CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For a while, it seemed as if the Panthers might run out of footballs. Their tradition of handing scoring souvenirs to young front-row fans led to them dishing out three first-half gifts to wide-eyed Carolinians, and that did not include a first-half kickoff by Graham Gano that bounded into the seats. A 31-point halftime lead results in quite a few handouts.
Luckily, Luke Kuechly kept a spare.
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Unlike his offensive teammates who know what to do with the ball after scoring, the All-Pro linebacker was a little out of his element after he picked off a pass and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Instead of giving it to a kid, Kuechly gave it to Greg Almond, one of the team’s equipment assistants.
“I got so excited I didn’t know what to do with it,” Kuechly said. “[People] were asking me about my touchdown dance. I don’t know. I just run to the sideline and someone takes it from me.”
The pick-six was fun and meaningful, but the more significant — and impressive — play was his fourth-quarter pass breakup on an attempt to Doug Baldwin. Kuechley came tearing all the way across the field from his middle linebacker spot to bat the ball away from the receiver near the sideline. It was a key play on a key drive; Carolina held Seattle to a late field goal there and were able to keep a seven-point lead.
“That was a little more exciting,” he said of the late play. “The first play, the d-line made that play. I was just kind of on the receiving end of that. They pushed the pocket, they got good pressure, and the ball came right to me.”
So where did that ball wind up?
“I don’t know where it is,” Kuechly said. “Hopefully they have it somewhere.”
Sounds like this one Panther wants to keep a souvenir, not give one away.