STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford reeks of an accomplished anonymity. The person behind you in line for coffee might be a Nobel laureate. At noontime, you might see an Olympian wolfing down a quick tuna salad sandwich at Jimmy V's Sports Cafe. To me and you, she's former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice. At Stanford, she's comparatively on the down-low as a political science professor and senior fellow on public policy.
When everyone is some kind of best and brightest, it's easy to blend in. That's why Andrew Luck loves being nothing special here.
"He doesn't want people to be putting flower petals at his feet as he walks past," says Stanford's new coach, David Shaw. "Nothing upsets him more than being separated from his teammates. It's the one thing that pisses him off.
|Andrew Luck was projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft if he would have come out. (US Presswire)|
Special things have emanated from that gangly, child-like Heisman runner-up for a while now. If you had to pick a Disney character that Stanford's quarterback resembles, with all due respect, it would have to be Goofy. All arms and legs and jolly, he showed up to a recent interview with a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt and a to-go pasta dish. It couldn't have ever been like this for John Elway. As one of the nation's top players and -- if he had desired -- a top NFL draft choice, only now is Luck being noticed.
"Now it's at the point where he gets recognized," roommate and receiver Griff Whalen said. "I've been in airports and he has a hat on and people come up and pose for a picture. It's pretty regular now. I think it's kind of nice on campus. It's pretty calm. Some people recognize him but it's not like at other schools."
Still, all sorts of media platforms are in the process of wearing a path to Stanford this offseason to get an audience. We/they/everybody wants to know not only why Luck came back for a redshirt junior season, but why he is surprised that we/they/everybody is surprised that he did.
"I didn't think it would be a big deal," Luck said. "That's why you come here, to get a degree."
Take that, football factories. Realize that at Stanford, guys like Luck end up designing them. That realization hasn't struck a generation of Buffalo Wild Wings-patronizing, HD-staring, middle-management Fantasy dorks who portrayed him as "stupid" when Luck announced he was returning in early January. That's the word Luck's father, Oliver, used to describe the outcry by some when his son decided to delay the NFL migration. That sort of group-think might infect a chain of greasy, cheesy sports bars. It stops dead here at closely guarded drills during Stanford's spring practice.
"It's hard to sort of explain what kind of place it is," said Oliver, the AD at West Virginia. "The weather is great. There are smart people. Andrew told me the other day he was having dinner with some of the key people at Yahoo. There are opportunities there that certainly would exist for an NFL quarterback, but out there they exist because there are a lot of these smart people."
While Stanford has its share of Rose Bowls and All-Americans -- Elway anyone? -- no one would dare call it one of those football factories. Stanford regularly competes for the Sears Directors' Cup, a national award that measures broad-based athletic excellence. Last year's 12-1 Orange Bowl-winning season was the best in school history. But by Stanford standards, it was a significant spike in that history, the kind of natural NFL jumping off point for almost anyone else blessed with Luck's talents.
How much better could it get? Luck was a bit of the world's talent midget, finishing second to Cam Newton in a Heisman runaway. His coach and quarterback mentor, Jim Harbaugh, bolted for the 49ers. The Cardinal lost other key components on the field. Intertwined challenges intervened. Start with Luck's almost painful humility.
"I never forget what he told me his freshman year," Oliver Luck said. "He came from a home game at midnight or something. He had a duffel bag full of his football stuff and kind of threw it on the bed. His roommates were there ... looked up and said, 'Andrew what are you doing? Is it football season now?'
"He actually likes that without having to sign autographs, people pestering him. They're very respectful of him out there, as they were with Michelle Wie and Tiger Woods. There are people on his dorm floor who have Olympic gold medals."
Something special? There is a charming naiveté to Luck. Nothing forced or phony. Take his first concert, going with his father as a seventh grader to see ZZ Top.
"I've never seen so many leather pants."
Did the air smell ... strange?
"Yes, it did," Luck said. "That was my first realization of that."
Andrew and his sister, Mary Ellen, grew up for part of their childhood in Europe when dad worked as an executive for NFL Europe. The Lucks didn't allow their children to have cable television. Not that European cable TV was anything great back then.
"It was always 10 to 15 years behind the U.S.," Oliver said.
Instead the family would visit downtown Frankfurt while in Germany or tour around London while in the U.K. Andrew developed a love of soccer than endures today. He collects jerseys and scrimmages with the women's team every now and then. Mary Ellen is a freshman volleyball player at Stanford.
Andrew is surrounded by a close group of friends and teammates who won't let him get anywhere near feeling entitled. The core of that group is the 2008 Stanford recruiting class that bonded together as the ones who were going to lead the program to respectability. If the celebrity needle starts red-lining around the Cardinal quarterback, their default reply is, "Get over yourself."
That was a good thing, then, that the trip to New York was overshadowed by Newton's runaway win.
"It was fun talking to Kellen [Moore] and LaMichael [James]," Luck said. "We sort of knew what was going to happen. We're not stupid. We had sort of a relaxing trip. I felt a little bad for Cam. It was, 'Buzz, buzz, buzz. Him, him, him.'"
The question has to be asked, though: As 2011's prohibitive Heisman favorite, how would Stanford's modest mouse deal with the Big Apple media car wash if he were the man in December?
"He has to," Whalen said. "He will."
In evaluating Luck's Big Comeback, first consider the importance of getting that architectural design degree. It's from Stanford. Duh, winning. Second, if he blew out his knee tomorrow and never played again, the remaining discussion would be only what degree of millionaire Luck would become. He is protected by, at least, the multimillion-dollar insurance policy the NCAA makes available. With that Stanford degree, a lucrative future would be guaranteed regardless.
His father contends -- and a lot of folks agree -- that the days of the $50 million to $60 million bonuses are over. As labor strife looms, Luck looks absolutely prescient by staying in school.
"I think there is going to be a pretty antagonistic labor battle which could lead to who knows what?" Oliver said. "My point is this: It could be a lousy year for a rookie quarterback to come out because of lack of preparation time. It's hard to play quarterback in the NFL as a rookie. If you don't have minicamps and a chance to sit in front of a blackboard with your offensive coordinator, you're going to be at such a disadvantage."
It sounds crass but, no, Luck doesn't absolutely need the money at this point. His dad was an NFL quarterback in the mid-1980s. It was there he met Archie Manning, at the end of Manning's career with the Houston Oilers. Archie would actually fly in from New Orleans several times a week to practice and play with the Oilers. Oliver, a third-stringer, would be tossed the keys and be asked to take young Cooper and Peyton Manning for ice cream.
Andrew was able to attend the prestigious Manning Passing Academy as a high school player and later as a college counselor. When it came time to decide on the lures of the NFL, then, Manning was part of Luck's tight inner circle.
"I sort of made my mind up," Luck said, "but anytime you get to talk to Peyton Manning, you talk to Peyton Manning."
The Tennessee hero rubber-stamped the decision, reminding Luck of how worthwhile it had been for him coming back as a senior. The love from 1997 still lingers. They named a street after Peyton. Plus, the statistics show that extra year in school makes a difference in an NFL quarterback's career. Stanford also is good at naming things. Shaw isn't just the coach, he is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.
"He has all the same dreams as all these other kids have but he has no problem saying, 'I'll get there eventually,'" said Shaw, who was Luck's offensive coordinator before replacing Harbaugh.
"Andrew was the first person on Earth I'd expect to come back," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "It gets back to his character. It's who he is. It's what makes him unique. He is internally inspired."
What Harbaugh left behind was not only Luck but an iron will, something not usually associated with Stanford.
"We don't want to be known as a finesse team that gets by on trick plays," the quarterback said. "We take pride on trying to be a physical team."
There has been no problem with that lately. Toby Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman runner-up, was a punishing runner. Skov is a brutal hitter, but one who had to leave a recent practice early to take his mid-term in multivariable calculus. As a freshman, Luck was leery of Owen Marecic, who eventually turned into a 100-play-a-game two-way throwback as a running back/linebacker. Marecic is back on campus getting ready for the draft.
"He scared the heck out of me that first year, he never talked," Luck said.
Shaw, a former Stanford receiver, looks like he could line up today at age 38. Aside from that, he is the antithesis of Harbaugh. His office is as spartan as his former boss' was quirky. The only ostentatious item is a football signed by Jerry Rice and Tim Brown when Shaw coached with the Raiders.
Harbaugh could launch a marketing campaign by routing USC. The school actually had a "What's Your Deal" ticket plan. Harbaugh would tell his players that everything was too nice during offseason training saying, "We've got to find a way to make it suck more."
"I wouldn't say I miss him," Luck said flatly. "That would be sort of living in the past."
Shaw is a former sociology major who centered his studies on the organizational behavior of groups, teams and organizations. It has served the coach well getting into the heads of his players and their motives.
"It wasn't overly negative," Shaw said of the Buffalo Wild Wings crowd's reaction to Luck's return, "[the reaction] was incredulous. People couldn't believe you could pass up that much money. If you're in this business long enough, it's about where you are and who you work with and your quality of life. ... All the money in the world isn't going to change that."
As a way of keeping his players focused, the quiet Shaw did come up with what sounds like one Harbaughism: "Oranges rot and die," is a reference to letting go of the bowl game and moving on.
"It's imagery but I wanted them to understand, that stuff is gone," he said. "That team is never coming back."
Ah, but No. 12 is. Anonymity may never be possible again.