For Luck, this is the gloriousness of the Stanford bubble. He is the quarterback who has led Cardinal football to heights that were inconceivable when he arrived at the Farm three years ago. He's been hailed as a rebuttal to an era of scandal in collegiate athletics, an architectural design major who turned down tens of millions of dollars as the presumptive first pick of the NFL draft to return to school and get his degree. He patiently complies with waves of photographers who want him to shave, tilt his head pensively and yes, yes, hold that pose —perfect! But amid the clamor he enjoys moments of astonishing serenity. For all the hype and hyperbole about Andrew Luck, Football Hero, most of the time he moves among fellow students as one of them, unbothered. And he likes it that way.
Luck basks in the absence of other humans when he's walking back to his room from a late night in the architectural studio at the Y2E2 building. "You feel like you're all alone," Luck says. "It's sort of paradise, I guess." He's able to stand in line for a sandwich at Ike's Place in the Huang Engineering Center and have an uninterrupted lunch with a friend. He works on his laptop while sitting amid the pizza, frozen yogurt and caramel latte crowds in Tresidder. There have been no paparazzi, although there have been oglers and tweeters.
Sophomore Arianna Rosales was in Tresidder in early July when she realized who he was, and she commemorated the occasion via Twitter: "staring at andrew luck am I creepy yet" It was a little cute, sort of starstruck and inspired by Luck's graciousness to kids who asked to have their photo taken with him. "I was thinking of everything people had told me about him and was like, 'oh, so he is really humble and nice,'" Rosales says. When Luck spurned the chance to turn pro after last season, he made an indelible impression on Rosales. "I wouldn't have thought negatively of him had he left," she says, "but it kind of proves to everyone that what people think is special about Stanford is actually real."
Luck shrugs off the notion that he was confronted by a momentous or burdensome decision. Publicly, the issue swirled for months while Luck stayed mum, concentrating on the games at hand and his classes. But he says he never seriously considered leaving. "I think in the back of my mind I sort of always knew that I'm going to college for four years." Luck is a senior academically but only a junior in terms of football eligibility because he redshirted as a freshman. He's made it clear, however, that this is his last season at Stanford. "Four years of school, right?"
It's too early to know how emphatic his exit will be. He might become Stanford's first Heisman Trophy winner in more than 40 years, and second all-time. (Jim Plunkett won in 1970.) He might direct the Cardinal to the inaugural Pacific-12 Conference championship, a major bowl victory and an exalted ranking in the national polls. His legacy might be a thousand future party arguments about whether he was the best player in school history. Or it could go the other way—an injury, a poor performance in a key game, or a fickle bounce on a cleat-gouged field could strip the glow off everything. Stanford opened the season 4-0 with good showings by Luck, but all the decisive events were yet to come.
Luck notes that the strongest Heisman candidates often play for teams that are national championship contenders. "In that sense," he says, "yeah, it'd be awesome. If you're a good player on a great team, then you're going to have a very good shot to win it. I'd like to be a good player on a great team. Why not?"
The story of Stanford football's ascension during the past two seasons has two towering protagonists: Luck, and former coach Jim Harbaugh. For Harbaugh, it was a four-season climb after inheriting a 1-11 team that threatened the relevancy of the entire program. His initial 4-8 and 5-7 seasons—and a statement-making upset of highly ranked USC—laid the groundwork for the turnaround. But the winning started when Luck was named starting quarterback in 2009. It wasn't all Luck's doing—that 8-5 campaign featured a history-making effort by Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, '10, and vast improvements on the offensive line. The 2010 season was the most successful in school history, with 12 wins, including a rout of Virginia Tech in the BCS Orange Bowl. That game, and especially the second half in which Luck threw three touchdowns, spotlighted Luck's gifts. In commentators' eyes he seemed to transcend comparisons to typically talented QBs, reaching a mythic category: He was the Ultimate Quarterback, possessing sublime physical abilities while also being a consummate teammate, leader and the intuitive master of his position's complexity.
According to those who have worked closely with him, including Harbaugh, Luck sees things other people don't see. He identifies possibilities and decodes puzzles. He anticipates, he imagines. He interprets life as a sculpture with moving parts.
"His mind, it's a wonderful place," Harbaugh says. "He thinks through everything without appearing to think through everything, like a Bobby Fischer would think 12 moves ahead in chess. That's Andrew."
That applies, says Harbaugh, to Luck's conduct in any context, whether it's personal relationships, dealing with the media or on-field decisions. Most intriguingly though, it hints at the artistry that is part of the Luck mystique, a connection between his budding talent as an architect and what he sees from inside his helmet as players crisscross, weave and converge on the grid in front of him.
John Barton, the Palo Alto architect who directs Stanford's architecture program, downplays what he knows about football (other than a notation on his website about being a Cal grad and Golden Bears fan). But he senses a special capacity in spatial perception that Luck draws on as both an athlete and student. "I can see in Andrew the ability to see a whole bunch of different parts and also see the relationship between them."
One of architecture's core adages, notes Barton, is "you don't really get good until you're 50." A summer of one-on-one work with Luck, who partnered with Barton in a design competition, has confirmed that Stanford has a natural at more than quarterback. "Not very many undergraduates can do what Andrew did," Barton says. "On the competition he quickly saw that the list of building elements was lacking and suggested adding some important uses that enhanced the promoters' approach and gave us stronger direction. He also pushed us to keep the diagram clear and led with the creation of a strong 3D digital model.
"[Normally] it's a long, slow development professionally, and he's well ahead of the game."
It all sounds too good to be true, right? Harbaugh, who departed the Farm for another reclamation quest as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, injects a smidgeon of moderation into a conversation about his and Luck's roles in Stanford's new powerhouse profile. "The most overrated thing in football in my opinion—pro football, college football—is that one person makes a significant difference." But seconds later, after insisting it took every Stanford player and a full complement of coaches and staff to get the job done, he proclaims that Luck already has proven himself a "franchise guy," someone who can be the linchpin of an NFL organization for years to come. It's a designation defined by how much difference one person can make.
As this season began, amid a gusher of national media attention, just about everything discussed, broadcast and published about Luck was soaked in superlatives about his character and his skills. Forget the challenges of winning. He must walk around feeling a thousand pounds of pressure about living up to an image of 6-foot-4 All-American perfection.
"I don't," he says. "I mean, I've done stupid stuff. I've been caught doing stupid stuff. You know what I mean? I don't feel like I have to live up to an article or an image."
Ah, there it is, finally: A blemish in the portrait. Now the whole tale emerges. Do tell, do tell.
"We don't have to talk about the stupid stuff," Luck responds with a smile.
There's a contingent of Stanford fans that adore Luck because, well, he reads. These fans want their players tough, but they'd also like them cultured.
Luck reads so avidly that he puts himself on rations in the fall. "If I start reading a book and I like it," he says, "I can't focus on anything else but reading the book. So I try not to read during the football season, because I put things aside just to finish a book."
Then he gets into uniform and, in the course of playing the one position that prioritizes avoiding contact, he pulverizes people. Some smash-mouth devotees think the hardest hit in the Pac-10 last season was the one he unloaded on Southern Cal defensive back Shareece Wright, who appeared to be en route to the end zone with a Stanford fumble until Luck drove him to the turf so hard that Wright bounced. In that instance, Luck's ferocity was ignited by necessity. But he has been known to seek trouble and relish it.
New head coach David Shaw, '94, the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, remembers Luck early in his first game as a starter making an opportunistic run for a first down. "He's about to step out of bounds," recalls Shaw, "the safety's coming to hit him, and instead of stepping out of bounds to his left, he puts his left foot in the ground and he trucks the guy. He and I had talked about it—limiting the number of hits. You're going to take hits as a quarterback; you've got to limit the number. You protect the crown of your head and your right shoulder at all times.
"And here's our starting quarterback, ducking his head and putting his throwing shoulder into a safety coming from midfield. After that, he came up to me and he says, 'Coach, I know, I know. It's my first college hit. I could not pass it up.' And I'm thinking, 'that's the guy [he is].'"
Luck always says the same thing on this topic: He doesn't feel like he's completely in the game until he has been walloped. Everybody, he says, needs to get hit so they can satisfy themselves that they can stand back up. "I've got nothing else to call it but controlled rage," says Shaw, referring to plays when Luck goes into smackdown mode. "That's his competitiveness," says Shaw. "We can't rein that in. We can't."
But his quarterback is also smart: Luck is allowed to change the play signaled from the sidelines whenever the situation at the line of scrimmage calls for it. He has a big-play arm, and he's a threat to run the ball as well as throw it. His leadership is marked by composure—"always steady Eddie," declares former teammate James McGillicuddy, '09, MA '10. It all adds up to a polished and imaginative player with a streak of useful savagery.
There are lots of interesting facts about Luck. He spent his early childhood in Europe, where his father, Oliver, worked for the NFL as it tried to establish a league outside the United States. As a result, Luck is a huge soccer fan and still follows that other version of football.
When his family returned to the United States and he began playing Pop Warner football in Texas, Luck's first position was defensive end. He was a co-valedictorian at Stratford High in Houston, where his quarterback talent drew national attention. One of his three siblings, Mary Ellen, joined him at Stanford and is a sophomore playing on the volleyball team.
But facts are not enough when you're touted as the best player in college football and, according to some analysts, the best NFL quarterback prospect since John Elway, '83. (See sidebar for more comparisons to former Stanford greats.) Like statistics, such pronouncements lack personality. What the world wants is stories.
McGillicuddy has one. Last season he was a backup offensive lineman who had overcome years of injury misery to become an all-star roustabout, setting up in various situations as a fullback, wing back and tight end. (He wore five different numbers over the course of the season.)
When Luck won a Herbie Award—an honor bestowed by TV analyst Kirk Herbstreit—he put the trophy in McGillicuddy's locker. This was a classic punking, a gotcha that included other teammates telling McGillicuddy he'd won the award for being such a versatile player. McGillicuddy says he "bought it hook, line and sinker" until laughter erupted.
People could get the wrong idea, McGillicuddy acknowledges, but they shouldn't: This was a prank about nobody taking himself too seriously. It identifies Luck as a regular guy instead of the type who stands apart with an "I'm the quarterback" attitude. When the joke subsided, McGillicuddy points out affectionately, Luck unsuccessfully tried to give the trophy to him permanently.
"It all plays into why he came back," Shaw says of Luck. "He loves this environment. He has fun here."
Luck's father is the athletic director at West Virginia University, where he was a quarterback before playing five years in the NFL for the Houston Oilers. He knows his son is not a quote machine.
"I think he's a pretty uncomplicated person," says Oliver Luck. "I don't want to say he's simple. He's a very straightforward person. That's kind of how I am. What you see is what you get, and my wife's like that, too. We're not scheming or manipulative people, or at least we try not to be."
That made it uncomfortable when the hoopla resounded after Andrew's decision to return to Stanford. "He doesn't necessarily enjoy being the poster boy for all the good things for college sports," adds his dad. "I'm not sure he did it for anybody but himself."
When peppered with enough questions about his image as a symbol of virtue, or academic wunderkind, Andrew finally throws down some perspective.
"Something, I think, that gets lost a little bit is that I do love football. I would rather go to football practice than go to class. I'm not going to lie about that. I'd probably go crazy if I couldn't play football."