ESPN

Now He Has To Earn It

Andrew Luck doesn't think he's a big deal even if he just signed one. But he also knows it's time to do some very big things.

He went out as a stranger into the city.

On mornings before night games, he went out walking, when the street was pretty much empty. He was always in disguise, stopping short, he joked, of wearing a prosthetic nose. He put on a sock cap or ball cap and sunglasses above his neck beard. He might drape himself in a coat or a hoodie. He wore headphones and rolled Italian compression socks to his kneecaps, wore black flat-bottom CrossFit shoes and soccer shorts. The walks were a chance to clear his head, and the morning of a night game was the best time to go. He had all day to consider what awaited him, and sitting at a hotel and thinking about the game, about the expectations of him, might make anyone else insane.

He wouldn't tell anybody where he was going. In Cincinnati, he walked across the bridge just to say he had set foot in Kentucky. In Buffalo, he walked circles around the hotel parking lot. In St. Louis, he wandered along the river, far past the stadium, into the middle of nowhere along the water.

One person who ran into him a few years ago, walking down an empty street, remembers he cut a menacing figure. "I see this huge guy in a big trench coat and this major beard, wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I'm going, 'Oh Lord, protect me,' " said Clyde Christensen, then the quarterbacks coach for the Colts. "I was scared to death. But the closer I got, I said ... 'Oh, for goodness' sake, that's just Andrew Luck.' "


ANDREW LUCK IS not in disguise as he lowers himself into the passenger seat of my two-door Honda Civic, 24 hours after signing the most lucrative contract in NFL history: a six-year, $140 million deal with $87 million guaranteed. He's leaving the University of Indianapolis rec center after taking snaps from an imaginary center, thwacking the ball into his palm and dropping back while a camera crew filmed a commercial for the sports drink BodyArmor, a company in which he owns a stake.

"Hondas are good cars," he says, shutting the door. He and his sister shared an Accord at Stanford. (In talking to his teammates, not one but two of them will ask me the rhetorical, "If Andrew were a car, which car would he be?" They both answer: Subaru hatchback. Him, personified.)

I joke about catching Luck in the afterglow of one of the biggest days of his life. Must've been a hell of a day. What'd he buy to celebrate? "Ehhh," he says. It was not a hell of a day. It was an otherwise ordinary day. He spent much of it at an event for a children's museum addition he helped design. Then he went home and read.

Turns out the only thing he's bought since the contract signing is a black bean wrap from City Cafe. When he admits this, he laughs, in a way that some of his teammates describe as goofy, even nerdy: Ehh-hyuk-hyuk. When I ask him, seriously, about walking in disguise -- if that's really what he does, if it's, as his teammates affirm, a way for him to disappear, to get out of his head, he levels his gaze. "You're going to f--- it all up," he says with a grin. He cuts me off and repeats: "Oh, you're going to f--- it all up."

The long walks and the fact that he's not really celebrating the contract are clues about what Luck expects of himself and about how he copes with others' expectations of him. His landmark contract follows the worst year in his career, a season in which he not only was injured but seemed to regress as a quarterback. He threw 12 picks in seven games, and some of those were simply awful, the kind of reckless throws scouts thought he had outgrown. It wasn't unreasonable for GMs to wonder whether others -- Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, foremost -- had surpassed him. Some of the same execs will also say that Luck's new deal is a bargain for a future Hall of Fame quarterback -- assuming, of course, that he becomes one.

And that has always been the assumption. Since his junior year at Stanford, when he could have been the top pick in the NFL draft if he'd left, Luck has contended with the impossible expectations exclusive to only a few athletes per generation: that he'll be not just a great player but a transcendent one, that his ridiculous beard will one day be cast in bronze. Now his new contract leaves no margin for error.

Luck asks me to take him back to his condo so he can shower before dinner. I pull out into the street and promise I'll try not to kill him, that I've never had anyone worth so much in the Civic. He slaps me on the back and, knowing that I live in Indy, tells me not to use my phone for navigation. He gives me a pep talk, as if I were his receiver: "You can't use GPS. You know how to get there." When we pull up to the gate in the parking garage of his condo, he gives me a security code to enter. It doesn't work. He gives me another combination, then another. Five times, and he can't figure it out. Here's Andrew Luck, Stanford-educated quarterback and now the richest in the NFL, locked out. "Wait here," he says, and gets out and hops around the gate.


Luck firmly believes this is the year the Colts will win a Super Bowl. Andrew Hancock for ESPN

LUCK SAYS HE really wants to win a Super Bowl. He expects to win a Super Bowl, and he talks about it -- a lot. He has said those two words over and over this summer, in signing off phone calls with teammates, as a point of emphasis before closing his flip phone. "I feel it this year," he'd say. "I feel like we have a good thing going, now all we have to do is go and win a Super Bowl. Let's just win a Super Bowl."

He has come close. In January 2015, the Colts made it to the AFC championship game, where Luck stepped temporarily out of the shadow of Peyton Manning, a man he'd been drafted to replace. It turned out to be a very famous game (something about air in footballs). Indy was destroyed by the Patriots, and Luck looked like an amateur against the aging-but-indestructible Tom Brady. Then, after the loss, Luck mistakenly answered "deflated" when asked how he was feeling and wished immediately that he could take it back. He had built his playing reputation as someone who didn't complain, didn't make excuses, and it sounded like a Freudian slip that he was both complaining and making an excuse. Which drove him nuts.

When he fails, Luck suffers more than most. To witness him walking the sideline after he turns the ball over is to see someone muttering expletives and hitting the sides of his helmet repeatedly -- Why did I do that? Why did I do that? -- as if to bash it into his mind forever. Colts offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo says he and Luck have argued after bad games about who sucks more. "He'll be like, 'I threw those picks because I suck.' We're yelling at each other trying to take the blame."

Then there is the matter of his seeming reluctance to slide -- something he has, almost begrudgingly, vowed to be better at this season. He refuses to comment on this with me. But Christensen, his former coach, offers this startling anecdote: "We were playing Jacksonville; he played poorly the first quarter. He breaks a run and, instead of sliding, he runs dead into two linebackers. They pummel him. I ask him, 'What were you thinking?' He said, 'I'm playing so bad, I don't deserve to slide; I'm not a good enough QB; I deserve to get the crap knocked out of me.' I said, 'You were thinking all that on your run?' He says, 'Clyde, I stink, I'm sorry.' Always apologizing, always telling other position players, 'I'm going to play better.' "


HE IS AN ELOQUENT guy, but often those words reveal nothing about him. Luck doesn't like to put himself out there, a habit he says he developed as his family followed the career of his father, former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, who was president and GM of a Major League Soccer team and a commentator for the NFL in England and Germany. "I like to blend in," he says. "I've always been private, even as a kid. We moved around a lot. Like 13 times by the time I was 11. It was my personality, I think. I didn't want to stick out ... as the new kid."

It's not that he doesn't want to be around people. But at this point in his career he knows the expectations that fame carries, and he'd rather not. If he wants to be anywhere with a crowd, it's with his friends as buffers, playing darts on a weeknight, or at trivia night, where his team is usually called Nic Cage Fan Club (never a "k" in Nic). He stays in his condo a lot or goes to farm-to-table restaurants where the chefs and staff know him and he is left alone. Or sometimes his mom and dad, when they're in town, bring him food.

He started the Andrew Luck Book Club online this spring because he loves reading and wants kids and other people who like football to love it too. Though he doesn't have a personal Twitter account, teammates surmise that the book club's account (@ALBookClub) is so amateurish that Luck has to be running it himself. It's true, he tells me; it's actually him, and you can look there for breadcrumbs of his personality. He uploads videos of himself leaving messages for readers, sitting in his condo or by Indy's famous Soldiers and Sailors monument, or hosting Q&A's. A common theme of the books is dealing with being alone: Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, Andy Weir's The Martian, Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee. But when I ask whether the selections say anything about him, he responds, "It was unintended. I try not to make a point."

Although his former backup, Matt Hasselbeck, says Luck is "proud that he can tell you the periodic table," Luck seems almost embarrassed by his intellect. Those who really know him say he has a complete aversion to pop culture, but they also describe him as sweetly smooth. There's a story one of his teammates tells about the time at Stanford when Luck took his girlfriend, Nicole Pechanec, to a dance and gave her a corsage, and they pretended to be at prom because, having been home-schooled, she'd never been to one. He famously still uses a flip phone, and his perfect day might be making himself oatmeal, going to throw, then burying himself in a book such as Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain.

He can be passive-aggressive off the field; if he wants ice cream, or to grab a beer, or to go see a movie, he won't actually say what he wants. He'll frame it as a question: "Is anyone else feeling ice cream?" Or instead of asking someone to get up when his girlfriend enters the room, it's "Where's Nicole going to sit?" He does nothing, it seems, without calculation. The harder he gets hit on the field, for instance, the more energy he projects, bouncing into the air with those nasal, corny compliments that have become iconic, and confusing, to defenses: "Good hit, big guy!" He wants the defenders to get tired, and pissed, and it works.

Luck, an architectural design grad, can converse on just about anything, but he also communicates in another way, a primal way, with force. As we head out of the parking garage on our way to dinner, he is hitting my shoulder, slapping me on the back to make a point. His hands are huge, and he has the strength, as Hasselbeck says, of Wolverine. ("He's physical. ... If somebody was uncomfortable with that, they would be very uncomfortable with him," Castonzo says.) When he talks, he uses his hands, thrusting his digits into the air for emphasis. He's describing a building, a piece of midrise brutalism in downtown Indy, but I'm looking the wrong way. He grabs my shoulders, strongly enough to lift me off the ground a little, and turns me in the other direction. "No, no, there," he says.

Ehh-hyuk-hyuk.


Andrew Hancock for ESPN

LUCK WAS DRAFTED by the Colts as the No. 1 pick in 2012. The team had gone 2-14 the season before. Rather than cower in the presence of Peyton Manning's ghost, he embraced it, asking coaches what Manning would do in certain situations. He won 11 games as a rookie. Luck was 23 years old and still wearing suits from Jos. A. Bank, but he could make any throw that was asked of him, and he surpassed expectations immediately, propelling himself into even bigger ones.

But last season was a disaster, the worst of his short career. He played only seven games and had a lacerated kidney, which at one point caused him to piss blood. Coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson were at odds, with speculation that both were on their way out the door, and a weird vibe built around Luck and the team. "It was like he was so disappointed in himself for getting hurt and not playing, he felt he didn't deserve to be himself around us," Castonzo says. "He wouldn't stay at our pregame dinner as late. He just ... wasn't as available. We didn't hang out as much. It was like he didn't want to be around the guys and feel like he didn't belong."

Luck admits he was "probably a little bit of a brat," but not to his teammates: "I was quiet when I got home, lethargic, and I didn't want to do anything. I was kind of like a cancer, a black hole. Not in front of the team but in front of my girlfriend. Maybe I knew she could handle it better. So unfortunately Nicole probably got the short end of the stick for a few months."

Few people had a clearer view of how Luck handled last season than Hasselbeck, who had Saturday night dinners during the season with Luck, listening to him vent, listening to him complain about how the coaches would sometimes let him off the hook. Hasselbeck says Luck could've become distant when he was sidelined -- some injured starters don't want their backups to do well. But Luck was Hasselbeck's biggest fan, always running up during and after games -- "Hey! Did you see this?" -- and helping study film. During their dinners, Luck's anxiety showed in subtle ways. He'd talk faster, louder. And when he'd talk about his fears, he wouldn't acknowledge the obvious: the possibility he might not become a great quarterback.

That possibility might not be all up to him, of course. "He entered the league as the most complete quarterback since John Elway," says ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer. "If I had more faith in their organization, I would say he's going to be the best player in the NFL within the next year or two. You can only be as good as the people around you, though. They haven't built a defense that's going to get him the ball back enough. I'm concerned they haven't invested enough in the O-line. Him being too reckless is a product of him feeling like he has to put on the Superman cape. Luck just tries to make too many plays. Like Favre, always trying to hit a home run."


LUCK IS NOT immune to conjecture. He is not oblivious to what other people think, or expect. He reads The New York Times. He was raised throwing Nerf footballs -- inside his house when it was too cold to be outside -- with his arm cocked, as his father taught him, exactly like Dan Marino. He grew up watching and wanting to emulate his dad, and through him saw how professional athletes behaved.

"Andrew's always had high expectations," Oliver says. "I'm not really sure the contract adds any pressure. I don't know if you can do anything other than plan, prepare. He was one of those kids that did his homework on time, he wasn't late for class. ... Sometimes I think if all this ... hullabaloo, you know, will somehow change his values. But I really don't worry about that. I think he's strong enough in his personality. These are First World problems."

Andrew bristles at certain words -- like expectations, like greatness -- shaking his head, sweeping them away with his hands. "I always put pressure on myself," he says. "I feel like I always have something to prove to myself. I don't necessarily view this contract as a reward for doing well. I need to prove to myself that I'm a good player, that I'm a winner. I felt that way in middle school. I felt that way at Stanford. I think deep down I want a challenge."


"I always put pressure on myself," Luck says. "I feel like I always have something to prove to myself." Andrew Hancock for ESPN

WE ARRIVE AT dinner, a place called India Garden. It's often empty on weeknights, the tables draped in white cloth and little candles, quiet except for the clink of dishes, which is why he has become a frequent patron. He knows the names of the two servers, and their faces light up when we walk in. One of them, Vivek, takes the quarterback's hand in both of his and says, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for staying." Vivek brings us two glasses coated with ice and two bottles of Kingfisher beer.

I ask Luck again to tell me how he celebrated his new contract. He doesn't crack. "I'm sitting here with you, having a beer, right now," he says. "I understand people congratulate you, and it's cool, but at the same time, congratulate me for what? To me, it's about winning. I want to be congratulated for winning a Super Bowl. I don't want to be congratulated for having a contract."

He orders vegetable pakora, the chicken tikka, the dal makhani, the chana masala. His mom would always take the kids to eat Indian food, no matter where they lived, and he has loved it ever since.

Vivek brings a note to our table. Someone else has paid for dinner. There are now five other people in the restaurant, and none of them is looking up. Light from the little candle flickers as he reads the note. "Andrew, Thanks for staying in Indy another 6 years! Your biggest fans." He shakes his head. "One of the things I've noticed is, how come when you start making money, people want to give you free things? It doesn't make sense." But then before we leave, he says thank you out loud to all five people in the restaurant, not knowing who paid the bill. He puts his cap on and goes outside.

As soon as he's out the door and has lingered a minute on the sidewalk, an SUV screeches to a halt in the middle of a one-way street and veers left to park. Several people get out, and Luck braces himself. A stranger runs out and starts screaming his name, and here come more people, falling into him. Their phones are out, they hug him, he puts his arm around them as they take pictures, and he pauses for about 10 minutes, never turning anyone away. The people keep coming, congratulating him, telling him they can't wait for this season. When they're gone, the street is empty, and he walks back home by himself.

Justin HeckertHeckert is a writer for ESPN.

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