They all dream of coaching an Andrew Luck, the face every franchise wants out front, and the lucky ones who raised him from a pup and fell in love with him feared that a terrible injustice might end a certain Hall of Fame career in its prime.
And are so thankful it didn’t.
“We had a bunch of conversations that are probably pretty intimate between just me and him, but I know it had to probably cross his mind like it would anybody else,” former Colts coach Chuck Pagano told Serby Says.
“When you go that long and things aren’t getting better, and you have setbacks, I’m sure at some point it did cross his mind that he may never be able to get back out there, and then even if he does get out there, is he going to be 100 percent and be the same guy? And be the same quarterback, be able to play at the same level and make all the throws that he has always been able to make?
“I’m sure that was something that was probably in the back of his mind. Probably scared him to death at some point, but now that it’s behind him, obviously it’s a great thing for him and that team and that organization.”
Said Bruce Arians — Luck’s former offensive coordinator and interim coach with the Colts before he left to coach the Cardinals: “He tried to come back too soon. He probably shouldn’t have played the last six or seven games with that much pain, but he’s so damn tough, and he didn’t want to let his teammates down.”
Luck played through the pain in his throwing shoulder in 2016, underwent surgery immediately after the season and missed all of 2017. Where once his future was clouded, after all the angst about whether he could make it back, Luck is the Comeback Kid.
“I think he’s all the way back,” said Arians, now an NFL analyst on CBS. “I had to really watch being a broadcaster not to cheer for him. The game needs him.”
Why does the game need Andrew Luck?
“Because we need young stars,” Arians said. “He was a young star. What he did his first three years was unbelievable. He has a will very few guys have.”
Pagano, an NFL consultant for now, chased the Super Bowl with Luck after Arians left to coach the Cardinals.
“He’s just getting better and better and better,” Pagano said. “Even a great player like Andrew’s going to take some time to knock the rust off, get back to being yourself. There’s a trust factor there, too, of going out there and just letting it rip and not worrying about, ‘Am I going to overthrow, am I going to have damage to this thing?’ — getting hit for the first time, getting sacked for the first time, taking off and running. He sure looks the same.”
Arians worked the Colts-Jets game, and said he was thrilled with what he saw.
“Some of the throws he was making in that Jets game, those guys weren’t even open, he’s putting balls where only they can catch it,” Arians said. “It comes out of his hand fast, and I think he really is enjoying the relationship with (coach) Frank Reich, having a quarterback for a head coach running the show.”
Luck (23 touchdowns, eight interceptions) has benefited from a bolstered offensive line. Pagano knows exactly what makes him tick.
“His love of the game,” Pagano said. “The strategy behind it. The preparation that goes into being able to go out and play winning football. His passion for that city, his passion for that team. He’s wired a different way.
“He’s a real cerebral guy as we all know and a real smart guy — he leaves no stones unturned. He can play at a high level because when he gets out there he’s as prepared or more prepared than anybody on that football field.”
The Colts “Suck(ed) For Luck” and lucked into one of the only young quarterbacks capable of following Peyton Manning.
“Great character. A great young man,” Pagano recalled. “Football IQ basically off the charts. You knew you were getting a champion that loved the game. Played the game like it was supposed to be played, was a great, great teammate.
“You knew his passion and love for the game were second to none and he wasn’t playing for anything but his team and his teammates and to win. You can see the football stuff on tape, but the thing that’s so hard to evaluate nowadays is trying to figure out what makes a man tick, what’s inside of him, and what’s in his heart. And even from the first time that you got around this kid, that you were getting a kid that loved football and hated losing more than he loved winning.”
Luck never put pressure on himself to replace a legend.
“He’s one guy that, regardless of the expectations coming in, and following a first-ballot Hall of Famer and all that, never spoke of it, and you could never see it in the way that he handled himself, in the way that he carried himself,” Pagano said.
“He understood what came with that position and where he was taken in the draft and who he was replacing, but that wasn’t his focus. His focus was the process of how to be a great quarterback in the National Football League and what you had to do on a daily basis to do that. He didn’t have time for that, really.”
Said Arians: “Andrew Luck was such a treasure to coach. His talent was one thing, but he was so smart and so cerebral. As a rookie bringing us back from behind to win games, [it] was just unbelievable what he did, because he was doing it with six other rookies. He was a great leader.”
Pagano doesn’t hesitate identifying his one play that personified Andrew Luck.
“Kansas City, in that [45-44 2013 playoff] comeback,” Pagano said. “We’re down 28, but we thought we fumbled on the goal line. That ball squirts loose and he has the instincts and awareness to pick that ball up. Most quarterbacks would jump on that, and he picks that ball up and, hop, skip and a jump, and scores a touchdown. That one to me is the epitome of what separates him from a bunch of guys.”
Who Luck is off the field also separates him. Pagano recalls Luck and Coby Fleener visiting him while he was undergoing chemo for his leukemia at Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Chuckstrong all.
“When I was strong enough and well enough where they let people come, I can remember him and Coby coming up to see me in the hospital after a practice one day,” Pagano said. “They snuck in some Jimmy John’s sandwiches and spent an hour or so with me in the hospital, which was really cool. You lose your taste buds when you start that chemo, and so nothing really tastes good, that’s why they snuck in a Jimmy John sandwich. It was a good time.”
Arians cites a dinner with his wife and Luck at the Combine.
“And I left and he sat and talked to my wife for an hour,” Arians said. “Most guys would have blown it off and left after I left. But not him. He’s just such a great kid.”
And Luck is still just 29. Hope springs eternal again in Indianapolis.
“They’ve been spoiled to a certain extent,” Pagano said. “They love that kid, and they all feel that he can lead them to the promised land, bring that Lombardi [Trophy] back to Indy.”
It won’t be this year. But in the meantime, two proud coaches revel in Luck’s triumphant return.
“When he was in our production meeting, he didn’t want to stop talking, he was just giddy about playing again,” Arians said.
Added Pagano: “You could tell at the beginning of the year, just watching him in press conferences, it’s the old Andrew. Just so fired up for him.”
Luck For Luck. Finally.