Athlete Look Back: Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly 'only knows how to go hard' says HS coach

Athlete Look Back: Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly 'only knows how to go hard' says HS coach

Athlete Look Back

Athlete Look Back: Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly 'only knows how to go hard' says HS coach

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Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is the star of the Panthers defense. (Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is the star of the Panthers defense. (Photo: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Before Michael Jordan was making Bryon Russell fall with a killer crossover and draining the go ahead jumper to win his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a skinny, determined athlete dominating the competition at Laney High (Wilmington, N.C.).

Before Adrian Peterson was trucking opposing defenses and racking up 2,097 yards in a single season for the Minnesota Vikings he was shining bright under the Friday night lights at Palestine High (Texas), averaging 12 yards a carry and scoring 32 touchdowns.

Before any athlete can become legendary they have to lay their foundation in the high school ranks.

Each week I’ll chat with a high-profile athlete’s former coach, mentor, family member, etc., and reminisce about their high school playing days; everything from the greatest moment to the wackiest story.

This week I caught up with Carolina Panthers All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly’s high school coach at St. Xavier (Cincinnati, Ohio) Steve Specht.

Kuechly became the first NFL player with a pick-six in back-to-back playoffs games and is the undisputed leader of the Panthers elite defense that will be on display Sunday in Super Bowl 50.

Jason Jordan: What’s your best memory of Luke on the field?

Steve Specht: I remember in the state championship game his junior year he was playing linebacker for us and we were pretty dominant that year. He hit a back on one play and stripped the ball at the same time and he was running it in for six, but the ref blew the play dead. Luke just stopped in disbelief. He didn’t throw a tantrum or get angry, he just handed the ball back and got ready to play. It was just one of those plays that amazes you. Another memory I had was after his last game of his senior year. He was standing on the field after everyone had left and after the lights had been turned off and he was just sobbing. It meant that much to him. That touched me. I’ll never forget that. The reason he’s so doggone successful is because he loves this game.

JJ: Did you know that Luke would be a pro back then?

SS: You know it’s funny I met with his parents one time about the recruiting process and his mom was kinda like, “What should he do? What kind of college can he play at?” And I looked at her and told her that he would play on Sundays. The reason I said that was because he reminded me so much of Rocky Boiman. He played for me in high school and had a nine-year career in the NFL. His mom thought that was funny. After it was all said and done she said something to me about that comment. I knew he had a chance because he was just so good and he was so smart. He’s the smartest football player I’ve ever coached. He’s just a machine and incredibly talented.

JJ: Did you ever have to tell him to dial it down in practice?

SS: No, I let him go. We couldn’t hold him back if we tried. He only knows how to go hard. I wasn’t about to pull him back from that mindset and approach.

JJ: What’s the hardest hit you’ve ever seen him dish out?

SS: Wow, that’s a great question. I remember the Don Bosco game during his senior year and they had some ungodly winning streak and Luke ended up with 22 tackles. He lit some cats up in that game!

JJ: What kind of guy was Luke off the field?

SS: He was very unassuming. He just mixed in. He wasn’t the guy who would say, “I’m the football player look at me!” He’d do community service and take care of his responsibilities in school. He’d do what normal high school kids do. I remember one year on New Year’s Eve I took a bunch of the players out for lunch and I’m asking them what they’ve got planned for the night. Luke tells me he’s staying in and hanging with his little brother. That’s just him. He’s not gonna party or get wild. He’s the consummate professional.

JJ: Got any crazy stories from his recruitment?

SS: Oh yeah I’ll give you a great story; John Tenuta, I love John, he’s at Notre Dame. Well, it was Luke’s senior year, and he shows up at our school on Friday and I was confused because he wasn’t recruiting any of my kids. So he tells me that he’s there to look at No. 3. So I’m thinking it’s about time you recruited him because Luke wore No. 3. John looked at me funny and said, “Oh shoot not you’re No. 3, I’m looking at No. 3 from St. Ignatius.” It was Dustin Fox, who was a great player and worthy of a scholarship but I looked at John and said, “You’re missing the boat man! You’re recruiting the wrong No. 3.” Ohio State and Alabama weren’t even sniffin’ him. They’d come in and they’d look at him and he looked like the Absent Minded Professor. He’d walk in and they’d be like, “That’s the dude?” It was crazy because he was such a special player.

JJ: How good can Luke be?

SS: I think Luke’s a Hall of Famer. I mean let’s look at; he’s Rookie of the Year and in his second year he’s the Defensive Player of the Year. If you’ve got a guy who’s doing that how can you not say that he’s got Hall of Fame credentials at this point? However, he’s gotta stay healthy. That’s the caveat. But he’s just gonna get better. At this point, I would say he’s an absolute Hall of Famer. You know the best part though; Luke could care less. He’s gonna play for today. That’s all that matters to him.

Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY

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