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Monday, April 11, 2011
Luck is humble until he crosses white lines

By Ted Miller

STANFORD, Calif. -- The media often falls for polite and polished and humble. It doesn't require a gaggle of publicists to know that a superstar athlete doing polite, polished and humble charms reporters and therefore the public. And, of course, it's often a con, or a least a public persona that doesn't match the reality of said superstar athlete.

Andrew Luck
Stanford's Andrew Luck is a front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy next season.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is a superstar athlete, even if trying to get him to engage the topic is like playing dodgeball with Plastic Man. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season and he almost certainly would have been the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft on April 28 had he not opted to return for his redshirt junior season, in large part, he said, because he wanted to finish up his degree in architectural design.

This story, however, must now pause because Luck has walked away from an interview to help a woman open a door to the Stanford athletic building. She needs to use the restroom, and it doesn't require Woodward & Bernstein to ascertain that this might be a pressing need. Luck points her in the right direction but warns her that they might be cleaning up inside.

Where were we? Yes, moments before becoming a hero to a woman who had perhaps imbibed too much afternoon coffee, Luck walked past a ballroom dancing class and, making small talk, noted, "I don't think I'm coordinated enough for ballroom dancing."

Luck is a buffed-up, 6-foot-4, 235 pounds and, besides ranking third in the nation in passing efficiency in 2010, he rushed for 453 yards. But ballroom dancing students, now those folks are athletes.

Actual exchange once the interview starts again:

Hyperventilating reporter [Me]: "Now, everybody in the country knows who you are."

Luck: "I don't think everybody knows."


Said former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, now with the San Francisco 49ers, last fall: "He's almost embarrassed if somebody compliments him or wants to talk about him. He's very quick to deflect it to his teammates. He's someone people want to follow, want to emulate. It's a unique quality to be the sort of anti-celebrity quarterback, the anti-big-man on campus."

More than a few folks were stunned Luck opted to return, no matter how much he enjoyed college or wasn't burdened by financial need -- his father, Oliver, is a former NFL quarterback and presently the athletic director at West Virginia.

Said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, "Anybody's logic would have been to leave. We were all stunned."

There is a potential red flag here, though, on the football side of things. Some might observe that NFL coaches prefer the singular focus of the football obsessed over a Renaissance man who enjoys college. Further, the best quarterbacks are often swashbuckling sorts -- Tom Brady, Brett Favre (without the text messages), Joe Namath and Kenny "The Snake" Stabler -- so if Luck seems too much the Boy Scout, might that make it difficult for him to lead a locker room that includes an array of edgier personalities?

Ah, but not unlike Peyton Manning, Luck doesn't do Ned Flanders on the football field. Just ask former USC cornerback Shareece Wright and California safety Sean Cattouse, who both ended up on the losing end of a Luck hit when they stood between the quarterback and something he wanted during a game.

"My dad calls it 'crossing the white line,'" said new Stanford head coach David Shaw, whose father, Willie Shaw, was a longtime college and NFL coach.

"You can be the greatest human being on the planet, but once you cross that white line, it's whatever it takes to win football games. Andrew has started to remind me of another guy who was like that: [former Cardinal and nine-time Pro Bowl safety] John Lynch. John Lynch was an all-time human being -- a phenomenal person. One of those guys you say you want your daughter to grow up and marry. That's the way Andrew is. But once he crosses that white line, he's such a competitor. He doesn't care who you are, he's going to try to knock you out. Andrew flips that same switch."

While Stanford practices are closed, the scuttlebutt is that Luck has been masterful this spring. Quipped offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton with a straight face, "He was able to complete 70 percent [71 percent actually] of his passes last year. Our goal is for him to complete 100 percent of his passes."

When asked about this, Shaw pointed out that Luck, indeed, missed a throw -- a 6-yard out -- at practice the previous day.

"You'd have thought it was the Super Bowl," Shaw said. "With a guy like this, you shoot for the moon. You see how far you can push him. And Andrew loves it. He wants to be pushed every day. He wants to be coached, he wants to be coached hard and he wants to be coached specifically. He doesn't know what his ceiling is. So let's not set it."

The high ceiling for Luck is a big reason the national perception is there's a high ceiling for Stanford. The Cardinal will be ranked in the preseason top 10, and Oregon's visit on Nov. 12 is likely the Pac-12 North game of the year, one that might have national championship implications. And if the Cardinal again surges a year after turning in its best season of the modern era, it's almost certain that Luck will be a Heisman Trophy front-runner.

That means even more celebrity for Luck. While Stanford's pristine campus and academically elite student body present a less football-obsessed environment that allows him some privacy, Luck's future is under the klieg lights. It's unavoidable and it will test him.

Luck is told a story about an early Ben Affleck interview with Jay Leno when Affleck tells of pulling out the "I'm Ben Affleck" for the first time to get a restaurant reservation. Luck's asked if he's had a similar moment when waiting for a table.

At first, he seems to be honestly baffled by the inquiry, then replies: "There are enough good restaurants in Palo Alto. We could leave. No, I haven't tried to do that. I don't think it's worth it."