NFL: Andrew Luck’s recipe for success

Originally Published: November 13, 2013

By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Nov. 25 QB Issue. Subscribe today!

YOU HUSTLE TO the line of scrimmage, not bothering to huddle. The goal line is at your back, and the home crowd is whipped into a frenzy. You bark out the playcall, but it’s so loud, your teammates can barely hear. You’re staring at third and six from the 13, looking at a Chargers defense that’s thrown blitzes at you all night, that’s come stampeding after you like a herd of bloodied, angry bulls. Sure, you’ve played like crap for three and a half quarters, but you’re down only 16-9. Convert here and worry about the other 80 yards later. With the play clock winding down, you take the shotgun snap, look left at your two best wideouts. Both covered. The Chargers brought five, and the pocket is already collapsing, forcing you to dance to your left and retreat to the 3. A linebacker closes in, and you realize that if you don’t get rid of the ball (right now!) and brace for impact, he’s going to put his shoulder into your sternum and try to drive your ribs up into your throat. Just as you’re about to get decked, you find the only open man, tight end Coby Fleener on a three-yard out. He catches and stretches — two yards short.

Jamming your mouthpiece into your face mask, you walk off the field to words of encouragement from your coordinator. It’s your Monday Night Football debut, and now you’re chained to the sideline watching the Chargers drive down the field at the speed of continental drift. You’re trying to stay patient, stay in the moment, but you want the ball back, damn it.

So you prowl the sideline. You fidget. You furrow your brow. You clap your hands a little too much, a mixture of enthusiasm and irritation, and thump the shoulder pads of any teammate you encounter. You stare at blurry snapshots of the defense, trying to diagram solutions in your head. You snatch a green Gatorade cup full of water off the table, down it in one swig and crumple it in your fist.

You can’t stop glancing up at the clock, 2:34 and ticking. Every four plays, TV cameras find you, hungry to capture your torment. You give it to them. You can’t stop clenching and unclenching your jaw. It’s just your second year in the league, but the narrative of your career has already taken shape. You’re a magician, cool under pressure — drafted No. 1 out of Stanford by the Colts in 2012 as the franchise heir to Peyton Manning.

If only it were that simple. So you threw for more yards as a rookie (4,374) than any other first-year QB in NFL history, led your team to an 11-5 record and, yes, developed a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks. But you get annoyed when people mistake exhaustive preparation for magic. Your goal, corny as it sounds, is to get 10 percent better each season. Narratives don’t matter. You just need the damn ball back.

Your backup, Matt Hasselbeck, a 15-year veteran, stops you, tells you to take a few deep breaths, reminds you it’s not always helpful to the team for your dials to be permanently juiced to 11. It’s exhausting just to watch you. Remember, you can only control what you can control. You nod, are still for a beat. Out on the field, the Chargers pick up another first down. You’re on the move again.

The Chargers kick a field goal and go up 19-9. They’ve all but iced the game — the clock says 1:47 — but screw concessions. You complete two quick passes and move your team to midfield, briefly breathing life into an offense that’s been flatlining all night. You’re pirouetting around pass rushers more than usual, stalking the secondary hoping for a sliver of separation. But a string of missed passes and drops by your receivers has you flustered. With the pocket shrinking again, you try to hit veteran receiver Reggie Wayne on a deep out, but your throw sails, and it’s picked off by Chargers cornerback Derek Cox. Ballgame. Philip Rivers struts onto the field for the clock-killing kneel-down, smirking like an older brother. As you jog to the sideline, you yank your chin strap loose in anger.

You meet with the media in the dank, deteriorating basement of Qualcomm Stadium, still dressed in grass-stained football pants and knee-length socks. You’re not a quarterback who waits to speak to the media until he’s been groomed to look like a Tom Ford model. You look like the best Hacky Sack player in Palo Alto, not the “future of the NFL.” You wipe your face on your blue Nike T-shirt soaked with game sweat and lean forward on the podium. A reporter wants to know how you feel. You shake your head, trying to choose your words carefully, but just tell the truth. This is the most frustrating loss we’ve had.

I never viewed it as replacing Peyton. I viewed it as an opportunity to play in the NFL. Just so happens one of the greats of all time was here before me.

— Andrew Luck

As your teammates solemnly file toward the bus, you duck into the locker room showers. There’s only one other person in there, and he’s as miserable as you are. As the water pelts down, you grill your head coach, Chuck Pagano. You don’t care that you’re conducting postgame breakdowns in the nude. You need to talk about adjustments, about plays that could have been made, protections that could have been called differently. You want to be criticized. You want to be coached. You and Pagano are two of the last men to leave the locker room.

On a nearby television, they’re still showing your face, but the story is changing. A new drumbeat of hype has already begun.

Colts vs. Broncos! Luck vs. Manning! Manning’s coming home! It’s The War of 18-12!

You meander toward the team bus through Qualcomm’s crumbling tunnels. You sip from a purple jug of Pedialyte, drag a rolling suitcase behind you in silence, lingering for a moment to hug your mom — a brief family reunion next to a forklift and a garbage can. Then someone on the bus lays on the horn. You break into a light jog, afraid you’ll be left behind.

YOU ALWAYS FEEL a little unsettled by the scrum of media that surrounds your locker during the week of a big game. You’d love to skip this, spend the time in the film room. But it’s time to talk Peyton Manning. The Game of the Week demands it, and your parents brought you up to be gracious.

Manning is the specter that hangs over everything in the Colts’ practice facility, and no one feels it more than you. There’s no escaping him. His picture is everywhere, his long face looming in the hallways, his name on everyone’s lips, so many of his jerseys still in the stands. Today employees and reporters in the building are abuzz because your owner, Jim Irsay, just gave an interview to USA Today, talking about Manning the way men talk about an old flame after a third or seventh drink: with love and bitterness, longing and regret. You’re too busy preparing for the game to notice or care.

Inside the locker room, the media press their microphones, cameras and digital recorders inches from your face. Backed against a wall, the questions fly from all directions as if you’re being deposed by 50 poorly mannered and unimaginative lawyers at once.

Andrew, what advice did he offer you? How much did you look up to him as a kid? What do you think he’ll be feeling on Sunday? What’s your relationship like? Did you ever worry the fans wouldn’t embrace you the way they did him?

You understand the curiosity, but you’ve learned to compartmentalize. Give people a little, but not too much. The best defense is a fortress of earnest, vanilla cliches.

I never viewed it as replacing Peyton. I just viewed it as an opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL. It just so happens one of the greats of all time was here before me.

There’s a cacophony of nonsense you need to block out if you’re going to stay sane and be an NFL quarterback. There are media requests. Charity requests. You can’t go grab a burger without posing for six pictures. So you carry a flip phone, a black Samsung Galaxy that’s dented and chipped, instead of a smartphone. It’s the butt of countless jokes, but it helps you unplug from the world. Other people walk, head down, texting their friends. You walk head up, looking friends in the eye and asking how they’re doing.

You don’t tweet, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. You don’t grant long, sit-down, one-on-one interviews, and you never pose for magazine covers. You have a girlfriend. You’ve been seeing her since college, but you don’t answer questions about her. You’re fierce about your privacy. When you want to unwind, you challenge a teammate or a coach to a pingpong match. You’re damn good at pingpong.

You might be the first franchise quarterback in NFL history to truly embrace your inner nerd. The words you use in conversation — ethos, ad nauseam, eclectic, vernacular, paucity, chutzpah — come as naturally as throwing a deep corner route, but to everyone else it sounds like an SAT prep class. As a rookie, you teased Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen so much about the mangled spelling and grammar in his game notes, he bought a dictionary to double-check every note he writes and every game plan the Colts pass out to the players.

On the way to the first game of your NFL career, as the team bus wove through downtown Chicago en route to Soldier Field, Christensen was worried you might vomit on your dress shoes from the pressure. Instead, you left him dumbstruck as you calmly looked out the window, pointing out the buildings designed by your favorite architects.

The pressure, at this point, is a constant — your normal. It was that way in college too. Pulling together projects for architectural engineering classes one minute, studying game film of Oregon the next. Someone always wanting to ask one more question, have you sign one more autograph.

You deal with it by narrowing the field of distraction, using the latest historical fiction novel as blinders. You love to read books, especially Bernard Cornwell, whenever you have a few minutes. It’s not healthy to be completely consumed by football. Teammates spot the books in your locker, their pages dog-eared, and bombard you with playful grief. You are unfazed. Just a few weeks ago, you tried to get Hasselbeck and his wife, Sarah, to read Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the highly praised Maria Semple novel published last year. They would love it. Matt is even mentioned in it.

Andrew, I’m busy reading my playbook.

You don’t go to nightclubs. You hunker down in your apartment to watch Champions League soccer or West Wing DVDs, or to play The Settlers of Catan, a fantasy game that’s a cross between Risk, Monopoly and Dungeons & Dragons. Thanks to wideout Griff Whalen and tackle Anthony Castonzo, two of your closest friends and two fellow board game junkies, your locker room might be the only one in all of professional sports where men openly trash-talk about robber tokens and knight cards. When someone lets that secret slip out to a reporter, you’re playfully pissed. Why won’t they let you play your board games in peace?

When you arrived in Indy, the Colts veterans were eager to test you, to see what kind of player — what kind of man — you were. To see if you could handle the shadow of Peyton hanging over your head. So the first time you walked into the huddle, you simply said: Everyone quiet down, right now. Shut the f— up and listen.

You feel like one of the guys, but you’re their quarterback. This was Peyton’s team once, but not anymore.

The offense ate it up, but the defense needed proof. In training camp, the first time you crouched under center for 11-on-11 live action, they threw every blitz they could dream of at you. Every other pass you threw got batted down or intercepted. At the end of practice, you asked Christensen: What the hell was that? I feel like I just got hit by a tsunami.

The next day, the D tried the same blitzes. But you’d spent half the night studying film, anticipating exactly that. You didn’t win every play, but you burned them often and repeatedly. You audibled into new pass protections, found your second and third read and fired the ball through windows no one else could see. All due respect to Washington, Miami and Seattle with their rookie quarterbacks, but with you, they didn’t need to scale back the offense one bit.

At some point, someone asked you to fill out a questionnaire given to every member of the team to use as part of the Colts’ game programs. One of the questions was: Who was your favorite NFL player when you were growing up? You scrawled in blue pen: My dad.

You learned about sports from your dad, Oliver, who played quarterback for the Houston Oilers for four seasons in the 1980s. He didn’t force anything on you, but he was ready to play catch or shoot baskets in the driveway every night when he came home from work. Enjoy yourself, he said, but don’t let anyone outwork you. That’s what you have in mind when you show up at the team facility at 6 a.m. ready to study film, or when you’re trying to win every sprint during warmups with the other Colts quarterbacks. And that’s why you watch practice film twice, once for schematics and once just to grade your footwork, your setup, your posture, your release. One day you grab Hasselbeck by the arm and say: Hey, how 
about we show up 30 minutes early tomorrow and just talk ball? He laughs.

You don’t like singling yourself out, if you can help it. You like to believe you’re just one of 53 guys in the locker room. But you did try to give a speech to the team recently. You didn’t bring up Peyton, legacies, leadership or even tried-and-true cliches about fighting for every last inch, damn it. Instead, you stand up in the locker room and try to explain why the game means so much to you, why you’re here throwing footballs around instead of traveling the world or designing skyscrapers.

You know why I love football? I love it because it’s a meritocracy.

The locker room goes quiet. You get some blank stares. You try to explain. Eventually, you get a few nods.

But here’s what your teammates do understand: You may feel like one of the guys, but you’re their quarterback. This was Peyton’s team once, but not anymore.

PEYTON MANNING IS touching his chest, tapping his heart three times and waving to the sellout crowd inside Lucas Oil Stadium. He takes off his helmet, and it looks as if he might cry. High above the field, there are highlights of his days with the Colts flashing on the Jumbotron. A battalion of photographers, eager to document this small piece of NFL history, rush forward, elbowing for position at Manning’s feet.

Across the field, you jog out of the tunnel, slap a few asses, bump a few knuckles and begin practicing three-step drops. You hike up your pants, walk to the middle of the field for the coin flip and shake Peyton’s hand. You respect him immensely. Always have. He’s never been anything but cordial and classy in his dealings with you. When you heard that Manning supposedly encouraged the Colts to draft you, you were flattered.

You still want to kick his ass tonight.

Against the Broncos, you are on fire. You fake a handoff, freeze the linebacker and safety, then toss a perfect flare to Darrius Heyward-Bey for a first-quarter touchdown. You roll out of the pocket, scamper to your right, throw across your body and hit T.Y. Hilton for a 19-yard gain. You squirm away from a collapsing pocket, change directions, then bowl over two Broncos defenders for an 11-yard gain on third and 11. You throw a pair of beautifully boring touchdowns to Stanley Havili and Fleener on basic out routes, giving your team a 26-14 lead at halftime, bringing the fans to their feet as you pump your fist.

You go up a commanding 33-14 in the third quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run, rolling right, looking, looking, looking, then tucking the ball, waltzing into the end zone and spiking it with surprising anger. You look like a dorky folksinger suddenly smashing your guitar.

Manning meets you at midfield amid a swarm of cameras, looking sullen and bewildered at his 39-33 loss. You shake his hand.

This is how many times you’ve lost back-to-back NFL games: zero.

In the locker room, as the media eagerly wait next door to assault you with the same questions over and over again, you slowly put on a blue dress shirt and a gray suit. Your girlfriend thinks you should dress the part. You leave your tie in your locker. When you do get to your news conference, the reporters still want to ask you Peyton Manning questions. What did you and Peyton talk about at midfield? The shadow of his legacy looms just as large as ever, it seems.

That’s between Peyton and me. I’d rather not divulge what was said.

Eventually, you’re free of football obligations. You wind your way through the tunnel beneath the stadium, scanning the sea of faces waiting by the exit, until you find the one belonging to your father. Thin and regal-looking, Oliver has silver hair and a long, serious face, but his expression changes the instant he sees you as he swells with pride and extends his arms. The two of you bear-hug in the hallway. You linger in the tunnel for a few minutes more, but eventually it’s time to go home and sleep. A little.

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