Love story: Reserve defensive tackle making his mark

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CHARLOTTE – It's both a blessing and a curse.

Kyle Love, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes five years ago, knows his way around the kitchen.

"He's been doing that for a few years," said fellow defensive tackle Dontari Poe, a fan of Love's gift for grilling. "We played in K.C. together."

Months after his diagnosis, Love landed in Kansas City of all places – a place known for all things barbecue.

"Yes, I can do a little something on the grill," Love said. "Poe used to trick me; I'd go to his house all the time, and he'd just have meat sitting on the counter. He'd just look at the grill, look at the meat and just say, 'Go ahead.'"

Love can't enjoy his culinary creations as freely as he once did, but over the years he's figured out how to balance the dietary demands of being a diabetic and the physical demands of playing defensive tackle.

While his potentially crippling condition goes unnoticed on game days, Love is gaining more and more notice for his play – a rare feat for an interior lineman, let alone a backup interior lineman.

"He's one of the most underrated players on our defense," head coach Ron Rivera said.

The 310-pounder has been hard to ignore the last couple of weeks. A solid run stopper and pass rusher since his rookie year in 2010, Love has made some spectacular plays of late.

He got a game ball quite literally two weeks ago in Philadelphia, keeping the fumble he recovered in the final seconds to seal the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in Panthers history. Then last week against the Ravens, Love exploded through the line and forced a fumble that set in motion a blowout victory over Baltimore.

"It was just a perfectly dialed-up defense, and I just executed what the call was," Love said. "The play they ran offensively backfired because of what we did. It was a great call, and then I just did my job."

After Love got his unexpected medical diagnosis back in 2013, he didn't have a job. He quickly landed back on a roster, but he didn't truly find a new football home until he signed with the Panthers late in the 2014 season.

"Honestly, I didn't even think it was possible for a big-time pro athlete to get that," Love said, "but both my parents are diabetic."

The Patriots signed him as an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi State in 2010, and he beat the odds to make the roster and then saw his role steadily increase over his first three NFL seasons. During the 2013 offseason, however, Love was hit with a double whammy: the diabetes diagnosis and the Patriots' decision to waive him with a non-football illness designation as a result.

The Jaguars claimed Love off waivers, but he was let go in the final roster cutdown later that year. He eventually spent a couple of weeks with the Chiefs and a couple with the Jaguars late in the 2013 season, but he was again out of football for most of the 2014 season before the Panthers signed him in mid-December.

Love played his first 12 snaps as a Panther in an NFC Divisional Playoff loss at Seattle with starter Star Lotulelei out with an injury. Love started the first two games of the 2015 season with Lotulelei still out, and aside from a few weeks at the start of the 2016 season, he's been a more-than-reliable reserve ever since.

"Kyle is very important to us," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "From where we stand, he's not underappreciated; there's a reason why he's here. From the outside perspective, he might not get as much attention, but we know what he brings to the table.

"There are some things we can really depend on from Kyle: He organizes our rush and he's a dependable point-of-attack run defender who brings a lot of energy to the table. He keeps showing up."

Even as a reserve, Love has developed into a leader for the position group, and at age 31, he's still developing as a player. At an age when the wear and tear of the position often takes its toll, Love seems unfazed – even with the added burden of managing his diabetes.

"Every year that I've been in this defense – which is different from what I came from – I think I've gotten better," Love said. "Coach Rivera jokes, 'You're a fine wine. You get better as the years go on.'

"I guess he's right. I'll just try to continue to do that."

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