was selected by the Carolina Panthers 9th Overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. In Carolina, Kuechly cemented himself as one of the league’s all-time greats, earning himself a place as a First-Team NFL All-Pro five times, a Pro Bowl selection seven times, and was named the 2013 Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
In what is part two of our three-part interview series with Luke, we had the chance to sit down with him to discuss his personal journey and the teammates and people that helped shape his career:
How did you get into playing linebacker?
“When I started playing in the 4th grade, I was the 2nd string fullback. However, I really wanted to play. I was willing to play wherever. They asked me if I was willing to play guard, and I said ‘of course.’ So, in 4th grade I played guard and linebacker. In 5th grade, there were kids a full eighteen months older than me. I was just the scrub, so I played linebacker and a little bit of running back, but I didn’t really play that much. In high school, I played linebacker my first year, tight end my sophomore year, junior year I played linebacker and then senior year, I played safety. Once I got to college, it was all linebacker from there on out.”
I’m sure people always assume you were the top guy from the beginning. At what point did you realize you had a shot to play in college?
“My freshman year of high school, we had 140 kids on our team. I got hurt the second day of training camp. I broke my foot so the goal that year was always just trying to get back healthy to play. My JV year they switched me to tight end, which I wasn’t too thrilled about. That year, our team was really good, so if you played on the varsity team, that was a really big deal.
My junior year, they switched me back to defense and I had started growing. At this point, all I wanted to do is just play on the varsity team. That junior year, we were really good again and I had a really good season. Then, I started to get recruited and that’s when I realized that this is something that I really wanted to do. After my junior year when I realized playing college football was a possibility, that’s when I really committed myself to playing beyond high school.
Going into my junior year, I was 200 pounds. I was committed just to do what I had to do to play on varsity that year, whether it was eating, or working on the field and in the weight room. I wasn’t going to be able to play linebacker at 200 pounds. After a strong junior year, I followed it up with a really good senior year. At that point, I knew I was going to play in college.”
What was your mindset like towards your career when you got to Boston College?
“When I got to college, my goal was just to get on the field there. I didn’t want to be the 5th-year senior that never played. I wanted to have the opportunity to play against Florida State, Clemson, and Notre Dame to have that cool college experience. Before that, I had never played in a stadium with more than 12,000 people so that was kind of a dream,
My freshman year, I kind of fell into a starting spot because we had a lot of guys get injured. I played well my freshman year. My sophomore year, I was playing well and I remember thinking towards the end of that year that if I continued to play well through the next year, I’m going to have a legitimate shot to play in the NFL. For me, it was always about what is the next step. After my sophomore year, I knew I had a legit shot at playing at the next level. I took everything super seriously in college whether it was eating, sleeping, training, hydration, studying. When I got to my junior year, I was all-in. I was going to do everything I can to make sure I have a good season. Once the season happened, everything just kind of fell into place.”
It's clear that you are big on setting goals and focusing on how to achieve them. Did that mindset change at all as you started prepping for the NFL Draft?
“I was committed during high school and college, but when I went to train for the Combine, it was a whole new level. We had 29 guys at IMG when I trained. It was sick. I loved it. This was an opportunity to do something that I grew up dreaming about. That training was one of the best parts of my football career. I love to work out. I love to train. I love to talk football. I loved the nutrition side of it. I got to do all of that stuff every day in Florida, and it was awesome. We were up at 6am, and our day would be full with football whether it was workouts, second workouts, on-field training, or nutritionist meetings. Every day when you were done you were tired, but I loved it.”
After all that, what was your draft experience like?
“I was really happy to be at home for draft night because I was gassed. After the Combine, you have your Pro Day and then you have your team visits. So, I was flying all over the place. I was unsure where I was going to end up, but moreover, I was just tired. I just wanted to be at home, I wanted to be around my parents and my family.
The day itself was awesome. I remember that my buddies came in from school. We all hung out. I got a good workout in. My friends and I messed around during the day. My friends and I played Wiffle Ball outside in the backyard and I thought to myself that I wasn’t going to be taken in the first few picks, so I wasn’t too nervous. My mom told me that I needed to get inside. I almost didn’t want to go in because I was so nervous. The days leading up to the draft were super relaxing because I was at home.
There are like two things that stuck out to me about it. Number one was that the opportunity to make my dream a reality was finally here. I knew somebody was going to pick me, but you don’t know when and where it’s going to happen. I turned 21 a week before the draft. I was a little kid trying to figure out where am I going to live. What’s the city going to be like? If I end up on the West Coast, what’s that going to be like? I had never been out on the West Coast before. What are the guys on the team going to be like?
There are so many different things that run through your head. There are so many different unknowns that you’re used to controlling. I’m going to control how I work out. I’m going to control how I eat. I’m going to control how hard I play. You can crush your interviews. You can crush your combine. You can have a great college tape and do everything right, but you still can’t control who picks you. So, when you get drafted, it’s a huge feeling of clarity.”
Obviously, we all know by now that Carolina took you. Once you got there, who did you look up to and seek advice from as you got acclimated to the NFL?
“When I got to Carolina, we had a lot of good older guys to look up to. Jordan Gross, who was a veteran offensive lineman. He’d give me advice, but he was more of like a big older brother. He had such a good feel of when to check in on me. He’d invite me to come over to dinner at his house. He had such a special ability of reading my pulse and knowing when something was on my mind. He was such a great presence on our team. The most respected guy on the team.
And then Thomas Davis, who was in the linebacker room with me. You couldn’t have asked for a better older guy in your position room. He showed me how to practice the right way. He showed me how to play the game the right way. He was tough. He was physical. He loved the game. He treated his teammates great. He was active in the community. Just an awesome dude to have on your team.
Then I had Ryan Kalil. Ryan Kalil played center for us. He was relatively young when I got to Carolina. Maybe year 5 or year 6. Just a great dude. Great family. He’d have me over a lot for dinner with his family. When I got down here, I was by myself a lot of the time when I first got down to Carolina. When he invited me over to hang out and have dinner with his family, it felt really good just to be around a family. Greg Olsen was a lot like Ryan where he’d have you over to the house. He’d treat me like a part of his family. He was a guy that I’d train with in the offseason. Those were the main guys who took me under their wing my rookie year. We had another guy, Jordan Senn, whose locker was right next to mine. He was a linebacker. Primarily a special teams guy. He was like my shrink. He was very positive all the time. He kind of knew where his role was on the team. He was an outstanding guy. Like my cheerleader. He helped me out with everything. Even simple stuff like telling me where I should eat, where I should go to get my suits dry cleaned, where I park. All that that small stuff that people don’t think about. We’d do stuff on Fridays together. It sounds dumb, but he’d always take me through his stretch routine on Fridays. He was a very good vet and he’d help in unique ways.”
Could you pick one of them or another person who had the greatest impact on your career?
“Well, my parents obviously. Without them, you don’t get to where you’re going to go right. There were a million things they did that were beneficial to my career. They were supportive. They put me in good situations. Especially when I got down to Carolina, they were always at games. That was a huge deal for me because you work so hard, but sometimes you just want to be around your family. They would show up and hang out for a few days. Whether it was in my little apartment, or here in my place now. It was awesome. Some of it was after home games, we’d come back to my house and make dinner. I’d sit on the couch and watch Sunday Night Football with my mom. That was the best day of the week.
I think there can be a lot of guys on the team that have an impact on your career. Like those guys that I talked about before. But the biggest thing that had an impact on me was that my parents were at games. They’d hang around after the games and they were just your parents. They didn’t care about how I played. We could get smoked, or we’d win, and it would be the same thing. I love that. Just even keeled. That was always something to look forward to for me.”
What does being a good teammate mean to you and how important is it?
“The reason we’re in the NFL is to win games of course. But in order to be there and to win games, you’re there because you love football, you love your teammates and really at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do. I think saying it’s the right thing to do is plenty. For example, Thomas Davis practiced hard because it was the right thing to do. Why did Jordan come talk to me when he felt like he needed to and often going out of his way to help me? Because it’s the right thing to do. Same thing with Ryan and Greg, all those guys. They do stuff because it’s the right thing to do at the right moment. In sports, I think that’s the most important thing. It’s how you treat the other guys on the team, and if you do the right thing.”
To read part one of our interview with Luke Kuechly, click here