WHEELING, W.Va. — On the last Interstate 70 stop before West Virginia mountains give way to Ohio green, a tall man with perfectly swept hair works the White Palace ballroom. He is charming, almost presidential, which is good because this is a heavy-hitter crowd. The governor of the great state of West Virginia is here, as well as a roomful of bankers, lawyers and schmoozers. A prayer is said before their supper of sautéed chicken and green beans, and cocktails are poured in plastic cups.
They have gathered on this late-April night to see Oliver Luck, a man whose bio in the Wheeling Chamber of Commerce dinner program fills an entire single-spaced page. Luck is all over the West Virginia map these days, dining with Boy Scouts and rubbing elbows with Rotarians, because this is what the athletic director for West Virginia University does in the springtime.
He does not rattle off his résumé, which sounds as if it could be a “world’s most interesting man” script. Former NFL quarterback. Rhodes Scholar finalist. World traveler. Former president and CEO of NFL Europe. Ran a Major League Soccer team that won a couple of championships. Oh, and he has a law degree, which he picked up taking night classes while in the NFL. But Luck taught his kids to be humble, which is why you’ll hear very little about any of this tonight.
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He steps to the center of the stage to give his speech about West Virginia athletics, and breaks code a bit, probably to break the ice.
“You know,” Luck says as he grabs the microphone, “there’s a whole page here dedicated to my bio. And if you go on Wikipedia right now, what you’ll see under my name is simply, ‘Andrew’s dad.’”
The crowd laughs.
“That’s who I’ve become, and I’m very proud of it.”
On Thursday night in New York City, in one of the most anticlimactic starts to an NFL draft, the Indianapolis Colts will select Andrew Luck as the No. 1 pick. And the professional career of the most hyped quarterback since Peyton Manning will begin. What can you say about this 22-year-old? That Oliver Luck’s oldest boy has seemingly zero flaws, that he is so polished he would’ve been No. 1 in the 2011 draft, that he is so good his arrival has jolted the quarterback landscape in three NFL cities?
Oliver can wax on about the Big 12, coal mining and West Virginia’s economy, but generally, he holds off on saying much about his son. Hyperbole is not the Lucks’ thing. He will recognize that this is a big deal. The Lucks are about to become just the seventh known father-son quarterback combination in the NFL, following a distinguished group that includes the Manning family. For years, analysts have broken down the genetic success of Archie, Peyton and Eli, comparing arms, speed and size. But most of the time, a father’s influence goes way deeper than any kind of metrics.
Oliver Luck’s influence is somewhat intangible. It’s there in the huddle where, no matter the situation, Andrew is seemingly unflappable. It’s the reason Oliver’s son, an All-American at Stanford who is about to get his degree in architectural design, is so well-prepared and grounded.
The elder Luck, of course, wants nothing to do with any chip-off-the-old-block conversations. Talk to his mother, Luck says, because Kathy plays just as big of a role in the making of Andrew Luck.
A few days after the grip-and-grin in Wheeling, as Oliver is driving to Charleston, W.Va., he says he’s talked to Kathy — and sorry, she has politely declined to be interviewed. She likes being in the background.
“Have you ever heard of the book ‘Freakonomics’?” Oliver says. “So there’s these two economics professors, and they’re really interesting guys, and they wrote these books. And it’s really all about sort of false thinking. They try to go in and look at a number of different phenomenon. Does A really cause B? You know, causation.
“They wrote a chapter in the book about major league baseball players. What characteristics at what age would be an indicator that the kid is really going to make it to the major leagues? Is it when they were born? … Is it size?”
At the end of the chapter, he says, the authors tell the reader that none of these factors comes close to the only important one, which is having a father who also played major league baseball. So maybe it’s just in the genes.
Luck is a voracious reader, by the way. He has no problem talking about that. Oliver is currently tackling a book on the history of Spain. He’s read it before. In the hundreds of interviews Andrew has done since arriving at Stanford, he is occasionally asked about his favorite thing to do besides football. His answer is usually the same.
Reading, he says.
AP Photo/Paul SakumaThe Indianapolis Colts say they will select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NFL draft.
Andrew Austen Luck was born Sept. 12, 1989, in Washington D.C., the first of many addresses for a son born to two lawyers. There was a “Monday Night Football” game on the night father, mother and soon-to-be son were in the hospital, and Oliver recalls at some point looking up to catch the score. He says he’s fairly certain that former West Virginia quarterback Jeff Hostetler was playing that night, but you’d have to check to make sure. Of course he’s right.
The couple went on to have four kids — their daughter, Mary Ellen, plays volleyball for Stanford — so it’s fuzzy as to who first put a football in Andrew’s hands. It didn’t really matter.
“My wife and I didn’t raise our kids to be anything except what each one ultimately wants to do,” Oliver says. “I can’t imagine raising a child with a goal of that child being a baseball player or a lawyer or whatever. Odds are, they’ll be something else. In this world, there are a lot of opportunities.”
Oliver Luck did not possess the physical gifts of his 6-foot-4, 234-pound son. He was a tall and skinny quarterback from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland who went to West Virginia because he fell in love with the school and community. The scouting report on Luck went something like this: smart, talented, good arm, not-so-good runner. But tough. If Luck threw an interception — he didn’t throw many — he didn’t float backward and get out of the way. He went after the guy running with the ball.
His first two years with the Mountaineers yielded back-to-back losing seasons. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Luck stayed in Morgantown every summer, training with his teammates while working eight hours a day doing odd jobs at a coal mine.
In 1980, the Mountaineers’ fortunes changed when Don Nehlen took over as head coach. Nehlen was not overwhelmed with confidence when he met Ollie Luck.
“When I first looked at him,” Nehlen says, “he had that big Adam’s apple and that big nose and skinny shoulders. And I’m saying, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I told my wife, ‘Don’t unpack.’
“But Ollie had it all. He gave us the ability to be a pretty good football team. Believe it or not, we won six games that first year and nine the second. If we don’t have Oliver Luck, we don’t win. He’s one of those guys the kids really rally around. He made the other 10 better than they really were. And all the great quarterbacks do that.”
Oliver Luck’s draft day was far less heralded than his son’s. He was selected in the second round by the Houston Oilers, after Art Schlichter and Jim McMahon. He did not play his rookie year, then was inserted as a starter during a disastrous 2-14 campaign in 1983. Luck threw eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions that year. And the following season, the Oilers signed Warren Moon from the Canadian Football League.
Luck spent the better part of the next three seasons carrying a clipboard behind a future Hall of Famer. But Luck was still competitive while helping Moon in whatever way he could.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Moon says. “He was one of the smarter guys that I’ve been around at quarterback. He was so well-rounded. He knew different languages. Some guys come off as smug because they’re intelligent and think they’re more intelligent than everybody else. But he was never that way. The guy had such an easygoing personality that you would never know that side of him unless you really got into an in-depth conversation with him.”
After his fifth season, Luck sized up his situation, realized he wasn’t going to play much, and decided to call it quits. He was 26 years old. It was different back then, he says. The desire to hang on wasn’t necessarily there. Luck could walk into a law firm and make nearly as much as he did as an NFL backup.
Most important, he could still walk. Asked if he regrets leaving the game so early, he says “no” three times in rapid-fire succession. His kids wouldn’t get the chance to see him play, but that didn’t matter. Luck had a lot to do.
Icon SMIColts fans who struggled through a 2-14 season are looking forward to Luck.
There was the failed bid for Congress in 1990, when Andrew was just a baby, and a job in Germany as general manager of the Frankfurt Galaxy in the fledgling World League of American Football. Luck dabbled in just about everything, and he spent more than a decade overseas running football teams and eventually becoming president and CEO of NFL Europe.
The jobs were nice, but the Lucks loved the opportunity to pile their kids in a car and take them from Frankfurt to the Eiffel Tower in five hours. They’d ride on the autobahn and be fluent in German, English and whatever else they wanted.
“There’s a whole body of literature on the culture of kids,” Luck says, “kids who grew up outside of their home culture. I don’t want to necessarily summarize all the literature, but ultimately, I think [those] kids are a little bit more tolerant because they can see there are different ways of living.
“I think they’re a little more inquisitive. And they get exposure to some things that make them think a little more about different places, different cultures and different languages.”
The exposure has helped Andrew Luck in many ways. For starters, he played soccer as a boy, which no doubt helped his footwork. He saw beautiful stadiums and wanted to become an architect. When the world became smaller for young Andrew, nothing seemed too big.
“He walked on campus different,” says David Shaw, his college coach at Stanford. “A lot of times, even our best players and our best students still have a transitional period. And there was never a transitional period for Andrew.
“Being as well-traveled as he is, he doesn’t just have his immediate surroundings as his only context to life. He doesn’t approach the world with blinders on. He doesn’t get fazed. He’s seen a lot, and he’s been through a lot.”
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesOliver Luck, playing for West Virginia in 1981.
Oliver Luck jokes that his long list of titles just means that he was never able to hold on to a job for very long. The family moved back to the U.S. in 2001, when he was named CEO of the Houston Sports Authority. It was a chance to get back to Texas, and an opportunity for his son to test his chops in the biggest football state in the country.
Much like his dad, young Andrew did not wow anyone at first sight. “He was a 14-year-old kid,” says Stratford High coach Eliot Allen. “He wasn’t the guy you see now. But I think you saw then the kind of person he was.”
The younger Luck was smart and polite and made 10 guys look better. His father did not show up at practice, Allen says. He didn’t talk X’s and O’s with his son. He wanted him to learn and grow from his coaches.
So Andrew did, and threw for 7,139 yards and 53 touchdowns at Stratford. He was co-valedictorian for the Class of ’08. Oliver taught Andrew about leadership and being mentally strong, Allen says.
“And don’t forget his mother,” Allen says. “She’s pretty influential, too. We’ll never hear about her because she’s behind the scenes. But she has her law degree.”
Kathy, according to John Hardesty, one of Oliver’s close friends, is a quiet, strong and smart woman. She holds the family together. When Oliver took the West Virginia athletic director job in 2010, he was living in a small condo in Morgantown while his family finished business in Houston. He’d catch red-eye flights to Houston and Stanford to watch Andrew play.
They made sacrifices but have rarely had regrets. One Saturday last year, when West Virginia had a late game and Andrew was playing on the West Coast, Oliver sat in his office, in the dark, trying to find the game on the Internet.
“Here’s a guy, his son’s the Heisman Trophy candidate, and he and I are watching the game, 11:30 at night on the computer in his office,” says John Garcia, an old college teammate of Oliver’s. “Here we are watching it in the dark because he can’t get to the game.
“People don’t know the commitment that he’s made. I think that says something about him.”
Bill McCay/Getty ImagesArchie Manning, Andrew Luck and Oliver Luck at the 75th annual Maxwell Football Club awards dinner last month in Atlantic City, N.J.
There is significance to Oliver Luck’s stop in Wheeling the week before the draft. Because it is right off the interstate, on the way to Indianapolis, he’ll be driving by it a lot. He tells the crowd that he plans to buzz by here during the fall for the next 15 years. He believes his kid could have that kind of staying power.
Colts owner Jim Irsay must believe it, too.
Andrew will shrug and say that it does not put any extra pressure on him, and pops will reaffirm that. Every player on an NFL roster is under pressure, Oliver says. He can probably substantiate that with the help of some book he’s read.
So no, Oliver Luck is not worried about his son living up to these rare expectations. He will celebrate with him in New York, then go back to work in West Virginia. He knows Andrew will be fine, and that his football dream will last longer than his dad’s. In the offseason, in sort of a full circle moment, Warren Moon worked with Andrew.
“The kid doesn’t have any weaknesses,” Moon said.
It reminded Moon, in many ways, of Oliver.
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