Early in the morning, in a little place called Joanie’s Cafe in Palo Alto, just outside the Stanford campus, Andrew Luck sits down for breakfast. He’s dressed in a blue T-shirt and shorts, with his trademark sea-captain beard.
If anyone recognizes him, they don’t say anything. The star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts doesn’t look like a hotshot athlete at first glance. If anything, he looks like a slightly oversize version of any other Stanford student, which is what this school allowed him to be when he studied here. At an SEC or Big 10 school, an athlete of Luck’s stature would have been worshipped like a god everywhere he went. But at Stanford, he got to be just another teenager for a little bit longer.
“The nice thing about going to Stanford was that you didn’t live in a fishbowl,” he says. “You had a lot of license to sort of be a normal dude. You know, there were people that were doing way cooler things than playing quarterback on Saturday. Curing cancer. Stem-cell research. Composing incredible scores.”
He pauses. “It was very good, at 19 years old, not to have to deal with intense fame, per se. Because that can mess with your psyche, if you’re at a really young age.”
That was then. Now Luck is about to turn 26 and is on the verge of being one of the most famous people in America. Like his counterpart in the NBA, LeBron James, Luck was anointed for greatness by scouts at an absurdly early age, yet has managed to remain either on or even slightly ahead of the preposterous expectations set for him by the sports-media hype machine.
In his first three seasons as a pro, he’s smashed franchise passing records and advanced further in the playoffs each year. If form holds true, he’ll reach the Super Bowl this year. And even if he doesn’t win it all this year, it’s the expectation of just about everyone in the sport that sometime in the near future there will be a changing of the guard, and he’ll become the marquee player in an NFL that for 15 years has been dominated by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
But America isn’t the Stanford campus. For better or worse, this country cares a lot more about its sports stars than it does about composers or cancer researchers.
So when the public looks deeply at Luck, what are they going to find?
As great as he is on the field, Luck is maybe more impressive off it. He’s grounded, levelheaded, courteous and self-deprecating. He seems absolutely dedicated to his job, but he also has interests outside of football and perspective about its relative importance. Even while succeeding in one of the most unforgiving high-pressure environments you can find in America, he retains a bit of a philosophical attitude, wondering what it all means and what, if anything, he should do with the platform he’s won.
Luck comes across as a person who could accomplish anything in life, and that’s not restricted to football.
But right now, it’s all about football. Luck thinks about other things, from architecture to politics, but feels it’s not the right time to talk about any of them. “I don’t think it’s my job to talk about politics,” he says. “It’s not my job to opine on things. I understand as an athlete, especially as a quarterback, you have this platform where you can be heard by a lot of people. But I don’t necessarily want to be heard, unless it’s about football.”
Andrew Luck was born into pro sports. His father, Oliver Luck, was a star quarterback at West Virginia University, was drafted in the second round by the Houston Oilers in 1982 and carved out a career as a backup to the legendary Warren Moon.
He retired before Andrew was born, and in the Nineties he worked in Europe as an executive in the now-defunct World League of American Football. Andrew, as a result, spent a lot of his early childhood in Germany, where his father managed teams. At one point, Oliver worked alongside another ex-quarterback, former Washington State great Jack Elway, who had coached at Stanford and had a son, John, who was on his way to the Hall of Fame. Reached by phone, Oliver remembers Jack coming over to his Frankfurt home for a barbecue one evening.
“Andrew may have been two years, three years old — he was an infant still,” Oliver Luck recalls. “For some reason, Jack looked at his calves. And he said, ‘Your little boy has really nice calves. He might be a player someday.’ ”
Oliver laughs. “For some reason I remember that, because it was a really odd comment,” he says. “Of course, he had a pretty successful son himself.”
Still, the elder Luck never forced sports on any of his four children (Andrew has two sisters and a younger brother). “He never pushed us to play,” Andrew says. “The only rule was if you start a season in a sport, you have to finish that sport.” While his brother, Addison, became an accomplished soccer player, Andrew took after his NFL father, whom he idolized.
Luck returned to the U.S. when he was in the fourth grade, moving to Texas, where he started to play Pop Warner football. “I was a defensive end and a backup quarterback,” he says. “I loved it.”
He went on to have enormous success as a quarterback in the madhouse that is Texas high school football, passing for more than four miles of yardage at Houston’s Stratford High, in addition to graduating as the school’s co-valedictorian (there are a lot of these perfect-humanoid details cluttering up the margins of Luck’s biography). But even back then, he never had a road-to-Damascus moment when he suddenly decided he was going to play in the NFL.
“It went in stages,” he says. “I started playing high school football as a sophomore, and I thought, ‘OK, maybe I’m good enough to play in college.’ Then in college, I play a year, and I think, ‘OK, maybe I’m good enough to play in the NFL.’ But it was never like I was thinking, ‘I’m good enough to play in the NFL.’ ”
Scouts, however, knew where he was headed. Among other things, he earned the school’s starting job out of training camp as a redshirt freshman, something a long line of celebrated Stanford quarterbacks had never done — a list that includes Elway, Trent Edwards and Jim Plunkett.
In 2009, his first year as a college starter, Luck threw for 2,575 yards and led the Cardinal to its first winning season in ages. Standing six feet four and 235 pounds with the prototypical cannon arm and the running ability of a Steve Young, he was so good that draftniks immediately pegged him as the first pick in the 2011 draft. Luck himself blocked out the hype and decided to finish school.
“After playing that year, it was, ‘All right, I think that I have a chance to do this,’ ” he says. “ ’But why think about it? I still have two more years left here.’ ”
The rest of the story is well-known. Luck went on to be that number-one pick and more or less instantly took the NFL by storm, stepping into the shoes of departed megastar Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and meeting or exceeding nearly every one of the legendary Colt’s accomplishments.
Luck has gotten so good so fast that it’s reasonable to wonder if he has any flaws at all as a pro quarterback. He’s set the record for most passing yards for a rookie, most yards for a player in his first two years, and most yards for a player in his first three years. As he enters his fourth season, about the only knocks on him are a very slight tendency toward untimely turnovers, and a couple of disappointingly uncompetitive losses in the playoffs.
As far as the latter issue goes, a few commentators have wondered aloud if Luck is maybe too nice a guy, that maybe this is the Achilles’ heel of this otherwise creepily unblemished athlete. The questions grew louder after news reports emerged that Luck routinely compliments NFL players who sack him or knock him down, saying things like, “Hey, nice hit!” as they try to beat his head in. It’s a tactic that genuinely mystifies the defenses whose job it is to kick the crap out of him.
“In all the years I’ve played football, I’ve never heard anything like it,” Washington Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan once said.
Niceness is generally not a salutary quality in an NFL star. I ask Luck, “Don’t you have to be a little bit of a jerk to be a successful NFL quarterback?”
“I do think that you do have to be a little bit of an asshole sometimes,” he says, with a smile. “But it has to come off from within your own personality. If it’s not, it comes off as phony and disingenuous.”
He explains that at Stanford, his infamously irascible coach, Jim Harbaugh, told him to lead, but within his personality. If you’re a yeller, yell. If you’re not, don’t.
“That’s not to say your personality can’t change over time,” Luck says. “I definitely feel more comfortable making my opinion heard. And if it’s telling a guy in not-so-nice words what I think, maybe that’s the way to do it.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine Luck angrily dressing his guys down on TV, like a Brady or a Manning. More than anything, it seems Luck’s leadership technique is just to play so completely out of his mind that his teammates have to listen to him.
Luck also seems like a test case for another sports myth, the idea that athletes who are too smart can be at a disadvantage. The most famous modern fairy tale along these lines comes from Moneyball.
In the book, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane describes how he washed out as a minor-league outfielder because he was wound too tight. Meanwhile, a minor-league teammate, the future star Lenny Dykstra, who, to put it euphemistically, was so mentally unconcerned he didn’t even know who was pitching sometimes, was “perfectly designed, emotionally, to play the game of baseball.”
I ask Luck if thinking too much can be a problem in football. “Yeah, especially when preparing for a game when you’re watching film, there’s an infinite amount of film you can watch,” he says. “You go, ‘All right, who’s the defensive coordinator? Let me get his games for the past five years. Who’s the head coach? Is he with the Holmgren tree? Is this a Rex Ryan or a Buddy Ryan disciple?’
“I try to cut out the white noise. What doesn’t really help you? What’s going to bog you down?” He pauses, explaining that the trick is to turn all that study into muscle memory and instinct. “That’s why it’s so important to log those experiences in your mind. Because those count so much more than what you’ve seen on film.”
Luck’s politeness and his self-effacing demeanor, coupled with a spate of stories about his eccentric range of off-field interests — teammates have outed him to reporters for reading a book about concrete, for instance — have led to media caricatures as a brainy interloper in a decidedly unintellectual game.
But Luck doesn’t come across as a nerd. He’s a normal guy who happens to read the occasional book in his spare time (his latest choices, he says, include The Architect’s Apprentice, by the prominent Turkish female novelist Elif Shafak, and Lawrence in Arabia, a bio of T. E. Lawrence). He doesn’t mind talking about what he reads, but he also doesn’t come across like one of those Seventies-counterculture intellectuals like Bill Walton or Dock Ellis who always seemed a little embarrassed to be making a living playing sports.
On the contrary, if there’s one thing that shines through when you listen to Andrew Luck talk, it’s that the guy absolutely loves everything about football. He’ll talk about architecture or literature, sure, but his eyes really light up when he talks about the game his father played.
Luck is a quarterback now, which means he spends more time getting hit than hitting, but he misses playing defensive end as a Pop Warner player. “I do,” he says with a laugh. “It’s part of football, hitting people and getting blocked and trying to get off the blocks.” But asked if he thinks that the violence is what makes the game so popular, he shakes his head.
“I hesitate to say violence,” he says. “It’s maybe a bit of that gladiatorial feel, with the pads and helmet. But you have so many different body types on the field playing — 350-pounders playing with 180-pounders. Fast little guys with big strong guys. All different shapes and sizes and colors and backgrounds working together, and doing totally different things for the same end purpose. That’s pretty cool.”
Luck spends a lot of time talking about the diversity of an NFL locker room. It’s clear that the camaraderie with players like Robert Mathis and (now ex-Colt) Reggie Wayne and Adam Vinatieri (“I’m closer in age to his kids than him,” Luck notes) is a big part of what he loves about the job.
As far as the game itself goes, Luck is in rare air. He’s mastered his position so completely at such a young age that he’s down to making very minor alterations in search of improvement. This offseason, his focus is mainly on two things: improving in the red zone and cutting down on interceptions. He seems particularly miffed about the interceptions, not that he had that many — just 16, against 40 touchdowns, last year.
“You can’t repeat mistakes, and that’s what gets you in trouble,” he says. “That’s why I’m disappointed in all the interceptions, because they were repeated mistakes, and you can’t do that.”
He enters into a long soliloquy about interceptions and what causes them. It’s obvious he thinks about this a lot. He goes on for so long that it’s funny. He explains that there are three kinds of picks. First, there are the ones that aren’t the quarterback’s fault, like tipped balls or guys running to the wrong spot. Then, there are mental errors, like throwing to the wrong place. Finally, there are bad throws. “You just missed the guy completely and threw it behind him,” he says. “That shouldn’t happen as a third-year NFL quarterback.” He pauses, then adds in a serious voice, “You shouldn’t miss guys.”
That Andrew Luck is determined to cut back on maybe three or four bad throws a year should freak out all of the other teams in the league. It’s hard to imagine that whatever little tweaks he still needs to make, he won’t make. He’s already put up historic numbers. The only thing left is the Super Bowl, and the scrutiny that comes with it.
Americans love to turn on their celebrities. In sports especially, we root for them on the way up, then pelt them on the way down. Once-adored superstars like LeBron and Brady became villains after too many years in contention. I ask Luck about that phenomenon given that it might be in his future. His answer is hilarious.
“I bet Tom Brady doesn’t give a shit about what people think about him,” he says. “Or Peyton. You play quarterback long enough, you hear some things. You have to have skin like an armadillo.”
In Luck’s first years in the NFL, he talked occasionally of struggling with all of the attention. He told reporters last year that he still had a hard time with what he called the “animal-in-a-zoo sort of thing.”
As for what he’ll do after football, when he’ll likely be able to pick any job he wants (I half-jokingly suggest the White House as a transitional job), Luck says he’ll probably stay out of sight. “I think more than likely I will live somewhere like a hermit for many years,” he says, laughing. “Get away. Something.”
But right now, on the field, this is Luck’s moment. And no matter what, it’s going to be fun to watch.