Panthers star Luke Kuechly ponders 'chili' reception for Cincinnati homecoming

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has a weakness.

Skyline Chili.

"It's good for the soul," Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said Thursday.

About the only thing Kuechly wants outside of a victory on Sunday in Cincinnati, his first game in his hometown as an NFL player, is a plate of noodles covered in a runny chili sauce with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese.

Locals call it the 3-Way. Kuechly prefers that over the 4-Way, which includes onions or beans, or a 5-Way, which includes onions and beans.

Kuechly's been talking the dish up all week to teammates and coaches who have a hard time believing he would put anything in his body that wasn't healthy.

As good as Skyline Chili may be for the soul, it's not good for a pregame meal.

"Before the game, that's dangerous," Kuechly said with a smile.

There will be other trips home for that. This is strictly business for Kuechly, who was a star safety/linebacker at St. Xavier High School. His only goal is for the Panthers to leave Paul Brown Stadium with a 4-2 record. His focus is on stopping quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense.

"There's not going to be a whole lot of me looking up [in the stands] and seeing if there is anybody I know," Kuechly said.

But the stands will be full of family members and friends who watched Kuechly grow from an undersized linebacker into a superstar. Since the schedule was announced in April, they've been gathering a block of tickets on the visitor's side.

The total is 144.

"Oh, I never thought something like this would happen," said Kuechly's father, Tom. "I never even dreamed of it. And then to have a bunch of people want to all go together and sit together. ... It's been like Luke's bringing a lot of us together."

Cincinnati is where Kuechly, 23, grew up hunting and fishing with his dad and two brothers, John, 24, and Henry, 16. It's where he began his football journey as a fourth-grader. It's where he developed the work ethic that has become his trademark.

It's where his trophy for being the league's top defensive player remains in storage.

"No, we have not created a shrine for Luke or anything like that around here," Tom said with a laugh.

And if they did?

"He wouldn't be too happy," Tom said. "He would rather win than get something."

Kuechly, who leads the league this season with 61 tackles, didn't grow up a huge Bengals fan. His fondest memory of Paul Brown Stadium was winning there as a junior and senior in high school.

How did he play?

"Shoot, I don't remember," Kuechly said. "We won. As long as we win, I don't care."

Kuechly always was too busy playing and practicing football to attend Bengals games. He took up lacrosse in summer leagues -- one of his teammates was Marcus Lewis, son of Bengals coach Marvin Lewis -- just so he could stay a part of something physical.

"That's what drew his interest in [lacrosse]," Tom said. "Luke, to a certain extent, thrives on the physicality of the sport."

Kuechly also thrives on competition. Tom likes to share a story about a time they were visiting his parents in Florida.

"There is a lake right outside of their place," Tom said. "John and Luke were out fishing. Luke came in, then stood at the window and watched what was going on outside. Pretty soon he says, 'I'm going back out to go fishing.' My dad said, 'What's that all about?' I said, 'He's got to make sure he stays ahead of John.'"

Tom says he's seen the "good, the bad and the ugly" of Luke. But when pressed on the ugly side, Tom couldn't think of one.

"This is a guy who is everything you want," said Marvin Lewis, who calls himself the biggest Kuechly fan in Cincinnati outside of the Kuechly family.

The biggest question Lewis had for Kuechly before the 2012 draft was whether he could afford to buy all the extra tickets his family and friends would demand if he fell to the Bengals.

Tom understands.

"It's been an interesting experience," he said of preparing for this game.

The preparation included planning a trip to Skyline Chili, which now might be on hold.

"He'd like to go to Skyline Saturday night," Tom said. "But I don't know if that is a proper pregame meal."