Andrew Luck: A QB with Brains, Brawn, and a Big Arm

Credit: Photograph by Ture Lillegraven

Andrew Luck's favorite logic puzzle — because, of course, Andrew Luck has a favorite logic puzzle — goes like this: Ten humans are marooned on a desert island with one nonhuman, a monster, who informs them, "You're lunch." But then the monster offers them an out: Tomorrow he will line the humans up front to back, place either a black or a white beanie on each person's head, and then walk from one to the next and ask each to guess the color of his hat. Choose incorrectly and you're toast. The humans have all night to come up with a plan to save themselves. What to do?

Tales of the nerdiness of Andrew Luck, the 24-year-old quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, are legion: He has read all of the novels that were turned into HBO's Game of  Thrones but refuses to watch the show — "I don't want my vision of the world and the characters to be ruined" — and harbors hopes of starting a tournament with the handful of his teammates who have heard of Settlers of Catan, the strategy game only slightly less uncool than having a favorite logic puzzle. Once, during an address to the Colts' offensive unit, Luck declared that the thing he liked best about football is that "it's a meritocracy," then spent the next several minutes explaining what a meritocracy was. His head coach, Chuck Pagano, has said that Luck is the one Indianapolis Colts player he would allow to marry his daughter.

It's entirely possible to talk with Luck and forget that he is perhaps on his way to becoming the preeminent athlete in our preeminent sport, and that he is already the alpha among a group of young QBs who are taking over the NFL. Since arriving two years ago in Indianapolis, where he replaced Peyton Manning, the dean of the pocket-passing old guard, Luck has led the Colts to two straight playoff appearances and become the model for the modern quarterback: a combination of size, agility, and arm strength, to go with a mental acumen capable of processing the NFL's increasingly complex offensive system. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Luck is bigger than Colin Kaepernick and as fast as Cam Newton, with an arm as strong as Russell Wilson's. Still, so much of the focus on Luck is on his Stanford-educated brain that after answering a series of questions about his intellect, Luck feels the need to remind his interviewer, "I mean, I am a jock."

That's not strictly true. How many jocks would visit the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn arena built in the middle of a residential neighborhood, more for the architecture than for Jay-Z's 40/40 Club inside? "Has it impacted the fabric of the community at all?" he wonders while sitting in a gastropub in downtown Indianapolis. Luck is at least capable of looking the jock's part in a gray V-neck tee and a red surf-shop trucker cap, brim turned back. His deep voice calls to mind a highly educated Andre the Giant, but at the bar he seems especially boyish, given that he had recently shorn his much-mocked beard. He has a practical explanation for the beard: "I don't shave it during the season 'cause I hate the razor burn that you get from putting a chin strap on."

With the last of the Colts' pre-minicamp practices over, Luck plans to spend the afternoon touring Indianapolis on his mountain bike, his favored means of transportation. But today, he has "made a serious scheduling error," realizing that he had planned the ride during the first game of the World Cup. He's an avid soccer fan and insists on arriving 45 minutes early to get a good seat. As Brazil and Croatia take the field, he points out that one of the Croatian midfielders appears to have recently gotten a haircut.

Luck's interest in fútbol and his general worldliness — earlier this year he traveled to India and Europe with his girlfriend — are rooted in his upbringing. Shortly after his father, Oliver, a former quarterback for the Houston Oilers, lost a 1990 race for U.S. Congress in West Virginia, the Lucks moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where Oliver helped run the World League of American Football, a precursor to NFL Europe. He was just a year old when the family moved; by the time he was 11, he'd lived in 10 different homes, including ones in London and Düsseldorf. "I didn't get the American pop-culture education," Luck says at the bar, before unknowingly proving his point. "I knew the Backstreet Girls — no, no, the Spice Girls — because we'd grown up in London. But whoever the big teenybopper at the time was, I had no clue. I grew up listening to my dad's Springsteen and U2 and the Who." His first concert was ZZ Top.

Luck rejects the label of foodie but remains on a first-name basis with several prominent Indianapolis chefs. "Could we do one of those goat cheese strudels?" Luck asks the bartender. "It's Thursday, and we don't have practice tomorrow."

When Croatia scores an early goal, he jumps off his stool, punches my shoulder, and lets out a guttural yelp louder than anyone else in the bar. "I gotta text somebody," he says, pulling out a Samsung flip phone of the kind used by grandmas and technophobes. Luck has never owned a smartphone, and when his previous flip phone broke several months back, he simply went on Amazon and bought a new one for 10 bucks. "It gets the job done," he says.Luck played soccer in grade school, where his preferred position was striker — "I'm a quarterback. I want all the attention on me" — but switched to football when the Lucks moved to Houston, where his father eventually became the president of the Major League Soccer team, the Houston Dynamo. By his senior year of high school, ESPN had ranked him the country's seventh best quarterback. Luck, who was co-valedictorian of his class, shunned many football powers in favor of Stanford, where he enrolled in 2008 despite the fact that they hadn't won a bowl game in more than a decade.

Luck quickly embraced life in Palo Alto, playing several years of intramural soccer, a fact he refrained from telling the football coaches — "Nothing a good cold bath and a couple beers wouldn't fix on a Friday night," he says of the level of injuries he sustained on the intramural pitch — and majoring in architectural design. His dorm room was cluttered with PVC pipe and foam board from class projects. In 2012, while most NFL rookies were in minicamp, Luck and two classmates were finishing up a prototype for a kidney-shaped tower on the Embarcadero, in San Francisco.

Sportswriters have made many pained attempts to connect Luck's on-field abilities with his architectural prowess. "Usually it's angles and lines and space," Luck says dismissively. He allows, however, that the one effect his work in the studio might have on his signal calling is the architect's necessity for working within the constraints of a site, a budget.

When Luck entered the NFL, he was largely viewed as a traditional pocket passer: someone who could operate the league's complex offensive systems. But today's NFL has come to value the speed to play beyond the pocket, the most immediate constraint a quarterback faces. In that regard, Luck's abilities are wildly underrated. His 40-yard dash (4.59) is 1/100 of a second slower than Cam Newton's, and faster than any quarterback in this year's NFL combine.

What makes Luck more impressive is that while some quarterbacks scramble at the first sign of open field, others use what agility they have to buy more time in the pocket; he might be the most ideal combination of both. He doesn't run often — the Colts used just two designed QB runs last season, while Colin Kaepernick, Newton, and Robert Griffin III all had 37 or more — but a Sports Illustrated analysis of every scramble and sack for the league's young quarterbacks last season declared Luck the best running quarterback. Though he ran less often, his runs were "successful" (typically, getting a first down) more often.

Despite the open-field highlight reel of a Michael Vick, it's often more effective for a QB simply to roll two or three steps out of the pocket, turn back toward his receivers, set his feet, and throw. At this, Luck excels. "It's not all shooting from your hip," he says. "There's a certain backyard element to it, but when a receiver has a specific route at a specific spot on the field, and something breaks down, they're doing things we have rehearsed. It's a bit chaotic, but there's order."

And while Kaepernick, Newton, and Wilson were all judged to be "responsible" for at least a fifth of the sacks they suffered last season — the rest being credited to good defensive coverage or debited to the offensive line — Luck was responsible for none.

It helps that he isn't easy to bring down. In his fourth NFL game, Luck surprised Packers mound-of-muscle Clay Matthews, whose arm tackle failed to get the rookie to the turf. "I don't know how much [Luck] can bench press," Matthews said. "But I guess I have to work out a little harder."

Midway through the first half of the match, Luck orders a beer with a deep enough knowledge of the craft scene to confidently ask for a particular brewery, but he rejects it once he learns that the summer ale, not the Belgian Tripel, is on tap. "I probably shouldn't talk too much about beer — alcohol seems to be a no-no," Luck says, a reference to Colts owner Jim Irsay's arrest for DUI, his voice trailing off as he realizes it was a joke he shouldn't have made. While other young quarterbacks have publicly sparred with coaches (RG III), been the subject of police investigations (Kaepernick), and been Instagrammed doing things that might make Joe Namath blush (Johnny Manziel), Luck has avoided any controversy. "I try to avoid being a lightning rod for anything until I feel passionately enough about something," Luck says. "It feels like once you're branded with something, that's your image for eternity."

Among the images with which Luck has been branded, the one that may take the longest to shake is Heir to the Throne. "For me it was, 'I just got a chance to play quarterback in the NFL,' " Luck says of being drafted by the Colts. "And it happens that one of the best ever, if not the best ever, played before me. But he's not here anymore."

Hindsight offers a convenient narrative to suggest that Luck was destined to replace Peyton Manning: Oliver Luck served for years as Archie Manning's NFL backup, a position whose job requirements included occasionally chauffeuring young Peyton around. Much later, Andrew attended the Manning Passing Academy, and while debating whether to return to Stanford for his senior year, having already won the Orange Bowl and finished second in Heisman voting, Luck made one phone call, to Manning. His advice, which Luck heeded: "If you're not ready to move on with life, finishing school is the best choice."

For the foreseeable future, Luck's brand will be evaluated alongside Manning's, a comparison that, so far, has been favorable to Luck. The Indianapolis Star maintains a page tracking Luck's career against Manning's, and to this point, Luck has thrown for more yards, fewer interceptions, and nearly as many touchdowns as his predecessor. Most important, Luck led the Colts to the playoff win in just his second season, a feat that took Manning five years to accomplish.

Luck finds many topics tiresome — his beard, his flip phone — but has no problem addressing the one that comes up most. He rejects the notion that his predecessor would have trouble rising up in the current NFL: "I think Peyton would be just fine in any era." But it's also clear that for whatever similarities Luck shares with Manning, he's a different type of quarterback, built for a different type of game. As much as Luck respects the athletic abilities of his contemporaries, he speaks with even greater reverence for the complex systems run by Tom Brady and the man he replaced in Indianapolis. "The no-huddle that they run and the things they do are just as complex as any running scheme," Luck says. "That's like rocket science in the football world."

When Luck himself approaches the line of scrimmage, he has as many as 10 different audibles at his disposal, depending on the defensive alignment. Matt Hasselbeck, a 16-year NFL veteran who is now Luck's backup, has said, "We put more on Andrew here at the line of scrimmage than I've ever seen an NFL quarterback have to handle."For the second half of Brazil–Croatia, Luck decides to bike down the block to meet several teammates at a bar named, he is eager to note, for Alexander Ralston, the urban planner who laid out Indianapolis in the same scheme used by Pierre L'Enfant to design Washington, D.C. Most of his teammates — most of Indianapolis, really — live in the suburbs, but Luck prefers biking and walking to driving and wanted to try downtown living. I tell him his neighborhood reminds me of my own in yuppie Brooklyn. "But it's Indianapolis," he says, "so it can't be yuppie."

Luck pulls up to Ralston's, where he finds his teammates — four linebackers, one offensive lineman — and where bar goers quickly find him. The entire bar whips out a smartphone and forms a line, which Luck graciously obliges until it gets so long he asks everyone to wait until after the game. The only person who doesn't seem to recognize Luck is the waitress, who asks for his ID.

"Hey, is this the hot new Samsung you were talking about?" Bjoern Werner, a linebacker, says as Luck pulls out his phone. Luck is confident — he's a jock, you'll recall — but not so cocksure that he doesn't blush and look at the ground when his teammates rib him. He has been forced to work into a leadership role on the team. "It's weird," he says of being called to lead a team of mostly older men. "It was also weird in college and high school . . . but being a quarterback is as automatic a leadership position as there is in sports or any industry. It doesn't matter if you've done anything or not — you're a quarterback, so you tell a 35-year-old Hall of Famer what to do, and he listens to you."

Luck is clearly the biggest soccer fan in the group, but as the game wears into its final minutes, the footballers seem to recognize kindred spirits on the pitch. There are particularly strong feelings about flopping, which all agree is largely absent from American football, with some exceptions. "I've shamelessly embellished a hit before," Luck admits. "But then you feel like an idiot."

After the match, Luck works his way through the crowd, stopping for more pictures before grabbing his bike to head for dinner at his favorite Indian restaurant. Luck and his girlfriend — Nicole Pechanec, a fellow architecture student and a gymnast from Stanford — recently took a trip to Jaipur and Varanasi, in northern India, followed by stops in En­gland and Germany, where he saw Bayern Munich and Manchester United play in the Champions League. "Usually we go simple," Luck says of traveling with his girlfriend. "Strict carry-on-only policy — we're doing laundry in the sink."

Luck may still be getting used to the fact that he doesn't need to do his own laundry. This season, the Colts will likely go deep into the playoffs, if not further, and he will soon be up for a new contract, which, if his performance holds, could be the most lucrative in NFL history.

Luck hops on his bike and jets across two lanes of traffic. He's not wearing a helmet, which seems a foolish risk for someone valued as much for what's in his brain as for the muscles pedaling the gears. Werner spots him entering traffic and yells from the sidewalk what everyone else in Indianapolis is thinking: "Be careful, buddy! We need you!"