By Shan Reddy
In 2004, the Spartans football team of Stratford High School in Houston, Texas suffered through a 3-5 season that ended with a painful 28-0 loss to their in-conference rivals, the Memorial Mustangs. That offseason, head coach Eliot Allen knew he had to make a change at quarterback. Over the next summer’s training, a clear player was ahead of the pack — poised, calm under pressure and athletic. The newcomer was a sophomore coming off of a broken collarbone; on a team heavy with senior talent, Allen was unsure if the young man would be able to rein in the squad.
But then 16-year-old Andrew Luck’s ’12 first game in September 2005 set the stage for a career that would go down in football history. From the uber-competitive ranks of Texas varsity high school ball to the Intellectual-Brutality-boasting Pac-12 upstarts in Palo Alto to an Indiana pro team that had just lost one of the best quarterbacks the game had ever seen, Luck made his presence felt every time he stepped on the field.
In the fourth quarter of Luck’s first varsity start on Sept. 3, 2005, Stratford led Cinco Ranch by one point with minutes left in the fourth quarter. Although Luck had scored the first touchdown of his career on a one-yard rush to begin the game, what stood out to coach Allen was how he finished it.
Allen remembers Luck taking command, draping his arms around his teammates, and screaming to them in the huddle. Luck then led the offense down the field, eating up the clock and icing the 7-6 win. Allen later said that his seniors had never seen anything like what his new sophomore quarterback had done in that game.
“He was so talented and so mature and such a leader for his age,” Allen said in a 2019 interview with John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. “He was an ungodly, gifted athlete … they don’t make many like that.”
Over the course of his next three years at Stratford, Luck helped turn the struggling team around. The Spartans went 5-5 in his first year under center, but scored at least 13 points in every game of the season after the nail-biting opener. The following year, Luck threw for 2,926 yards and 27 touchdowns on 176-of-257 passing; the team went 10-2, and the offers came pouring in. Rivals.com tabbed the 6-foot-4 junior as the nation’s most accurate quarterback in the country, and scouts from Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Rice, Virginia and many others came calling.
But when then Stanford football heach coach Jim Harbaugh — now the head coach at Michigan — came calling, Luck knew he’d found the right fit.
“Stanford was always sort of No. 1,” Luck said in a 2010 interview with The New York Times’ Pete Thamel. “The moment I met Coach Harbaugh, and he went through the whole recruiting spiel, I wanted to play for him.”
And the feeling was mutual. “[Andrew] had one throw in particular,” Harbaugh said, reflecting on his evaluation of the high school sensation in a 2013 interview with USA Today’s Bob Kravitz. “He threw a post route, he hit the receiver in stride and the ball somehow got almost flipped to the free safety, who intercepted it. It was just a freaky play … I just went back and looked at Andrew’s body language after that and there was no sign of flinching or pounding or clapping his hands. I just remember him going over to the [receiver] and talking to him and patting him on the hip.”
“That always sticks out for me. That stands out in my mind.” Harbaugh said.
From Stratford to Stanford
After graduating as the co-valedictorian of his high school class, Luck headed to Stanford. Halfway through his freshman season, though, then-Cardinal starting quarterback — and now Stanford offensive coordinator — Tavita Prichard was struggling. Harbaugh reconsidered Luck’s redshirt. The subsequent exchange constituted the first few lines of what would soon become the legendary legacy of Luck.
“Andrew, I’m thinking about starting you in this game,” Harbaugh remembered saying, recalling the conversation in a 2013 interview with The Daily.
“I would really be excited to do that,” Luck had replied. “But I don’t feel like I beat anybody out. I don’t feel like I deserve it.”
“Well, you really haven’t been in that position,” Harbaugh responded. “The competition’s been between those other three [quarterbacks]. You’ve shown enough in practice. I think you’re ready and you’re the best thing for the team.”
“I’d be excited and I’d do anything for the team,” Luck said. “But I don’t feel like I’ve earned the job.”
And so, Luck humbly took a redshirt his first year on campus. At the end of that season, as Stanford fans suffered through the second half of a Big Game against Cal that ended in a 37-16 loss, the murmurs were louder than ever — whispers of a soon-to-come redshirt freshman that could push the team in the right direction next season.
Luck takes the reins
The following September, Luck was named the first freshman starter at Stanford since Chad Hutchinson in 1996, and the decision immediately began to pay dividends. Sharing the backfield with Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, Stanford’s 2009 campaign saw victories over rivals USC, Notre Dame and Oregon; the team improved measurably, finishing with an 8-4 record. Luck’s 2,929 yards of total offense was fifth-highest in program history; he also led the conference in passing efficiency and threw only four picks to 13 touchdowns on the year.
“He’s the best football player I’ve been around, on the same team or coached,” Harbaugh told the AP before Luck’s 2010 Heisman ceremony. “And he’s equally one of the finest young men I’ve ever been around, too.”
It was clear that Stanford had their starting quarterback for years to come.
“The things Andrew does, you just don’t usually see those,” said Doug Baldwin via the AP after that 2009 season. Baldwin was a Pro-Bowl receiver for the Seattle Seahawks and Luck’s teammate at Stanford. “You look on highlight film of the NFL and you don’t see the things Andrew does at the college level.”
“I’ve watched several of their games on TV, and from what I’ve seen, he’s got all the tools,” Hall of Fame quarterback and John Elway ’83 told SF Gate’s Tom Fitzgerald in 2010. “He’s got a great knack of moving around for his size. He’s the complete package … the sky’s the limit for him.”
Little did Elway know, Luck would go on to break his career passing yards and touchdown records over his next three years at Stanford.
The next season, Luck exacted revenge on Cal, walloping the Golden Bears 45-0 in the first three quarters of the 2010 Big Game at Memorial Stadium. He accented the win with a 58-yard run in the first quarter where he savagely trucked Cal defensive back Sean Cattouse. He emerged as one of the top players in college football that season, earning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors, while leading Stanford to a 12-1 record and a No. 4 ranking in the end-of-year AP Poll. He also set the school record for passing touchdowns in a single season with 32.
That offseason, though, Luck was eligible to enter the 2011 NFL Draft. Pac-12 media and fans nationwide speculated—would he enter the draft as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick or go back to Stanford to finish his degree and make another push for the Pac-12 title?
In January 2011, Luck stopped by the office of then Stanford assistant coach David Shaw ’94, ESPN reported that summer. “Coach, you got a minute?” Luck asked.
“Yeah, come on in,” Shaw said.
Luck told Shaw that he would announce his decision to return to Stanford the next day. “I’ve already made my decision … I made [it] midway through the year.”
“You son of a gun,” Shaw said.
“In true Andrew fashion, he also knew that if he announced it during the football season, that’s all anyone would talk about,” Shaw later said in the ESPN report. “But he knew while it was still out there, still nebulous, it would come up every once in a while but it wouldn’t be a distraction. That’s just the way he thinks. It’s just the way that he is. He wants to deflect all the praise and all the attention to everybody else … I look at him all the time, and I’m like, ‘Where did you come from?’ You’re just not normal.”
“The quintessential Stanford student”
The next year, Luck built on his stellar sophomore performance, leading the Cardinal to an 11-2 record, racking up 3,517 passing yards and breaking his own school single-season record with 37 passing touchdowns and his Pac-12 record for highest completion percentage in a single season (71.3%).
“It’s Peyton Manning-like,” Harbaugh said after Luck’s 293 yards and two touchdowns in a dominating 42-17 win over Arizona. “He’s remarkable.” Luck ultimately was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy for the second year in a row, but he was the clear-cut choice to go No. 1 overall in the draft that April.
Meanwhile, off the field, Luck was an exemplar of the Stanford student athlete, earning a 3.55 GPA as an architectural design major. His advisor, John Barton, raved about Luck’s academic performance that year while leading Stanford football to the Orange Bowl.
“With all the stuff about carrying the team and being the hope of Stanford football and all the potential future glory and dollars, he comes to class, works hard and asks great questions,” Barton told The New York Times.
He even earned praise from then-University President John Hennessy: “Andrew Luck is very much the quintessential Stanford student,” Hennessy said at a 2011 campus reception at the alumni center. “He is bright, accomplished and interested in many things … as I told our young quarterback on the day he announced that he came to Stanford to get an education, I am the proudest university president in the country.”
Luck’s contributions to the Stanford football program went far beyond statistics. Before Luck’s arrival on campus, Stanford football had not won more than 10 games in a season since 1908. Behind Luck, the Cardinal won 12 in 2010. Before that season, Stanford had never won more than 18 games in a two-year stretch; Luck led the team to 23 across the 2010 and 2011 seasons. And, just weeks before Luck was slated to head to the 2012 NFL Draft, Stanford announced that an anonymous donor gave a “very generous gift” to the Stanford football program along with a request that the team rename its offensive coordinator job title to the Andrew Luck Director of Offense.
Luck remained humble at the announcement. “It is a huge tribute — to have anything endowed in my name is a complete honor,” he said in a public statement. “I feel very fortunate to have come to Stanford, and I have always enjoyed representing the University. The offensive coordinators I’ve had here helped me not only in football, but also to grow so much as a person. To be a part of that leadership and position is a very proud legacy for me.”
Excellence with humility was a common theme throughout Andrew Luck’s collegiate career with the Cardinal. “He’s the anti-celebrity quarterback,” Harbaugh said in a 2010 interview with Sports Illustrated. The theme would continue for years to come as he headed to Indianapolis as the No.1-overall draft choice by the Colts in the 2012 NFL Draft.
A Star in the making
The Colts piled up three consecutive 11-5 seasons in Luck’s first three years, a streak nothing short of extraordinary. The Colts earned the top-overall draft pick after going 2-14 in the 2011 season; in Luck’s first year starting, he led a complete turnaround. The team went 11-5, and Luck broke the record for most passing yards in a season by a rookie, throwing for 4,183 yards. That same year he was also sacked 41 times — the same number he took again in 2016, the year after he tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder.
September 2015 saw the first of many tough injuries to come for Luck. A sprained shoulder caused him to miss two games for the first time in his career. On Nov. 10, after Luck had returned for a three-game stretch, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano announced that Luck would miss two to six games with a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle. The recovery process took longer than expected, and the Colts played the rest of the season without Luck, earning an 8-8 record and missing the playoffs for the first time since the team drafted him.
The injuries appeared to be the beginning of a protracted end for Luck; fans everywhere wondered if the generational quarterback talent would ever manage to reach that level of play again.
During the summer of 2018, Luck struggled through rehab. He traveled to Europe to seek additional treatment for his injured shoulder, and rehabbed with a throwing coach for weeks in Los Angeles, California. Deliberations over the Week 1 starter at quarterback for the Colts continued for months as Luck’s recovery dragged on. He was finally declared as the starter in early September, just days before the first game of the 2018 season.
Luck silenced all doubts. After starting 1-5, the Colts racked up nine wins in their last 10 games, reaching the playoffs with a hard-fought 10-6 record. Luck reached career highs in total attempts (639), total completions (430), completion percentage (67.3) and quarterback rating (98.7), and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
“As we know, in this game of football, the truth [is] there are probably 20 to 30 guys on every team that are Comeback Player of the Year in their own way,” Luck said as he accepted the award. “So I commend everybody on that. Obviously a big thank you — no one gets anywhere by themselves. A lot of help I know I received — a lot of help — along the way, both inside the Colts’ organization and outside the Colts’ organization.”
After seven years in the NFL, four Pro Bowls and four playoff appearances, Luck took the stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Feb. 2, 2019 before the NFL media, his teammates, Hall of Famers, and viewers nationwide. No one would’ve expected it would be the last time they saw him as an NFL player.
“Being injured, missing football, is no fun. But you do learn a lot about yourself, and [on] the flip side, I can honestly say the result has probably been the most positive thing not only in my professional career, but in my life,” Luck continued. “So again, thank you very much for this, thank you for everybody that has helped me along the way, and enjoy the rest of the evening.”
An abrupt end
The news that Andrew Luck was retiring from pro football was leaked by NFL insider Adam Schefter during the Colts’ preseason matchup against the Chicago Bears on Aug. 24; Luck had not formally announced the news, but had confided in a few teammates in the days leading up to the game. As Schefter’s tweet went viral, the news was announced by the commentators during the game, apprising the crowd and viewers at home of the news. Minutes later, the Indianapolis crowd began booing audibly.
Those who Luck had told in advance were upset that Luck had not been given the time and privacy to make the announcement himself, and that the game’s commentators and attendees had reacted to it so emotionally.
“This was his thing to tell,” said Luck’s longtime teammate Anthony Castonzo to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. “He wanted to take ownership of it. He had a plan for how he was going to release it. And the fact that somebody took it upon themselves to take that away from him, I was pretty pissed about it.”
Luck had planned to tell his teammates after the game, and make a public announcement the next day at 3 p.m.
“[T]o have this envisioned, how you want to release it, and then Twitter just blows up,” said Ryan Kelly, the team’s offensive center. “People are speculating, all kinds of shit, you got the fans booing you, that’s horseshit in my opinion.”
Andrew Luck’s decision to retire was unlike any retirement news the sports world has ever seen. While premier players like Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders retired during their primes, Luck’s was entirely different. Calvin Johnson was injured for the last few seasons of his career, and had been on a down streak; Sanders had made ten straight Pro Bowls before calling it quits.
Luck, on the other hand, was at the peak of his career at the age of 29 in a league where some of the top quarterbacks in the league are over 40. He was poised to be the star of the NFL for the next decade, pushing toward the Super Bowl with arguably the most talented team he’d ever had in his career. The Colts had just spent their offseason emptying their pockets in free agency and adding three second-round picks to an already strong team.
That Saturday night, the Colts held a press conference for Luck to make the news official. “It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me,” he said. “For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football.”
“I didn’t wake up this morning and decide,” he added. “I’m in pain. I’m still in pain. I’ve been in this cycle. It’s been four years of this injury-pain cycle. For me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it didn’t involve football.”
Among the national media and fans everywhere, the announcement was met by confusion, shock, sadness and solemnity. Would he have won Indianapolis a championship? Would Luck have made it through another season without reinjury? Did Luck deserve the ending of his boos that he got from his home crowd to end his career?
What was always crystal clear about Luck’s career was that he was never defined by football. Luck shocked the sports world first when he decided to stay in school to finish his degree at Stanford in architectural design in 2010.
Football has its positives and negatives. Luck will certainly never have to work another day in his life, unless he chooses to; but the injuries that have riddled his body for the larger part of a decade may stay with him for years to come.
What’s remained unclear over the last few months is what Luck intends to do in his retirement; NFL insider Ian Rappoport reported that he plans to travel, Colts staff have said that he visits the facility frequently to work with players. But one thing is certain: the impact he made on the city of Indianapolis, the Stanford campus and the sport as a whole is indelible.
Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.