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Sports >  WSU football

Former Washington State linebacker and Panthers’ star Frankie Luvu plays with a joy that resembles ‘crazy,’ and unleashes the defense

Sept. 28, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 30, 2022 at 10:29 p.m.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Frankie Luvu (49) pressures New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) who throws the ball away during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022.  (Alex Slitz/Tribune News Service)
Carolina Panthers linebacker Frankie Luvu (49) pressures New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) who throws the ball away during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. (Alex Slitz/Tribune News Service)
By Alex Zietlow Charlotte Observer

While the rest of the defense sat or stood still on the sideline, catching a breather in a game during which it put in a ton of work, there was one guy who couldn’t stop jumping and moving and yelling.

He wears No. 49.

He helped make one of the biggest plays of the season for the Carolina Panthers in their 22-14 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium.

And, in the words of defensive lineman Derrick Brown, he’s “one of the craziest guys I’ve ever been around.”

That “crazy guy” is outside linebacker Frankie Luvu, a fifth-year NFL veteran from Washington State who signed a two-year extension this past offseason and whose coming-out party began in the first quarter — bringing his joy to a fanbase and a city that needed some.

“He has a tattoo of a battery on the side of his neck, with a charging sign on it,” defensive end Brian Burns said after Sunday’s game. “That should explain enough about his juice.”

In the first quarter, Luvu was assigned to set the edge on a compulsory Alvin Kamara run off the right tackle, but when the Panthers’ defensive line got a nice push, Luvu made an inside move and instinctively wrapped up one of the best running backs in the NFL.

He said he then noticed Kamara had the ball out away from his body — being “right there at the right time,” Luvu recounted — and ripped the ball out. Marquis Haynes Sr. then scooped it up and ran it into the end zone.

That was the first takeaway the Panthers’ defense had notched all year. And it was fruitful.

According to head coach Matt Rhule, the play was perfect.

“I think it just unleashed at least the spirit for the defense,” Rhule said. “I think the defense heard all week about not getting takeaways, and our challenge wasn’t just to get takeaways but to try and go score on D. So for Frankie to go and rip the ball out …. for Marquis to scoop and score like that, I think that is exactly what our team needed.”

Luvu’s day wasn’t done. He finished Sunday with that forced fumble and four tackles, two fewer than tackle-leaders CJ Henderson and Jeremy Chinn — and he bolstered Carolina’s breakout day on defense: The team only allowed 14 points and notched six quarterback hits, three tackles for loss and two interceptions in addition to that first fumble recovery.

The defense won the Panthers this game, and Luvu was undoubtedly at the center of it.

“Frankie brings all the juice to the defense,” Burns added. “He’s known for that, you know what I mean? We really thrive off what he brings, but other than that, he makes plays. Like, Frankie’s everywhere.”

The fact that the 26-year-old linebacker wears his heart on his sleeve is well-documented. It’s what helped make him a fan favorite. It’s what earned him the nickname Uce, which is Samoan slang for “brother” or “close friend.” (Luvu is from Tafuna, a village on the East coast of Tutuila Island, American Samoa.)

It’s also what has gotten him through trying times before: When he first signed with the Panthers, Luvu showed up to an offseason availability with a large button pinned to his shirt which paid homage to his older brother, Frazier, who had passed in March 2021.

When asked by a reporter how he could play with such a joy, he was thoughtful, his soft-spoken demeanor juxtaposed with the loud bravado with which he plays on the field.

“This game, we can’t take it for granted, you know what I’m saying?” Luvu said. “It’s a huge blessing. This is my dream, to play football. Coming off the Islands, you know, they didn’t have the resources as much as (others do), but now I’m living the dream.

“Like my linebackers coach said, ‘Man, you’re living the dream now. But now what? What’s the next move?’ And my next move is just keeping the energy up for the guys next to me — their energy up, their feelings up — because it’s hard to win in this game.”

For the first time in a while, perhaps ever in his two-year stint with the Panthers, Luvu got to hear “Let’s go Panthers!” ring through the stadium, a welcome sign of hope and happiness on an NFL Sunday.

But if you watched Luvu play, or even watched him boisterously bounce around on the sideline, you saw a guy playing at his best, at his most free.

You saw a guy playing like every snap was a joy in and of itself — as if playing at all meant that he’d already won.

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