Brainy, talented Luck finds perfect niche

Eliot Allen kept hearing it over and over.

When the Super Bowl came to this bustling city in 2004, former NFL players gushed to the Stratford High School coach about a eighth-grade quarterback named Andrew Luck whom he was months from inheriting. So did parents and even his young teammates.

It sounded cliché, but they all said the same thing: "He’s going to be really special."

Luck has proved to be exactly that in leading fourth-ranked Stanford to its first Bowl Championship Series appearance in Monday night’s Orange Bowl against No. 13 Virginia Tech. It’s the latest step in the Cardinal’s remarkable turnaround under Luck and coach Jim Harbaugh, a seismic shift for a program known better for its academic excellence than football prowess.

But the game may be the last time the two are together. A  sophomore who was redshirted his freshman year, Luck has been mentioned as potentially the first pick of April’s NFL draft if he leaves early, while Harbaugh is the hottest name in coaching, rumored to be in the mix to replace Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez doesn’t return and also for various NFL jobs.

"I don’t feel like it’s a forbidden place to go to in speaking," says Luck of his and Harbaugh’s futures. "But we don’t really talk about it."

Yet long before finishing second in this season’s Heisman Trophy voting and throwing for 3,051 yards and 28 touchdowns with just seven interceptions, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Luck was just a typical student at Stratford High School.

At least, that’s what he wanted to be.

Not the son of powerful Oliver Luck, the former Houston Oilers quarterback, who was hired as West Virginia’s athletic director in June.

Not the school’s biggest football star since Craig James, the former Southern Methodist running back.

Not even one of its co-valedictorians.

He was just fine being Andrew Luck, who enjoyed the challenge of his academics, playing sports and hanging out with his friends after games. Perhaps that everyman approach explains his popularity in high school, which was such that he finished third as a write-in candidate for homecoming king — at Memorial High School, Stratford High’s main rival.

"Now everybody around the country is seeing what we saw in Andrew," Stratford High principal Christopher Juntti says. "He’s everything that’s right about young people."

Allen realized that the first time Luck attended Stratford High’s camp for freshman players in August 2005. He had seen Luck play at Memorial Middle School, but back then he was directing a power I-formation offense in which he didn’t throw much.

"We thought he would be good," Allen says. "But we’ve also had some kids whose parents were NFL guys and they couldn’t play. You just never know what to expect."

But after watching Luck pass at the freshman camp, Allen’s expectations skyrocketed. Luck had to throw softly because his receivers otherwise couldn’t catch his passes and he zipped one just past Allen’s head for a completion on a crossing route between two defenders.

Not only the best quarterback, Luck was also the best safety, punter and field-goal kicker.

Even more impressively, as his teammates ran around raggedly at the camp like they were lost  children while lining up to kick field goals, Luck leaned over to Allen and gave him some advice.

"Coach, you might want to get somebody over there catching the ball," Allen recalls Luck telling him. "Maybe move those guys over there."

Allen was stunned that Luck had noticed the grand scheme of what was happening in practice.

"I’ll never forget that," Allen says. "He wasn’t saying that in a condescending way. He was just thinking ahead all the time. I’d never seen a freshman who cared."

That season, Luck was the starting quarterback for the freshman team before breaking his collarbone. He became the varsity’s starting quarterback as a sophomore, a rarity at Stratford, which is located on this city’s west side in the affluent Memorial area.

His talent, though, was evident from his first start. Stratford led 14-7 in the fourth quarter, but was losing momentum when it took over possession and needed several first downs to eat up clock.

Up until then, Luck had been finding his way with his older teammates. He patted them on the back and took the blame for problems.

But when Luck huddled up the offense, he put his arms around his teammates before ripping into them. He then calmly proceeded to lead a drive that ended up preserving the victory.

Afterward, his teammates were stunned by the sudden intensity of their usually silent leader.

"It was pretty neat to see," Allen says. "As a sophomore, you don’t do that. But he picked his moment and it was the perfect time. He knows when he has to be that way. He’s got phenomenal leadership skills."

During Luck’s first year as a starter, Allen purposely limited the playbook. He did that in hopes of not putting too much pressure on his young quarterback.

By the end of the season, Allen realized he had made a mistake by doing so.

"That was stupid," he says, "because Andrew was really good."

As a junior, Luck busted out by throwing for 2,926 yards and 27 touchdowns in leading Stratford to a 10-2 record and its first district championship in nearly two decades. It was even more impressive considering that he wasn’t surrounded by loads of talent.

His legend, though, was born locally in Stratford’s season-ending playoff loss at Reliant Stadium, a game in which he shredded eventual state championship game finalist Cypress Falls High School for 339 passing yards and four touchdowns.

"You watched the game and it was all Andrew Luck," Allen says. "He was just that good."

Suddenly, Luck was no longer known for just being his father’s son. Coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and even Boise State’s Chris Petersen began flocking to Stratford to recruit Luck.

"He’s going to be special," Allen recalls Saban telling him.

Luck, however, wasn’t interested in recruiting. Allen would bring it up and Luck always tried to avoid the topic.

After all, It didn’t fit in Luck’s compartmental thinking of academics, high school football and his friends.

He joked to Allen that Texas Lutheran, a NCAA Division III school, wouldn’t take him if he didn’t improve as a quarterback.

Yet Luck was clear about one thing when it came to recruiting: He wanted to study engineering in college. He developed an appreciation for architecture as a child while traveling abroad when his father oversaw NFL Europe.

His desire to study engineering eliminated many of college football’s top teams, but meant Stanford, Northwestern, Purdue and Georgia Tech had chances.

Luck had mentioned Stanford long before Harbaugh started pursuing him. Luck had always admired the school’s renowned academics and that its expectations in the classroom were the same for athletes as regular students.

"He wanted to go to some place where he wasn’t the big man on campus," Juntti says. "He wanted to be a student among other really talented students academically. He didn’t want to be treated differently."

The summer before his senior year, Luck zigzagged the country on unofficial visits. He visited University of California, Berkley, but the trip was really for him to see Stanford, where he fell in love with The Farm, the name of the university’s pristine campus.

He also liked the idea of playing for the ever-confident Harbaugh, an NFL quarterback for 15 years, who told Allen that Luck was the nation’s best high school quarterback, a title recruiting services had given to Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor.

Undeterred, Harbaugh kept insisting that Luck was the best. He was so energetic about his evaluation that he kept alternating between sitting and standing while making his recruiting pitch in Allen’s office.

"He had a lot of confidence about him," Allen says. "To be honest, I was concerned at how that would affect Andrew, because we really tried not to put Andrew in that situation because he didn’t want it. But it’s been great. It’s been good for Andrew."

Luck committed to Stanford in June 2007, a couple of months before his senior year. The decision was questioned by many because Harbaugh, a first-year coach, was rebuilding a program that had gone 1-11 the previous season. But it was a welcome end to the recruiting that had only intensified the spotlight that Luck strived so hard to avoid.

"He needed to be academically challenged," Oliver Luck says. "It would be a waste of four years if he wasn’t."

In the classroom, Andrew Luck continued to take Advanced Placement classes for college credit, even though he knew Stanford would accept only a couple of them because of its academic prestige. He routinely scored a 5, the highest score possible in the exit tests.

"That’s just Andrew," Juntti says.

Allen says the same words in explaining how Luck hasn’t changed despite all of his success. He proudly recalls Luck sending him a congratulatory text message for Stratford winning a game on the eve of playing top-ranked Oregon earlier this season.

"He’s not fancy or flashy," Allen says. "He just does everything right."

With all the speculation about whether Luck will declare for April’s NFL draft, Juntti is often asked if he thinks his former student will leave Stanford or stay. It’s his opinion that Luck will remain for his senior year to try to win a Pac-10 title and get his degree in architectural design.

"This is an amazing kid and he does some things that surprise you," Juntti says.

And if Luck stays, he may be more special than anyone ever thought.