Scott Fowler

Longshot Panthers rookie Jordan Kunaszyk’s next goal: You learn how to say his name

He wasn’t recruited by a single Division I program out of high school. He broke his hand and couldn’t play for his entire first year of junior college. And even after he righted his career at California, it wasn’t enough to make him one of the 254 players drafted in April.

Yet Jordan Kunaszyk made the Carolina Panthers’ 53-man roster over the weekend as the longest of long shots — an undrafted rookie free agent.

So let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way first: How do you pronounce that last name?

“It’s Kuh-NAW-Shick,” he said. He spoke each syllable slowly because when he says his surname quickly, the most common reply is “Huh?”

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Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, (center) got very excited when linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, right, made an acrobatic interception in the final preseason game. Two days later, the Panthers told Kunaszyk he had made the team’s initial 53-man roster. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Like “Krzyzewski” or “Kuechly,” all of us sports fans will learn it if we find out we need to. That’s Kunaszyk’s next goal — he wants to make us need to.

“I’ve got to prove that I’m meant to be here and I can help the team win,” the linebacker said when asked about making the team. “I haven’t made it. When you think you’ve made it, you get complacent. I’m nowhere near where I want to be as a football player. I have so many areas I want to grow in.”

That’s the sort of thing Luke Kuechly says all the time. Kunaszyk has tried to learn from the Panthers’ Pro Bowl linebacker over the past several months. In college, he already had picked up Kuechly’s penchant for excessive film study.

“I do genuinely enjoy watching film,” Kunaszyk said. “It’s just what I’m passionate about. I love football. I’ve been doing it since I was six years old. I want to be great. And I know, in order to be great, you’ve got to put in a lot of time. I feel like watching film is something that you can do to make 1-2 extra plays on gameday. And when you make those plays, those hours of film you watch when nobody was around? They were worth it.”

If Kunaszyk makes any of those sorts of plays Sunday in Charlotte in Carolina’s season opener against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, it will likely be on special teams. Kuechly and Shaq Thompson will rarely come off the field in 2019 at the Panthers’ two inside linebacker positions in the 3-4. But Kunaszyk made the team — beating out Jared Norris for the final ILB spot — partly because the Panthers believe he will be a big special-teams contributor.

Said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney of Kunaszyk: “He had a terrific preseason and training camp. He made plays. He’s a guy who studies all the time. ... We had a young linebacker who really has the skill set, has our DNA. ... He’s just going to get better and better, and he gives us good depth. He’s going to get better at special teams. That was one of those (roster) decisions we went back and forth with, and I think at the end of the day we made the right one.”

Kunaszyk — who made one of the best plays of the preseason with a spectacular interception against Pittsburgh Thursday — had an unusual path to the NFL. He grew up in Sacramento and got no Division I offers coming out of high school. He then went to a local junior college — American River College — where he broke his hand his first year but played well enough in his second to be able to transfer to the University of California (Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s alma mater).

From there, Kunaszyk steadily worked his way into becoming a productive linebacker who was even named second-team All-America by Sports Illustrated in 2018. Still, his measurables weren’t great. While he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, his official 40-yard dash time was around 4.82 seconds. That probably had a lot to do with why he wasn’t drafted, which disappointed Kunaszyk.

“I felt like the body of work I did in college — with how productive I was, with being a team captain, and I felt like I checked all the boxes from a character standpoint as well — that should have got me drafted,” Kunaszyk said. “But at the end of the day, I’m grateful that I got the opportunity to come to Carolina. Had I got drafted somewhere else, maybe it wouldn’t have turned out as good.”

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Carolina Panthers linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, left, gets up and runs for yardage after intercepting a Pittsburgh Steelers pass Thursday. Kunaszyk, an undrafted rookie free agent, made the Panthers’ 53-man roster over Labor Day weekend. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Saturday morning, when the Panthers were finishing their cuts to go from 90 players to 53, Kunaszyk got a call from Rivera and Hurney. It wasn’t to tell him to bring his playbook; it was to tell him that he had earned a spot on the team. Rivera termed the conversation “kind of cool.”

“It felt really good to get that phone call,” Kunaszyk said. “The week was a little stressful just because I invested so much into this. And I feel like, this is what I really wanted. And I know a lot of people want this, but I really wanted it.”

Now, at least for a while, he has it. And if he has his way, you’re going to know how to say his name the next time you read it.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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