HOUSTON – Depending on who is talking, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck falls into a fairly wide but positive range of personality characteristics. He's somewhere between being a selfless "outstanding young man" who was co-valedictorian of his high school and a scholar in college and, well, hmmm, how do you put this …
"It's that, 'Aw shucks, cut it out' thing he says when you try and pay him a compliment … and then he laughs," said Marshall Hughes, one of Luck's best friends from Houston's Stratford High. Hughes then imitates the low, thudding Luck chortle. "I don't know how to explain it, but he's like so perfect all the time. He's talented, he's smart, he's really nice, but he's just goofy. He's such a goober."
Hughes then goes on a rant about Luck's famous "neck beard" and how everybody from his mother to his friends demands he shave it.
"I'm like, 'Dude, you have to trim that thing,' " Hughes said. "But it's like he's so proud of it. I think he lets it grow just to let people think he's not so wrapped up in himself."
Luck's pal claims the quarterback tried to cut his own hair before the 2010 Heisman Trophy presentation and had to get an emergency trim after landing in New York. Based on Luck's disheveled college apartment, self-deprecation may well be a theme.
"I was out there for a game during the season. It was his last game as a senior and we're getting ready to go out afterward," said Texas A&M player Ben Bredthauer, who played with Luck at Stratford High. "We go to his apartment on campus and it was a dump. I'm like, 'Dude, you're about to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and this is where you're living?' I mean, I'm a nobody and I have a much nicer place in college.
"He was ready to go out in some jeans and this T-shirt. I was like, 'At least throw on a polo shirt and some cowboy boots.' He just doesn't care about appearance. He doesn't want people to think he's bigger than everybody else."
That type of talk is endearing to NFL coaches and executives. In some respects, it is part of the array of factors that makes Luck so attractive as the possible No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. While other skills – like being able to throw effectively – rank higher on the list, a certain amount of healthy self-deprecation isn't bad. Particularly when it goes with all the other factors, like intelligence and leadership.
As the NFL prepares to hold its annual scouting combine in Indianapolis this week, teams will sort through two of the more interesting candidates for the No. 1 overall pick. Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III are similar players in many ways, from athleticism to high character.
Still, the overall feeling of most scouts and coaches is that Luck is an ever-so-slightly-safer pick. In a process filled with risk, that's not a small consideration. Of 15 NFL scouts and coaches surveyed since the Senior Bowl in late January, 14 said they would take Luck first. Some of that came down to Luck being a little bigger (he is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds compared to Griffin at 6-2, 220), which means he could take more of an NFL pounding. Some of it came down to the systems they played in (Baylor's spread offense gave Griffin more opportunities to show off his immense talent).
At the end of the day, Luck just feels like a better choice.
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"I can't sit here and quantify the difference why there seems to be a little more risk with [Griffin], it's more of a gut feeling. We're splitting hairs because they are both great kids," one NFC personnel man said. "But I'll say this about Luck: The minute he took over at Stanford, he looked the part. Not just how he threw it or all the highlight tape stuff you see. He looked like a quarterback, like a guy who is going to run your team.
" … He can walk in, run a team right now and do enough things that you can play competent, winning football. That's the worst he's going to be. He's going to be a player on your team for 10 years, barring injury, and in this business that's saying a lot."
Consider the reality of the 10-year standard. Starting with Terry Bradshaw in 1970 and ending with Carson Palmer in 2003, 13 quarterbacks were taken with the No. 1 overall pick. Of that group, only five (Bradshaw, Steve Bartkowski, John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning) went on to play 10 years with their original team. Those five combined to win 10 Super Bowls.
The eight who failed to meet that standard ranged from David Carr, an outright bust, to Palmer, who got disenchanted in Cincinnati and Michael Vick, who got in trouble in Atlanta. Those eight combined to win two Super Bowls, both by Jim Plunkett after he reached Oakland near the end of his career.
Since 2003, six quarterbacks were drafted No. 1 overall. Of those, JaMarcus Russell is already out of the league.
The idea of a "safe" quarterback at No. 1 is appealing, even if it doesn't sound sexy. Over the past two seasons, the raves about Luck have bordered from outstanding (ESPN's Trent Dilfer is one of many to say he is the best prospect since Peyton Manning) to outrageous (long-time ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. compared Luck to Elway at one point, although he has backed off that since).
"It's way more than the skill set, which is already amazing," Dilfer said. "When I talk to the people from Stanford, they told me that from the first day that he showed up on campus, he was calling out the checks and the audibles, getting the offense into the right play. He has an amazing grasp of the whole plan, not just where he's supposed to throw it when they call a pass."
That's perhaps why Stanford was more of a running team. Of Stanford's 935 plays this season, more than half (485) were run calls. On several occasions near the end of the season as Griffin overtook Luck for the Heisman Trophy, Stanford coach David Shaw expressed regret that the team hadn't thrown more to highlight Luck's ability.
Luck, who finished second in the Heisman in each of the past two years, never cared.
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"We were trying to do something there that hadn't been done," said Luck, who led Stanford to back-to-back Bowl Championship Series games for the first time in school history and to three consecutive bowl appearances for only the second time (1933-35 was the first). Stanford hadn't been to consecutive major bowls since the 1970 and '71 Rose Bowls. "I didn't go back to win a Heisman," Luck said. "I went back because there was something special that we wanted to accomplish as a group. The guys I came in with wanted to change the culture there. Stanford hadn't been winning a lot before that."
Luck moved to the Houston suburbs as a teenager. The son of former Houston Oilers backup quarterback Oliver Luck spent much of his childhood living in Europe when Oliver was general manager of two teams in the World League of American Football (an NFL venture in Europe) and eventually president of the league.
The Lucks spent time living in London and Frankfurt, Germany, before returning to the United States to live near family. Luck started attending school in Houston in seventh grade.
"I remember going to his house the first time because he was neighbors with one of my relatives," Hughes said. "They told me I should go over there and play with him. He was really quiet and kind of geeky, but then we played basketball and he drained every shot. I was like, 'Dude, you're really good' and all he did was act shy, say, 'I'm not that good' and then do his laugh."
Cue the imitation Luck chortle.
"Yeah, I kind of thought I was going to be the quarterback on the team one day and then Andrew showed up and it was like, 'Well, I guess I'm done playing quarterback,' " Bredthauer said.
To Luck's credit, there's not a hint of jealousy from either of his friends. He never let his brains or his athletic ability get the best of his ego. Rather, he had a unique way of welcoming everyone, moving from the geeks to the jocks and back again with comfort.
"I think people are naturally drawn to Andrew because he's so open," said Nate Nakadate, Luck's high school English teacher. Nakadate's endorsement is telling because the teacher has minimal interest in football, yet the two remain close to this day. Coincidentally, Nakadate's father is a Stanford grad and was at the school this fall for a reunion. When Luck heard that news, he jumped on his bike and rode to the party to say hello.
"I think him and his sister still share a car at school," Hughes said. Luck's sister, Mary Ellen, also attends Stanford.
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Nakadate, a free-thinking type who writes in his spare time and goes fly fishing in Montana at the drop of a hat, says he sees Luck outside the boundaries of football.
"I truly believe that when he's done with that, he's going to open a really cool architectural firm," Nakadate said.
To that point, there's a photo of Luck at Stanford standing with two fellow students who obviously aren't jocks. They are showing off a project they did as part of their work toward their architectural degrees. Luck is wearing a smile, as if he were standing at the Downtown Athletic Club with the Heisman that eluded him.
"I think you can see in the picture that the other guy in the photo is wearing these dark dress socks with his shorts. Totally not an athlete, but Andrew would never say a word about that. He wouldn't even think it," Bredthauer said.
In the spring of his junior year in high school, Luck was invited to the Nike Elite 11 camp, an all-star quarterback camp. He told his high school coach, Elliot Allen, he wasn't going. He didn't want the attention, didn't want to be put on a pedestal and didn't want to miss practice. All of that was noble.
"We had to force him to go," Allen said, shaking his head at Luck's somewhat naïve stubbornness. "We were like, 'Andrew, you have to go. This is not just for you, but it helps the whole program get recognition.' I love his attitude, but you had to explain some things to him."
Likewise, Luck didn't get all the attention that went with being a big-time recruit in Texas. As the media increasingly asked what schools Luck was considering, Allen had to sit down with him and talk about the subject.
"I said, 'Andrew, you have to come up with five schools you're going to narrow it down to.' I explained it to his dad and then we sat down and he named them in about two minutes," Allen said. "He just didn't care about all that stuff and the attention that went with it. He didn't like it."
Oliver Luck, now the athletic director at the West Virginia University, also never drew attention to himself. Unlike so many football fathers, he left Andrew to be coached by Allen and the rest of the Stratford staff, never once suggesting a play or saying a word at practice.
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"I think he showed up for two practices and one of those was because a local television station was doing an interview with him and Andrew. As soon as the interview was done, I think he left," Allen said. "If you talk to enough coaches, that's not the way a lot of parents are here in Texas, particularly if their kid is that good … frankly, I kind of wished Oliver had said more. We probably could have learned something from him."
Oliver's lessons about playing quarterback were conducted at home when Andrew was younger. The most important quality, he told his son, was to be inclusive of everyone else on the team. Also, always make the right decisions, even in harmless situations.
Like the night Luck and a bunch of his buddies decided to fill a large tub with water balloons and then throw the balloons at cars that passed by the road that ran behind the Luck's house. By any standard, this is about as innocent as it gets. There were more than a hundred balloons for the half-dozen kids to throw. Luck just stood and watched his friends throw one after another, laughing along with them, but not partaking.
At least not until the final throw. Finally, after being egged on by his buddies, Luck grabbed the balloon and waited for a car to come by. As the target approached, Luck fired and the water splattered the side of the vehicle.
The boys scattered as the police car flashed its lights and made a U-turn back in their direction.
"That might be the closest Andrew ever got to getting in trouble," Bredthauer said.
Overwhelmingly, the foundation of building a great football team starts with the quarterback, particularly if a team wants to be good long-term. Former Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian spent months studying Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf in 1998, making sure he got that critical decision right. Today, that seems like a no-brainer. Back then, the debate was difficult.
Before that, then-coach Jimmy Johnson did the same thing with the Dallas Cowboys. In his first draft in 1989, Johnson took Aikman, setting in motion a team that eventually won three Super Bowls. Likewise, in two of the past three years, rookie head coaches in Detroit (Jim Schwartz) and Carolina (Ron Rivera) hitched their teams and their futures to quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton, respectively.
"You have to get that guy because everything else you try to do is tied to him," Rivera said.
Aikman was considered successful early on because of his ability to blend in with the team while also being a leader. Aikman turned down attention as a rookie, declining to appear on "Late Night with David Letterman." He worked out with the offensive lineman and had his locker among them.
This year, Indianapolis is likely working through the same process because Manning is not expected to return. Neck problems kept Manning out last season and have led to an arm problem that could end his career. Thus, making the right choice on Luck or Griffin III or whoever else might be the top pick is critical. From a statistical standpoint, their numbers are excellent and they're both smart (Griffin III also was recruited by Stanford and he already earned a degree from Baylor). They're obviously gifted, each featuring a set of highlights that goes beyond simply throwing or running.
Certainly tales of their greatness go back a long way. There was the time Luck performed "brain surgery" during a high school passing league playoff game the summer before his senior season. Luck was leading the Stratford team against Lufkin High's squad, which featured future Dallas Cowboys standout wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Stratford had the lead and the ball with four minutes remaining. But in the passing league version of football, which is as close as it gets to basketball on grass, four minutes is an eternity. The game is played on a 50-yard field and it's not unheard of for teams to trade three possessions in that amount of time. So Luck, whose school coaches weren't allowed to be on the field, faced a quandary.
Should he thump his chest, declare he was the man and wing the ball around with his golden arm? In the process, he would put his defensive teammates at risk of going up-and-down the field with a team featuring a wide receiver they couldn't handle. Or should Luck play ball-control and squeeze every second out of every play, moving his team meticulously down the field with one short toss after another?
"Three yards here, four yards there … five, three, six," Allen recalled. Luck did a football version of killing someone with a thousand paper cuts. As the Stratford team scored with less than 30 seconds remaining and not enough time for Bryant's team to win, the coaches looked at each other in the stands and said, "Another Andrew Luck brain surgery."
To others, it's just an example of how his mind and personality work. He didn't have to be the one on display, even if he's just fine if he's there.
"Andrew doesn't like a lot of attention, he doesn't like the spotlight on him," Hughes said. "It's going to be interesting to see how he handles it at the next level, but he's also not scared of the spotlight. I think he'll handle it just fine."
Moreover, Luck was fine last season with letting the running game do the work. Stanford was held under 30 points only once all season and that was in a two-touchdown win over Notre Dame. While critics will note that Stanford had a great running game to support Luck, the receiving corps was, at best, limited. The Cardinal played much of the time in two- or three-tight end packages because that's where it had its best talent.
Wide receiver Chris Owusu was limited to eight games and only 35 catches because of multiple concussions, forcing the team to play freshman Ty Montgomery the last half of the season. As a result, only nine of Luck's 37 touchdown passes went to wide receivers.
True to his major, he built something from what he had available. His field of study, in fact, is telling about his background.
"Think about it, he's an architecture major," said Hughes, who played for a year at Harding (Ark.) University before focusing on school. "I'm at a Division II school and it's hard enough to do school and play football. He's at a place like Stanford doing that and graduating on time. My dad is an architect, that's not easy stuff."
Then again, neither is being a quarterback, and Luck is far from presumptuous about his future. A year ago, many people were wondering if he was going to declare early for the NFL draft after leading Stanford to a victory in the Orange Bowl. At the time, Luck was projected as the No. 1 pick for the 2011 draft.
In the locker room after the game, a reporter who covers the NFL regularly approached Luck and introduced himself. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, the reporter said, "I'm looking forward to seeing you in the NFL."
"If I get there," Luck said.
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