- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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After he was selected in the second round of the 1982 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers, quarterback Oliver Luck rewarded himself with a sweet new ride. The Mazda RX-7 Luck chose was a sleek, silver coupe that had pop-up headlights, a powerful new-age rotary engine and, as Luck would have it, just one minor design flaw.
That season, the hapless Oilers traded for veteran quarterback Archie Manning, which meant Luck's role on the team in the strike-shortened season of 1982 was reduced to little more than designated rookie gopher. And, as such, it often fell to Luck to drive out to the Houston airport each week to pick up the starting quarterback's kids -- two boys you might have heard of before, once or twice, named Cooper and Peyton.
The only problem? The rook's cool RX-7 only had two seats.
"It was my job to pick them up and occupy them with ice cream or hamburgers so Arch could get treatment or run errands or just get a few things done before the boys arrived," said Luck, now the athletic director at West Virginia. "But the RX-7 was a hatchback and it only had two seats. So we had to squeeze both kids in or, sometimes, one went back into the hatchback. I'm guessing it was Peyton since he was younger. He would have been 6 at the time, I think. Looking back now, 30 years later, I realize how valuable the cargo was that I was carrying back there."
At some point, one would assume, Cooper let his little brother escape the hatchback, and the art of quarterbacking has never been the same. Now in his 15th season and widely regarded as the league's top passer (maybe ever), Peyton and his undefeated Denver Broncos return to Indianapolis on Sunday night to face his former team and their outstanding young passer, Andrew Luck.
Of course, the anticipated matchup of Manning versus Luck has garnered wall-to-wall coverage and, oh, just a tad bit of hype -- save for one tiny historical footnote.
This is not, in fact, the first time quarterbacks from the Manning and Luck families have shared the same NFL field.
"It is unique to think that out of a population of 300 million you have a set of fathers and sons who share something like this," Oliver said. "It's funny to think that this relationship between the two quarterbacks and the two families goes all the way back to the 1980s. But what seems crazy to the outside world isn't really crazy to our two families."
The elder -- or should we say "original?" -- Manning-Luck quarterback combo dates back to 1982 in Houston and continues to this day now that Oliver and Archie have teamed up again as members of the newly formed College Football Playoff selection committee. "We were just on a conference call for the committee and [executive director] Bill Hancock made a comment about the wealth of football knowledge they had managed to collect for this group," says Luck. "And I thought to myself, knowing Arch was on there too, 'Oh, I bet there are fans from the 1983 Oilers who would strongly dispute that.'"
One of the more truly bizarre twists of fate in NFL history began in 1977 with Luck, a prep star at Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School, forgoing offers from Harvard and Yale to play quarterback for WVU. A Rhodes Scholar finalist, Luck set school passing records for touchdowns and completions and led the Mountaineers to a 26-6 upset of Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl. Later, he was selected 44th overall by Houston (now the Tennessee Titans), where he was firmly planted on the bench behind former BYU quarterback Gifford Nielsen, the Oilers' third-round pick in the 1978 draft.
After losing their opener, the 1982 Oilers traded lineman Leon Gray to the New Orleans Saints for Manning. (Poor Archie finally managed to extricate himself from the 'Aints only to land in an even worse situation with the Oilers.) "We were competitive, we all wanted to play," Luck recalled. "I was the rookie, Arch was the talented veteran and Giff was somewhere in between. But even though Arch was the best of the three, he was still helpful to us younger quarterbacks."
It didn't help. Luck never saw the field in 1982. Nielsen lost three of his four starts and Manning lost all five of his in the strike-shortened season. In yet another weird twist, a blown call in Week 2 allowed Houston to defeat the Seattle Seahawks 23-21. Great, right? Nope. The Oilers finished 1-8, which prevented them from picking No. 1 overall in the 1983 draft, where they most certainly would have selected John Elway.
Instead of Elway, Manning began 1983 as the starter and, while essentially commuting by airplane from New Orleans each week, promptly went 0-3. He was replaced by Nielson, who went 0-7, leaving the Oilers no other choice but to upgrade Luck from airport caddy to signal-caller. Andrew's dad completed 124 of 217 passes for 1,375 yards and eight touchdowns (with 13 picks) while somehow guiding Houston to wins in two of its last six games. Peyton's dad, meanwhile, was traded to the Vikings midseason, played one more season and then retired.
"I managed to come in and salvage something from that miserable season, I guess," Luck said. "You can look up the records or the stats if you want, but suffice it to say we were not a good football team."
I beg to differ. The truth is, never in the history of the NFL has so much good come from such a horrendous team.
For starters, there's the classic Oilers team photo in those vintage Luv Ya Blue jerseys, with the seasoned, weary Manning wearing No. 8, sitting next to No. 10, Luck, a skinny, tanned, smiling, wide-eyed kid. I swear, if you stare at this picture long enough it will create a time warp that jumps directly to the 50-yard line at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday just as Peyton and Andrew are shaking hands.
As horrendous as the 1982-83 Houston teams were, they featured five future Hall of Famers: running back Earl Campbell, guards Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews, defensive end Elvin Bethea and tight end Dave Casper, as well as Packers exec Ted Thompson. Luck and Munchak roomed together at Oilers training camp and remain friends to this day. In 2011, Munchak was named head coach of the Titans (the "new" Oilers) and pursued Peyton when he was released by the Colts.
More importantly, though, that team featured two of the best football dads the game has ever known -- supportive parents who, despite their heralded status as NFL royalty, still managed to pass along a sense of perspective, humility and work ethic to their now-famous sons in an era when the brawling, screaming, overbearing-yet-hollow psycho sports parenting has, sadly, become the norm.
For Oliver Luck, the experience with the Oilers (and, especially, the Rams' defense) convinced him rather quickly that his best future was not on a football field. So he hung around long enough to earn both an NFL pension and a law degree from Texas, then hung up his cleats without so much as a second thought. "After five years in Houston, I knew what I was -- basically a backup," he said. "After five years I was ready to get on with the next challenge of my life."
That would evolve into a rather remarkable international career in sports management. First, Luck built two successful World League of American Football franchises in Germany before becoming president of NFL Europe. He then became the first president and general manager of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo and led them to two championships in five years. From there he was named one of the WVU Board of Governors and then the school's AD, which he likes to joke stands for "Andrew's Dad."
Even if his most important job with the Oilers was to taxi around a 6-year-old Peyton Manning, by settling in Houston, Luck assured, in some football version of the Butterfly Effect, that his son would grow up in the prep football hotbed of Texas. The quality of coaching and competition allowed Luck to assume his natural, preferred position: as a father to Andrew, not a football coach. The setup allowed the son to flourish. Andrew earned a ride to Stanford, where he eventually developed into the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft and something even more rare and honorable: the proper and fitting heir to everything Peyton had built in Indianapolis before injuring his neck.
"The years go by and I still remember, even 30 years ago, being very impressed by the quality of athletes I was around," says Oliver. "There were such high levels of athleticism and competitiveness and so many gifted athletes. And then I think to today's game and how -- as far as speed, strength, knowledge and all that stuff -- how today the players are even more talented."
Nowhere will that be more evident than on the field in Indy on Sunday, when, for the second time in 30 years, a veteran quarterback named Manning will face a young, talented quarterback named Luck.
And just as it did three decades ago, the QB competition between the sons will end the exact same way it did between the fathers -- with one clear winner:
The sport of football.