The Promise Of Andrew Luck
It was a sunny August morning in 2002 in Austin, Texas, and 12-year-old Andrew Luck rolled out of bed and straight into the sort of carefree living-in-the-moment existence that defines a happy childhood. Over the course of the day, the sixth-grader didn’t eat much—maybe a tortilla—and didn’t give it much thought. When his dad loaded up the car with equipment for his Pop Warner League football practice that afternoon, Andrew felt ready to go.
The Lake Travis Wildcats were coached by Andrew’s dad, former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck. Several of the other kids’ fathers had played college football at the University of Texas. As the team turned up for practice, the remorseless heat baked the field’s tan grass. Within five minutes, Andrew, unfortified for the physical rigor at hand, grew woozy and signaled to his father that he couldn’t continue.
Oliver gave his son the obligatory lecture—within earshot of his teammates—about every player’s responsibility to be ready when practice starts. A repentant Andrew took this in stride and then moved over to the bench, where he sat silently hydrating (and cursing) himself. “What’s even more embarrassing,” he says today, recalling the experience, “is to be the kid sitting, watching practice, and you know nothing is wrong with you. I think that cuts a kid’s pride.” The lecture continued in the car on the way home, and the theme of it resonated with the young boy: Respect the game, and be prepared for it.
“It’s not that often that you see organizations handing over the keys to a 22-year-old. You don’t see it in the banking industry, the oil industry, or the computer business. But the level of maturity for Andrew is uncommon.” —Colts owner Jim Irsay
Now, 10 years and a thousand football practices later, Andrew Luck comes to Indianapolis as the most celebrated, scrutinized rookie since you-certainly-know-who. His mission this fall is not merely to live up to the absurd hype that comes with being the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but also to somehow gracefully succeed the civic treasure that is Peyton Manning, the most beloved athlete in the history of Indianapolis.
Just to add another few degrees of difficulty, he must do so while inheriting a 2-14 football team, in the House that Peyton Built, in front of a crowd still mourning its absent hero. Luck comes to a city where Colts fans speak of the passing of the guard in terms of grief. “Ooh, that’s tough,” says a bellhop at the Marriott downtown. “I grew up rooting for Peyton.” He then grows wistful, and just when it seems as if he’s going to say something hopeful about the Colts’ future, he sighs. “But he’s gonna do well in Denver. New era, I guess.” At the Colts pro shop in Circle Centre, Luck jerseys are moving well, but the store has been sold out of Manning jerseys for months now, as the Indy faithful jumped at a last opportunity to pay tribute to their icon. Colts fans who’ve grown accustomed to the reassuring presence of one of the game’s great quarterbacks now wonder: Will it ever be the same?
No, it will not. With quarterbacks, it never is. Even in the best circumstances, signal-callers alter their surroundings and their fans’ experiences in ways both obvious and subtle. Rooting for the Green Bay Packers and the composed Aaron Rodgers is an entirely different emotional experience than rooting for the Green Bay Packers and the swashbuckling Brett Favre. Both Rodgers and Favre led the Pack to Super Bowl wins, but there the similarities end. Same mountain, different paths.
For Luck, the challenge comes at a particularly ludicrous moment in the evolution of an all-consuming sports media, when every story that’s covered—especially in pro football—is by definition over-covered. “It’s going to be tough on Andrew,” says Tony Dungy, who saw the maturation of Manning during his stint coaching the Colts and knows what Peyton meant to the city. Because his father pursued a career in Europe after playing in the NFL, Andrew Luck spent his childhood globetrotting and playing as much soccer as football.” But in the self-effacing architectural-design graduate from Stanford University, the Third Culture kid who attended kindergarten in Germany, hit home runs as a 9-year-old in London, and whose favorite athlete is a soccer player, Indianapolis may have found the right person for the job.
Look closer—beneath the mop of hair, the bushy eyebrows, the full lower lip, and that sporadic, patchy chinstrap of a beard—and you will see Andrew Luck’s dark eyes radiate an alert intensity. As you try to figure out just what kind of person he is, the sort of childhood that formed him, and the variety of decisions and blind happenstance that have led him here, it’s worth noting the burning disappointment he felt a decade ago, the mortification of going to the bench to watch someone else practicing on the field in his place. Oliver Luck made his point that afternoon and moved on, and today, he has no recollection of the event whatsoever. But Andrew Luck has never forgotten it.
Nor has he ever repeated it. Though he’s missed a handful of practices since then—twisted ankle in high school, broken finger and mononucleosis at different times in college—he has never again walked onto a football field without being totally prepared, both physically and mentally.
It’s that indomitable work ethic—and his otherworldly football skills—the Colts are counting on to lead them back to greatness.
Andrew Luck’s circuitous path to Indianapolis began when he was just a year old, on the first Tuesday of November 1990, the night his father lost the U.S. Congressional race in West Virginia’s 2nd District. The political experts of both parties had told Oliver Luck that if he wanted a career in politics, he was going to have to be prepared to run two or three times, but the Rhodes Scholar candidate and college hero who had set so many passing records at West Virginia University was not built for waiting around. It was an unlikely enterprise, but he had succeeded in those before. This was a man, after all, who met his future wife, Kathy, while attending law school during his NFL playing career with the Houston Oilers. Though he managed to garner almost 45 percent of the vote, he still lost soundly that night to the incumbent, Harley O. Staggers Jr.
Less than a week after the loss, Oliver got a call from the National Football League about a new venture called the World League of American Football, an attempt to bring the most American of games to a European audience. He and Kathy had spent a year in Germany earlier in the ’80s, and in the context of pro football, that made him an expert on Ger-man culture. So rather than commencing with a political career or returning to law practice in Washington, D.C., the Lucks packed up Andrew and moved to Frankfurt, where Oliver became the general manager for the city’s new team, the Galaxy. Thus was Andrew Luck’s childhood transformed. “I’m terribly happy he lost,” he says now.
Oliver was eventually named president of the league (rebranded NFL Europe) in 1996, and the family moved to London. Andrew grew up worldly and, in Oliver’s words, “competitive out of the chute.” He spent his formative years cavorting around the continent, often with his father when Oliver was attending games, but also with the entire family (he has three younger siblings) on weekends. There were historical sites, soccer stadiums from Munich to London, rugby at Twickenham, even Legoland in Windsor, England.
In 2000, the Lucks moved back to the States, landing in Austin, where Kathy’s family had a house and where Andrew played organized football for the first time. That fifth-grade year, with the Lake Travis Wildcats, he proved to be an impressive defensive end and running back. “But my dad had taught me how to throw,” he says. “He was my sports hero at a young age, so I guess I could throw a little better than the other kids. And then in sixth grade, when your dad becomes the head coach, it’s sort of nice—he puts you at quarterback.”
It was a watershed season, from which Andrew still retains plenty. One tip Oliver gave him remains in his playing arsenal even today: “If it’s late in the game, and you’re ahead and making a handoff, don’t worry about carrying out your play fake; just turn around and shadow the running back—if he fumbles, you’re going to be there.”
Although the Luck family was highly competitive when it came to board games, Andrew says his dad was “oddly relaxed” when it came to football. “I think he realized I was having fun.” The fateful practice for which he didn’t prepare adequately and therefore suffered “a malnourished heatstroke or something” left an impression as well. “The message got across,” Andrew says, “because I am very anal, for lack of a better word, about eating and making sure I am prepared for a practice, hydrated, whatever it may be.”
It was a comfortable landing in America, but the remnants of the European childhood remained with the Lucks. The family never watched much TV in Europe (“This was an era when [Germany] still had government TV,” says Oliver. “A lot of the shows weren’t worth watching.”), instead gravitating to travel and, quite regularly, being hyper-competitive with board games, from Yahtzee to Bananagram and Scrabble.
According to Andrew, Oliver and Kathy—both lawyers—dominated many of the early games, but his sister Mary Ellen became the Scrabble champion. “She’s a lot smarter than me,” he says. “[But] when you’re the oldest child, you obviously win your fair share, and you make sure everybody knows that you won as well.”
After the family moved to Houston, where Oliver worked for the Harris County Sports Authority and later became general manager of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, Andrew entered the world of Texas high-school football while his father chose to remain in the background. “He was oddly relaxed about a lot of things, football-wise,” Andrew says. “He didn’t make me go out there and do drills for hours on end, and hit the perfect target. I think he realized I was having fun playing the position, so there was no reason for Crazy Dad to mess that up.”
At Stratford High School in Houston, Luck excelled both on the field and off, finishing with a 4.0 GPA. Oliver Luck had spent enough time around football to know that motivation had to come from within. Because of his football career and prominent jobs in sports, he got most of the attention in the family, but Andrew spent more time with his mother, and was perhaps just as influenced by her. In addition to her law degree, she had also received a master’s in social work. Her quiet intellectualism rubbed off.
“Andrew is in many respects kind of a private person, which I think probably comes much more from my wife than from me,” Oliver says. “She’s very methodical, much more so than I am. He gets some of that from her. And she’s a little bit of a worrywart. She’ll always sort of prepare for the downside, which is not a bad thing in life at all. I’m one who tends to look at the upside, and tends to think things are always going to be good, that somehow it’ll work out.”
In high school, Andrew excelled in the classroom, finishing with a 4.0 GPA, and passed time in high-school class lectures “doodling stadiums or sports complexes; I was a total jock nerd.” He got his first scholarship offer, from Nebraska, his sophomore year in high school, and a couple dozen others followed. But there was no offer from the University of Texas (already overbooked with scholarship quarterbacks). Andrew had loved his time in Austin, and his parents both had law degrees from the school. Had Texas offered a scholarship, Oliver says, his son “would have given it deep, serious thought.”
Instead, the family traveled to California, visiting Berkeley and Stanford. The weather—especially compared to Houston’s oppressive humidity—was sublime, the surroundings indecently attractive, and the academic challenge formidable. Meeting with Stanford’s then–head coach Jim Harbaugh, who’d been hired to revive the program, clinched it. Kathy Luck told her family that Harbaugh reminded her a bit of Oliver, with the quarterback’s ambition and confidence. Andrew’s impression was similar: “Coach Harbaugh struck me as just a guy that did not want to lose, and would be fun to play for.”
During those years, of course, the model for young son-of-an-NFL-quarterback Andrew Luck was young son-of-an-NFL-quarterback Peyton Manning. “I remember my dad always thinking incredibly highly of Archie,” says Andrew of the elder Manning. “Anytime Eli or Peyton was on TV, he’d say, ‘Ah, they’re the classiest family out there.’ You know how fathers repeat themselves.” On February 4, 2007, the night the Colts won the Super Bowl in Miami, Andrew was at his friend Cody Bishop’s house in Houston, watching the game and rooting for Indianapolis. He later became a counselor at the Mannings’ quarterback camps in Louisiana, but on that night he was just another fan. “‘He gave me a high-five one time at camp!’” Andrew recalls boasting. “That is what I was saying to my buddies.”
It’s hard to overstate the influence that Stanford’s cocoon of clean-living, whip-smart, cardio-burning, self-motivated students has on anyone who attends there. Brilliance is assumed, laziness is barely an option, and you can walk around for days in Palo Alto without once seeing an obese person (“except for the offensive linemen,” Luck cracks). The place hums with creative energy and a wide range of bright, irrepressible young people, almost all of them bound for glory of one kind or another. Coby Fleener, Luck’s teammate at Stanford and now his go-to outlet at tight end for the Colts, describes it best. “You may think you’re a big deal,” Fleener says, “but then you get to campus, and the guy down the hall from you is already a published author.”
At Stanford University, he threw for more yards in three seasons than the school’s previous legend, John Elway, had thrown in four. Stanford decided to redshirt Luck his freshman year, in 2008. But even then, Harbaugh allowed Luck to take snaps with the first team, and one day in practice he made what Fleener describes as a “jaw-dropping” throw that people are still talking about today. “It was the kind of throw,” says David Shaw, then the offensive coordinator and now head coach at Stanford, “that you should just never make in college football. And he made it, left hash to the far sideline about 20 yards downfield, just nailed it. It was an NFL throw.” Shaw raised his eyebrows and exchanged a knowing look with Harbaugh. “You don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it,” says Shaw, “but you knew right then that he was something special.”
There was a nominal quarterback competition in the spring of 2009, but Luck threw six touchdowns in the spring game and settled the matter there. That fall, before the season opener at Washington State, Shaw sat down with Luck to go over the game plan and to explain that he’d need to take charge. “Andrew,” he said, “it’s your huddle now. You need to take command in there …”
“Coach,” said Luck, cutting him off. “Until I play a game, this huddle belongs to the older guys on the offensive line.”
The humility stuck with Shaw, but so did Luck’s zest for competition. That Saturday, on the first drive of his college career, Luck set out on a broken-field run, making a first down and scampering toward the sideline in front of the Stanford bench. As the Washington State free safety veered across the field to apply the tackle, Shaw, up in the coaches’ booth, waited for Luck to do what they’d discussed in just such a situation: duck out of bounds to avoid needless contact. What Luck did instead was lower a shoulder and run straight into the onrushing safety, picking up perhaps another half-yard in exchange for the collision.
“We went down and scored a touchdown,” says Shaw, “but Andrew knew I was going to be upset. When I got him on the phone, even before I could start, he was already in mid-sentence, explaining to me, ‘Coach! I know, I know, but you’ve gotta understand—I haven’t played a game in two years.’”
And so began Luck’s extraordinary, transformative run at Stanford. In back-to-back games that season, the Cardinal scored more than 50 points in wins over Oregon and USC. Scouts took notice, and even before his second season, there was talk that he was ready for the pros. In 2010, Stanford stumbled early at fourth-ranked Oregon but then won the rest of its games, routing Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl, by which point Luck—if he chose to come out for the draft—was the consensus choice to be the first player taken. When Harbaugh interviewed to coach the San Francisco 49ers after that season (a job he’d eventually take), there was a collective holding of breath to see if Luck would take the certain millions or come back for his fourth year of college. The question was a staple of radio talk shows and web chats for weeks, but if you knew Andrew Luck, there wasn’t much suspense.
The student who chose Stanford for the intellectual challenge and then chose architectural design for the same reason (“It’s a really rigorous class load Andrew was taking,” says Stanford professor George Foster. “I mean for anyone, not just an athlete.”) was not going to leave college early, without a degree, for pro-football riches that would almost certainly still be there in a year.
“I didn’t agonize over the pros and cons,” Luck says. “I didn’t call a bunch of people and get their opinions. To be honest, I didn’t really consider leaving much, if at all. I was having fun at Stanford. I thought I could get better at football and would feel more comfortable taking that next step. I enjoyed my buddies. I wanted to be around them again.”
After he’d decided to stay, but before he announced the decision, he did make one phone call: to Peyton Manning. “I had made up my mind,” says Luck, “but I had the chance to talk with him. And really I wanted to ask him advice on things to look out for, and maybe what to expect. I remember having a good conversation with him about his senior year coming back, and ways he combatted complacency, and feeling like he’d arrived. Just sort of football things; it was a lot of good insight. And I remember running into a couple of situations during the year and thinking, ‘Yeah, this was sort of what Peyton talked about.’”
In January 2011, Luck’s decision was announced in a one-sentence statement from the athletic department, and the media backlash began, with many questioning the intelligence of not taking the money right away. It left Luck more bemused than rankled. “This is where naivete kicks in,” he says. “I was surprised at how much coverage it got and the opinions on it, which I shouldn’t have been, as a quarterback.”
After the spring semester ended, he spent his summer in Palo Alto, working on his game and organizing the players-only practices that are a must. (NCAA rules dictate that coaches can’t be present if players choose to gather during the summer.) Along the way, Luck grew into the role of team leader, doing so in a manner that remained true to his nature. “I always had a sense that, to be a leader of anything, you have to be good at it,” he says. “If you’re not out there performing when you need to perform, it’s hard to build credibility. So building credibility was something I took very seriously. Whether it was in practice, the weight room, or, most importantly, games, I had to show the older guys I could handle what was going on.”
“You look at the things that could prevent Andrew from having success, and it’s not a long list,” says Tony Dungy. “He’s not going to fail because he’s not prepared.”
Luck’s leadership style can be subtle to the point of invisible. He was known in the Stanford locker room as an avid soccer fan, but he was never one to proselytize. As Fleener—who describes himself as a “half-convert” to soccer—puts it: “He would never preach. It was more like, Andrew’s kind of our leader. He’s watching soccer. Why wouldn’t we do it?” (Luck is almost always engaging, occasionally effusive, but when asked about his favorite athlete, he becomes downright giddy. “Oh, man—Clint Dempsey!” he says of the American soccer star who has been excelling in the English Premier League. “With what he has been doing, he’s my sports hero. All I want to do is meet him!”)
Shortly after Shaw took over as head coach early in 2011, he sat down with Luck and gave him a message: “Get ready, because we’re going to put more in your hands than anybody in college football.”
Many college quarterbacks today are remote-control automatons, one of 11 players looking over to the sideline before the snap, waiting for the coaching staff to signal a play. By contrast, Luck in 2011 was, in many respects, running a professional offense. The modern dance of the pro game—the quarterback at the line of scrimmage adjusting a play to deal with the anticipated (and often disguised) defensive look he faces in the seconds before the snap—was now part of his repertoire. “Year three, he knew the offense,” Shaw says. “Year four, he mastered the offense. He had a voice not just in play-calling, but also in the game plan. He was looking at the game the way a football coach would look at it.”
In the process, Luck was instrumental in transforming the football program at Stanford. The school had won 10 games in a season just once since 1940, but in Luck’s last two years, he led the Cardinal to 12-1 and 11-2 records and the school’s first-ever berths in BCS bowl games. As the pressure and attention rose, he consistently deflected praise to his teammates and coaches, hastening to make the point that he wasn’t doing it all alone. “Here’s the other thing,” says Shaw. “A lot of them say it because they know they’re supposed to say it. But Andrew really believes it. He understands.”
You know the rest: Despite his sterling 2011 season, he was topped in the Heisman Trophy voting by Robert Griffin III of Baylor, who made his own jaw-dropping pass—an on-the-run, into-the-corner-of-the-end-zone heave that beat Oklahoma and probably settled the election. At the Heisman announcement last December in New York, a gracious though disappointed Luck was the first to congratulate Griffin, while just behind him, Oliver and Kathy looked on, proud but aching for their son, who had matured so much in four years.
He had gone from listing his favorite architect in 2009 as Frank Lloyd Wright (“I didn’t know any other architects’ names,” he recalls with a laugh) to, by his fourth year at college, loving the austere beauty of the subtle Japanese master Tadao Ando.
His work on the field had grown as well. “He held himself and his teammates accountable,” Shaw says. “If he made a mistake, he would own up to it, and do it loudly, so everybody knew it. If someone else made a mistake, he wouldn’t embarrass them, but he would go up to them and let them know.”
By then, Mary Ellen Luck had joined her older brother at Stanford. She grew up loving football, along with a certain quarterback in Indianapolis. “Peyton has been her favorite player for years,” Andrew says. “He probably still is her favorite, even over me.”
On New Year’s Day, the regular season ended with the Colts losing a tough game at Jacksonville, finishing with a 2-14 record but clinching the first pick in the draft. After that game, Jim Irsay climbed aboard the team bus, sat down next to his daughters, and wept. He realized then, he says, “I was going to have to make difficult decisions with people I love.” Bill Polian, the architect of the past decade’s Colts dynasty, was out of a job that week; head coach Jim Caldwell was fired before the end of the month. The new general manager, Ryan Grigson, hired coach Chuck Pagano from the Ravens. Against that backdrop, the health and future of Peyton Manning remained up in the air, and Andrew made a point of not bothering his hero for any more advice. “He had much bigger things to worry about than having to talk to some bratty draftee,” Luck says. “And I also realized that this is a business, and they were going to figure things out, and hopefully they were going to pick me.”
With the draft hype starting to ramp up, Luck took the winter semester off (the class he needed to graduate wasn’t being offered until spring). He didn’t talk much to the press, but he did appear on ESPN’s Jon Gruden’s Quarterback Camp. His ill-advised pass against USC that nearly cost Stanford the game last fall was dissected—“Don’t ever throw to the Venus on a Spider 3 Y Banana!” Gruden barked. Luck, twisting in his chair watching the film, took his verbal caning in good spirit and did The Things That Quarterbacks Have To Do, which in this case was owning up to his mistake and not even attempting to provide an excuse.
But there’s another aspect of this film analysis that Gruden conveniently overlooked, and that Luck was mature and polite enough not to bring up. You can talk about progressions and reads and sticking with the system all you want, but choices made by NFL quarterbacks in the blurred milliseconds of decision-making are not black and white. The thing that separates great quarterbacks from good ones is that the great ones make the throws that are not there, finding a way to get the ball to their receiver even when he’s covered.
This requires a nuanced understanding of the spatial aspects of the game that is partly learned but mostly innate. Coaches used to love standing behind Joe Montana in practice to watch him throw in seven-on-seven drills. From that vantage, they often would see Montana pass the ball toward an area that looked either empty or impossibly congested, only to find that by the time it arrived, the clutter had vanished and a receiver was breaking free into the small window where Montana’s pass was arriving. Luck has been doing this for years.
You can extrapolate a step further. The professors and architects who taught Luck at Stanford have marveled at his three-dimensional understanding of structures, his ability to integrate concept and practice, theory with steel. It’s not outlandish to suggest that someone who grasped the balance between mass and space in architecture might have a special aptitude for the three-dimensional geometry that must be mastered by an NFL quarterback. Luck recognizes this, but he also is smart enough to know that he doesn’t want to set himself up as some kind of rarefied gridiron aesthete. So the most that he will grant is this: “You know I don’t want to overstate anything. I’m sure it does not hurt.”
Before the tearful press conference with Jim Irsay, and before the nationwide tour and the celebrated signing with Denver, Peyton Manning did one more thing for the Colts. “We were always leaning toward Andrew,” says Irsay of the debate over whether Luck or Griffin should be taken first. “But you still have to go through the process and examine these two outstanding players. Peyton viewed it a little bit differently, though. He thought there was Andrew, and there was all the rest. His theory was that Andrew was an extremely rare and special player.”
Being a quarterback in the NFL is an immense, amorphous challenge. There will be things that confront Luck in the years ahead—because of the confluence of the Colts’ fortunes, the structure of the team, and his own talents—that no one can begin to predict. But there is reason for hope.
“You look at the things that could prevent Andrew from having success,” says Tony Dungy, “and it’s not a long list. He’s not going to fail because he’s not prepared; he’s not going to fail because he can’t handle it mentally; he’s not going to fail because he doesn’t know what’s going on. An injury, or what happens to the team, those things could slow him down, but the reasons that he can control, I don’t think there’s anybody who’s more prepared for what he’s going to face.”
It has been fascinating, this tortured interim between Peyton Manning’s exit and the beginning of Andrew Luck’s first season. The offseason has allowed the city to catch its breath and give some measure of gratitude for all that Manning has meant to it. Manning was Indianapolis. He kept the team in games—even seasons—that it had no business to be in. He built a hospital, a stadium, a culture. Luck will not match those achievements, but the city doesn’t need him to. What Indianapolis needs now is what Luck describes as “a new chapter.” It is already being written.
“There have to be 16,753 things you have to do before you raise that Lombardi Trophy,” Irsay says. “And a majority of those are done outside the public eye. When the games are played, you see the accumulation of all the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual aspects.”
What you won’t see is all the work that Andrew Luck has been doing since the last whistle blew to end the Fiesta Bowl. He spent much of the spring learning the Colts playbook, both on the iPad and in the old-school ink-and-paper format (“I like to make notes,” he says). Over the summer, he limited his endorsements, appearances, interviews, anything that might distract him from the challenge at hand.
“The whole mantra around him is ‘Less is more,’” says his uncle and agent Will Wilson. “There’s absolutely a focus on allowing him—driven by him, it’s his desire—to settle in, to prove himself on the field, to prove himself in the community, to show he’s a good citizen. And at the end of the day, he knows it all comes down to how you perform.”
So on the afternoon of September 9, three days shy of his 23rd birthday, Andrew Luck will jog onto Soldier Field in Chicago, huddle up with his teammates, and take his first regular-season snap in the NFL. The prelude will be over. And all that will matter then is whether he can conjure the sort of magic that wins games and championships.
There will be lapses, interceptions, frustrations, seasons when he doesn’t seem to be advancing as quickly as fans demand. There will be less head-bobbing, more scrambling, and the same amount of dogged preparation and fierce love of competition that marked his predecessor. Peyton Manning helped make Indianapolis a football town. Unless everyone in pro football is wrong, Andrew Luck will spend his career keeping it that way.
Now spare a thought, if you can, for the pressure faced by the quarterback who comes along, 10 or 15 years from now, and has to follow them both.
This article appeared in the September 2012 issue.