Sunday, August 25th, 2019

Lucky Man?

Matthew Sherry

Editor

Lucky Man?

Matthew Sherry NFL

Following Andrew Luck’s shock decision to retire from the NFL in order to end the ‘cycle of pain’ he says he has endured with injury, we’ve raided the Gridiron archive to reflect on how the likeable Texan rose to the heights of number one pick in the 2012 draft and the successor to Peyton Manning as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Having edged Indy deeper and deeper into the play-offs, Luck missed the 2017 season following shoulder surgery and has suffered with nagging leg injuries during the 2019 pre-season, forcing him to take the ‘hardest decision’ of his life and bow out.

What follows is an extract from the longer Luck profile that featured in Issue XII of the magazine, available HERE

SEPTEMBER 3 2005, CINCO RANCH HIGH SCHOOL, HOUSTON
STRATFORD HIGH SCHOOL @ CINCO RANCH

All of Andrew Luck’s work up until this point has come down to this moment, this drive. Having been handed the keys to a Stratford High School team that finished 4-6 last year, the 15-year-old Luck is sailing in virtually uncharted waters by starting at quarterback as a sophomore under the blinding glare of Texas’ famous Friday Night Lights.

It’s the fourth quarter in Luck’s debut under centre. Stratford lead a nail-biting slug-fest 7-6. The equation is simple as the offense walk on to the field: get some first downs, run out the clock, win the game. But though the words sound simple, Luck’s new coach, Eliot Allen, is expecting it to be anything but. “Andrew is a great leader but he does it in a manner of not putting himself out front. That’s the way he did it, especially as a sophomore. I mean, if you’re playing as a sophomore in the varsity at Texas, you’re good, really good – especially at that position. So he is playing with pretty much all seniors around him and we’re winning a really tight ballgame. I see him run into the huddle – this is a moment I’ll never forget – and suddenly he drapes his arms around the huddle and you can just see his head bobbing where he is shouting and screaming at these seniors. And sure enough we drive the ball down the field, run the clock out and win.”

Luck’s statline from the game – 13-of-24 for 137 yards – is not all that impressive, yet his impact stretches far beyond numbers. “I just remember the seniors after the game, they were just dumbfounded. They could not believe it. They were like, ‘Andrew even cussed us! He was just yelling at us and we just had no choice but to go and finish the game off!’ It was just amazing to watch him go from an unassuming guy who is just a sophomore to this incredible leader. He’s a pretty amazing person.”

That clash with Cinco Ranch proves the start of an exceptional run as Luck continues his stunning rise. “We immediately saw a lot of flashes,” adds Allen, “and by the time his junior year came, we started to think he would be really special. That was when teams started really recruiting him heavily and he started to make some phenomenal plays on the field.”

Luck’s exploits at Stratford transcend the gridiron, however. “Since he has been here, we have been in the playoffs every year. But his biggest impact, and this continues to be felt, is what he did off the field. When you have a guy who is that talented and does everything the right way, putting such an emphasis on education, it provides a first-class role model that I can always point our kids to. There are a lot of guys who are very good at football but don’t do what they are supposed to do with academics. But the things he did off the field is something you can point our kids to now. Even to this day, if I bring up Andrew it’s very seldom about athletics. It’s about his work ethic and academics.”

Such grounding is largely down to Oliver, who – in spite of his son’s obvious talent – continues to be the anti-Marinovich. “In all Andrew’s time here, Oliver came to only two practices. And that was by design I think; he didn’t want to be a pushy father. And the only time he came was because they were doing interviews with him and Andrew. He was very laissez faire with the football side of things.

“I think that approach worked for Andrew. I don’t know how often he and Andrew had discussions about how to play the position. I am sure they did, but Oliver had a wider view. He wanted him to go off and get a good degree; the big picture was important. Andrew was not pushed into playing football; it was something that he wanted to do.”

NOVEMBER 25 2006, RELIANT STADIUM, HOUSTON
STRATFORD HIGH SCHOOL vs CYPRESS FALLS

While the streets of the football-crazed towns of The Football State are deserted, the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans is abuzz. It’s playoff time and a 17-year-old is centre stage, leading his unfancied cast of also-rans into battle against the powerhouse Cy Falls Eagles. “That was his breakout game,” recalls Coach Allen. “He had a lot of those, but that one stands out. There he is, a junior playing in the Texans’ stadium – and he just puts the team on his back. Man, he made some unbelievable throws that day.”

There’s 1:58 left on the clock and Jack Freeman has just raced 32 yards on an end around to paydirt. It’s 34-27 Tigers and, despite a valiant showing from the underdog, the game is going to form. It’s Cypress who will surely progress. However, Luck is not about to give up. By the time he drives to Cy Falls’ 42, there is just over a minute left on the clock. With time running out, the young Luck finds Reed Erickson for a momentum-swinging touchdown: 34-33.

Ecstasy quickly turns to heartbreak, though, as Stedmann Coleman blocks the ensuing extra-point attempt. Stratford get the ball back once more, but there is only enough time left for Luck to throw up a desperation Hail Mary that is intercepted. And so, despite their quarterback’s 339 yards and four touchdowns – plus 91 yards on the ground – Stratford’s hopes end in misery.

Little did Luck know on the dejected journey home that trips to the Reliant Stadium would become a yearly event in the not-too-distant future.

NOVEMBER 25 2006, Martin Stadium, Pullman, Washington
Stanford @ Washington State

Having been “contacted by every major college in the country” according to Allen, Luck largely based his decision to commit to Stanford on their reputation as one of the US’ best educational institutes. But now it’s game-time, time to put the lessons from Oliver, Thornton and Allen into practice.

As games go, Luck’s Stanford debut is fairly inconsequential. Yes, his team wins, thumping Washington State 39-13. Luck’s performance is hardly earth-shattering; in fact, he’s a mere game manager, completing 11 of 23 passes for 193 yards and a single touchdown. Yes, there are 53 yards on the ground, but nothing that projects what is to come: the school records he reduces to rubble, the touchdown passes, total offensive yards, passing efficiency rating, quarterback wins…

Luck is in the right place at the right time. Renowned for its Ivy Plus academics, Stanford is also on the cusp of establishing itself as one of the nation’s true footballing powerhouses. Blessed with a coaching roster that will eventually read as a who’s who of up-and-coming stars (current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh led a group featuring Stanford’s new supremo David Shaw and Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton), the school posts its first winning record in seven years with Luck under centre.

“You never know from high-school whether players will continue to improve and be a really good college player,” says Oliver Luck. “And you certainly never know whether really good college players will become good NFL players.

“I never said when he was in high school that he’d be a number-one draft pick; people would have thought I was delusional! It was not until he played for Jim Harbaugh that I thought he might become a pretty good NFL player if he continues to improve.”

APRIL 26 2012, RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL, NEW YORK CITY

Whatever Harbaugh and Co. did with Luck appeared to work. Having entered college as a four-star recruit ranked as the fourth-best quarterback entering college that year – very good, but not otherworldly – Luck leaves with drooling draft analysts dubbing him the best gun-slinging superstar this side of Peyton Manning.

Confirmation that the Mel Kipers of the world are correct comes as Luck stands alongside NFL commissioner Roger Goodell holding an Indianapolis Colts jersey. He will replace Manning, the Indy legend jettisoned on the back of a fourth neck surgery – not that it fazes him.

“I never viewed it as trying to replace Peyton – if you look at it like that then you will go crazy. I didn’t make the decision for the Colts to release Peyton and to draft me. I don’t worry about who I am replacing or who will eventually replace me. I just wanted to realise every kid’s dream of playing in the NFL and making money playing a kids’ game. That is awesome and I didn’t think about filling anybody’s shoes.”

The typically unassuming nature with which Luck handles replacing a living legend who will join an AFC foe carries into his off-field activities too. Oliver adds: “We all decided collectively that it was best for Andrew to be as out of the limelight as possible. We decided he wouldn’t do any of the big national endorsements. We wanted it to be as low-key as possible. The machine was already in gear and I know as well as anybody that when the NFL PR machine gets cranked up, it’s huge. So he just kept his mouth stuff and stayed out of the limelight as much as he could. Andrew is very naturally humble anyway so it was easier than you might think.”

In seven years as leader of the Colts, Luck played 86 games, completed 2000 of his 3290 passing attempts for 23,671 yards and 171 touchdowns. He also rushed 332 times for 1590 yards and 14 TDs

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