STANFORD, Calif. – As the 21st century poster child for staying in school, rather than cashing in and bolting for the pros, Andrew Luck is supposed to be eternally comfortable in what he calls "The Bubble."
Two Sunday nights ago, however, Luck returned to Stanford University's campus with all the enthusiasm of a kid being forced to repeat the sixth grade. Having just flown back from Indianapolis, where the Colts' presumptive franchise quarterback made a strong first impression at his initial NFL minicamp, Luck couldn't quite bring himself to show up on time for a study group for his studio-project class.
"Coming back from minicamp was tough," Luck said as he laughed. "You get a little taste of it and then come back, and I was lacking the motivation to do homework. We had something due Tuesday and we were supposed to meet up, and I was like, 'Uuuuuhhhhh.' I didn't blow it off – completely."
Call it a harmonic convergence of senioritis, spring fever and the pressure that comes from having the weight of an NFL organization on one's shoulders. A few weeks after the Colts officially made him the successor to future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning by drafting him first overall, Luck is ready to dive into Rebuilding 101, even though he's not allowed to call it by that name.
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"You're forbidden to say the R word on the team," Luck said. "I think there's been a lot of chatter about that. Well, I want to win football games. And that's how I'll prepare. No one in the Colts' franchise wants to lose.
"Obviously, a huge part of me wants to be in Indianapolis now. Pretty much all of me wants to be there. I understand it was the decision I made; I understand that consequence. But I've enjoyed it here, and I'll try to finish strong."
This is not to say that Luck, who could have decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility and declare for the 2011 NFL draft, regrets returning for another season, one which ended with the Cardinal competing in a BCS bowl game for the second consecutive campaign. Nor does he question his presence at Stanford for the spring quarter, which by NFL rule will keep him from returning to the Colts' facility until after June 7, depriving him of three weeks' worth of organized training activities with his new teammates.
Because the two classes he needed to complete his degree in architectural design weren't offered until the spring, Luck decided to take the winter quarter off to prepare for the NFL scouting combine and to conduct other pre-draft business. Now that he's reenrolled at the university – and given that Stanford's school year lasts longer than those of colleges on the semester system – the Colts are out of Luck until he finishes his last final exam next month.
If Indy's players and coaches are eager for their new quarterback to begin his professional career in earnest, Luck's first minicamp had something to do with that. According to Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, Luck exceeded expectations, and the rookie's grasp of the team's offense "was exceptional … really impressive."
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Luck's teammates were similarly blown away. "I'm told he was calling out plays like he had the whole playbook memorized, and some of the other rookies were looking around like, 'What?' " said Mike Tepper, a second-year tackle. "Some of the guys, including the other QBs, were saying that Luck is already better than 25 of the [starting] quarterbacks in the league."
While post-minicamp hyperbole shouldn't be confused with postseason glory, Luck's seemingly accelerated learning curve gives the Colts reason to believe that last year's 2-14 face plant in the wake of Manning's season-ending neck injury – the first time the team missed the playoffs since 2001 – need not be the start of a trend.
"In my eyes, you've got a lot of guys like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney that didn't miss the playoffs, until this past year, in their whole career," Luck said. "They're winners. What I'm trying to put on my plate is, what can I do to make sure their legacies as winners continue?
"And I know that I've seen expectations that we won't do so well – 'don't expect more than single-digit wins.' Not to discredit anyone, but I have expectations for myself, my parents have expectations for me, and my coaches and teammates have expectations. That's all that matters."
Yet for all his obvious confidence, Luck projects a strain of self-deprecation that seems to be sincere. Told of the perception that he had the offense down cold at the minicamp, Luck rolled his eyes and said, "Hardly. They put a lot of information on us. I was very impressed with all the guys in digesting it. I had sort of a sneak peek at it, a chance to do a little homework before the draft. Not the whole shebang, but I had a chance to look over some stuff, familiarize new terms. It's fun to learn a new playbook, especially after four years of the same one."
It's a playbook which, as far as Luck is concerned, will make no specific allowances for his impressive – and underrated – athleticism.
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"I've always viewed it that if I have to run, I will," Luck said. "Which I'll try to avoid, because you've got Dwight Freeney coming down – I'll learn quick in practice you can't just spin out of the pocket and start running if you think there's a chance. Comparatively, my athleticism is at the very low end of the totem pole. Hopefully it'll get me out of a sticky situation maybe once or twice a year. But I'll try to stay away from running around too much."
Besides, every time Luck runs it'll deprive him of the opportunity to throw to one of his receiving targets, be it fellow rookie and former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener, the tight end Indy drafted in the second round, or five-time Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne.
"Tell him to throw me the ball," Wayne texted after I let him know I'd be visiting with Luck at Stanford. He did not add "LOL" or a smiley face.
"I know," Luck said, laughing. "He needs his quota. All great receivers need the ball."
Though Luck has yet to meet Wayne and numerous other Indy veterans, the rookie feels like he is entering an inclusive environment.
"I got a lot of great texts and calls from vets on the team after the draft just saying, 'Welcome, congratulations – just be yourself and it'll all take care of itself,' " Luck said. "So, that was somewhat comforting. I hope it all works out. I hope I don't have to change my personality to connect with someone or to be a locker room guy or whatever. I haven't had trouble with that in college or high school. But I know there's a saying that when you assume you can make an ass of you and me."
In the meantime, Luck is enjoying his last few weeks in an environment that has served as his comfort zone for the past four years. He's attending as many Stanford baseball games as possible and still cruises around campus on his bicycle, a silver Raleigh hybrid, in relative peace – though his penchant for riding free ("I do not wear a helmet," he said. "I've caught some flak for it") might not please his employer, as Ben Roethlisberger's similar sensibilities on his motorcycle once irked Bill Cowher.
"I've saved so much gas money," Luck noted, though not enough to make up for the inclusion of a rookie wage scale in last summer's collective bargaining agreement that cost Luck, as the No. 1 overall pick, tens of millions of dollars. "Economically," he said, laughing, "I think I was born a couple of years too late. Thanks, Mom and Dad."
Luck is thankful that his sister Mary Ellen came to Stanford two years ago as a volleyball player. "To a lot of people I'm still Mary Ellen's brother," he said. "It's nice to be labeled as that. She's a lot funnier, smarter, prettier and more athletic." Another sister, Emily, will enroll at Stanford next fall; Andrew is especially proud that "she got in on her academic merits."
Though Luck is eager to end his academic journey – he plans to go through graduation ceremonies on June 17 – he's savoring his remaining time in The Bubble. "You rarely ever get bothered eating out in Palo Alto or hanging out on campus," he said. "Students will come up, and it's all very respectful. No one makes a scene. No one stops traffic. So it is maybe a bubble against the world, but I'm not complaining. It's sort of fun to not have to have your guard up 24/7, to have a little semblance of normal life."
And if Luck gets the occasional "Go get 'em in Indy!" while cruising through campus, he has no problem with that. "If some athlete's representing the university, you're gonna want to talk to him," he said. "I did it to the basketball guys when I'd see 'em after they won the NIT. I'm yelling across campus at them. Or the women's water polo team just won [the NCAA title]. If I see any of those girls, hopefully I'll embarrass them in public."
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Soon, Luck's life in the public eye will be far more charged, and The Bubble will be a distant memory. But if there's one element of the Stanford experience he hopes to take with him to Indianapolis, it's a sense that quick, unexpected turnarounds are possible, and quite exhilarating in the process.
When Luck arrived at Stanford in 2008, the Cardinal was about to embark upon its seventh consecutive losing season. The next year, in coach Jim Harbaugh's third season – with Luck, a redshirt freshman, as the starting quarterback – Stanford went 8-5, setting the stage for the 12-1 and 11-2 campaigns that followed.
Can a similarly surprising shift happen in post-Peyton Indy?
"There's a little parallel," Luck said. "I don't know how much. It's very gratifying coming to a place that's not a perennial powerhouse, or they're coming off some down seasons, to be a part of a program that's being built from the ground up."
Now that's an assignment Luck doesn't mind tackling, senioritis be damned.
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