As Luck would have it
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
WILLIAM LUCK, Oliver's father, Andrew's grandfather, was deeply uninterested in sports. He was a chemical engineer, married to a chemist. The only collisions that drew them were atomic. "There is no Norman Rockwell vision of me playing catch with my dad," Oliver Luck, West Virginia University's athletic director, says today. When Oliver first went out for his school football team, his parents expressed surprise; with the television rarely tuned to sports, they weren't even sure how he'd found the game or it had found him. But they went on to teach him everything he needed to know about raising an athletic child -- about raising a child, full stop.
"They were there," Oliver says. His father's quiet presence in the grandstands was the constant as he went on to play high school football in Cleveland, to quarterback the Mountaineers, to play professionally for four seasons with the Houston Oilers. "My dad went to every game he possibly could," Oliver says. His parents offered him no advice, because they had none. All they could give him was their love.
When Oliver had children of his own -- four, starting with Andrew -- he and his wife, Kathy, made a conscious decision to let their kids find their own loves. "That can be hard," he says. "We all assume our kids are going to want to do what we did." Because the family moved to Europe when Andrew was only a year old, first to Frankfurt, then to London, football seemed an unlikely possible path. Although Oliver went on to head NFL Europe, Andrew's introductions to the game were gentle, free of expectation. Father and son tossed a ball in their yard, "but just because I wanted to spend time with him," Oliver says. When they watched NFL football on the grainy Armed Forces Network, he would point out how high Dan Marino held the ball, next to his ear, but Andrew was never forced to sit through a game if something else was calling him.
If I had a question, he would answer it, but he never muddied the line of coach and father. I appreciated that.Colts QB Andrew Luck
In some ways, the Lucks felt their primary role was tour guide, exposing their children to life and the world until their kids found what they were looking for. Sometimes the sons of chemical engineers are born to be quarterbacks. Maybe the son of a quarterback was meant to become a pianist. (Despite their best efforts, the family remains tone-deaf.) It wasn't until the Lucks moved to Houston when Andrew was 11 years old that football truly won his attention.
Oliver coached his son for his first two years of Pop Warner, but then he removed himself from the sidelines, never to return, in favor of men he felt were better built to be coaches. "If I had a question, he would answer it," the Colts QB recently told ESPN's Hannah Storm, "but he never muddied the line of coach and father. I appreciated that." Less qualified parents have taken far more active roles in their children's athletic lives, but Oliver had the self-discipline, the humility, to sit during his son's games rather than stand. As much as his heart wanted Andrew to succeed, he never forgot that he was an observer, not a participant. He knew the final score wasn't up to him.
"At some point, sports get hard," Oliver says. Depending on how gifted the athlete, that moment might come in high school, or college, or not until he becomes a pro. But that day comes for everybody -- when the game, when life, threatens to beat you. "And whenever it does get hard," Oliver says, "you have to be very strong, mentally and emotionally, to keep going. You need that fire in your belly. Parents can blow on the embers a little bit -- I think every kid responds to positive feedback, to praise -- but it has to burn pretty bright on its own. It has to come from inside."
Now that his son is a star, Oliver continues to apply the unspoken lessons his father taught him. It's enough for him to be there, to find opportunities to stoke that fire without ever taking credit for having lit it. Even when Andrew makes mistakes -- such as trying to grow a beard -- his father doesn't correct them, knowing his son is surrounded by an army of professional and amateur correctors. ("His mom takes care of his facial hair issues," he says.) What Oliver Luck gives Andrew, what he has always given him, are those things he knows every young quarterback needs the most: He gives him time, and he gives him space.