INDIANAPOLIS — The room is somber and muggy and still. Facing their lockers, the Titans' 46 active players are slouched on their stools and say nothing above a whisper. They stare ahead in a mad trance.
In the first quarter, Luck eyed a lane, attacked, dove headfirst at the goal line and…whap! Williamson crashed over the top, inadvertently dinging Luck helmet to helmet. In the fourth quarter, two Titans players sandwiched Luck, and his helmet bounced off the turf.
Only later did Luck report he suffered a concussion. He should have never stayed in the game.
Then again, this is someone who lacerated his kidney and tore his abdominal last season. Someone who has been sacked 158 times in 71 career games. Luck gets smoked from the blind side, that Yukon Cornelius beard cracks into a smile and he says, "Nice hit!" He then rallies his offense to the huddle as if untouched.
This day, his 262 yards and two scores secured a 24-17 win—the Colts' 11th straight(!) over Tennessee—and injected life into a season forever hyperventilating.
He was red-hot early, threw a costly pick late and then put the nail in the coffin with 2:35 to go. On 3rd-and-5, he stepped up, rolled right and threaded an 11-yarder to T.Y. Hilton for a first down to seal the Colts victory.
Williamson sighs and shakes his head.
"He's the type of guy," Williamson says, "that if you get a hit on him, he's going to bounce right back up. It's tough to shake him."
He's the type of guy who can silence an entire visitors' locker room.
He's also the type of guy who can come off as a cheeseball publicly, who has his own book club with an online video description that is straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit.
Luck is the one on road trips who is providing history lessons at every turn. He's Ned Flanders in pads. LeVar Burton with a cannon. He'll recommend a novel to your teenage child (Little House on the Prairie is this month's recommendation!), and of course, he'll congratulate that blitzing linebacker who is foaming at the mouth and drilling him in the rib cage.
When he was going 11-5 and making the playoffs every year, maybe that didn't raise eyebrows. But as the Colts face the possibility of a second straight losing, nonplayoff season, a new narrative faces the former No. 1 overall pick: Can the gosh darn nicest quarterback in the NFL…win?
Kirk Cousins shouts "How do you like me now?!" in his boss' face. Tom Brady nearly steps into the ring with his own offensive coordinator. When Cam Newton loses a game, he acts like a doctor removed three vital organs. Philip Rivers? One of the best trash-talkers in the biz.
And then here's Luck.
You'd trust Andrew Luck to date your daughter or water your plants when you're out of town. He's not the cold-blooded killer we crave at the position. Everyone loves the the transcendent blend of a muzzleloader arm, 4.6 speed, Stanford smarts and punch-drunk toughness. But the niceness isn't a usual part of that mix. So now he must prove nice guys can finish first. A robotically kind QB must now go in for the jugular this final month of the NFL season.
The Titans don't want to hear about Luck's congeniality, though. They were victimized yet again.
"He's a competitor, man," Williamson says. "He's not easily shaken. It's very frustrating."
Teammates and opponents past and present repeat the same thing when asked about Luck.
They see a quarterback armed with the right amount of badass to take the Colts to the next level.
They say this is who he is, on and off the field.
The stories you hear when you ask about Luck depict an odd, delicate balance we haven't seen this generation.
He loves a good book about…concrete
Once during college, childhood friend Marshall Hughes asked Luck what book he was reading. Well, a book detailing the history of concrete, of course. Hughes laughed; Luck was serious. The quarterback was an architectural design major at Stanford and found this book—the equivalent of walking into interstate traffic for most of society—downright fascinating.
"For me," says Hughes, now the sports director at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee, "that'd be an absolute struggle. Punishment.
"I said, 'Golly! You are a different cat.'"
The TV was not on at the Luck household
When friends headed to Luck's place in Houston to hang out, the television was turned off. There were books—everywhere. Usually, the TV was only on if the Houston Dynamo were playing. Oliver Luck, Andrew's father, was the president and general manager of the MLS team.
Otherwise, why pollute your mind with such filth?
As early as Hughes can remember, Luck was on a mission to learn. Any book, any topic. He was a sponge. Whereas Hughes' family spent nights watching sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond, the tenor was different in Luck's home.
"There was a lot of reading," Hughes says. "Any time I'd go over there, he'd always have a book. He'd come over to my house to watch TV."
You do not want to play pingpong against Andrew Luck
Don't think for a second that all Luck did was nestle into a La-Z-Boy and read eight to 12 hours per day during the summer. Hardly. One of his buddies had a garage equipped with a TV for epic games of Halo and a pingpong table that revealed what's inside Luck.
This was where he fed his wild side.
"We'd just go out there and talk mess to each other constantly," says Ben Bredthauer, another one of Luck's closest friends who was his tight end through high school. "It would get way too competitive."
Instead of playing classical games to 21, they'd play to five through a best-of-five series—and it was typically two-on-two. The losing duo then needed to take off their shirts, turn around and take three direct pingpong shots to the back. Welts were the norm.
A pingpong scar could last for days. A pingpong scar from Luck? That would last for weeks.
Luck's zingers were sent, Bredthauer says, at "100 miles an hour."
Whenever Bredthauer lost, he tried forcing his partner to take Luck's missiles.
"If you're asking about his killer instinct, something people on the outside can't see," Bredthauer says, "it's there 100 percent."
They played every sport and made up their own sports. Take "tennis court baseball." Luck's crew brought miniature wooden baseball bats to the tennis courts nearby, and a pitcher would one-hop a tennis ball to the batter. One summer, they were addicted. They played twice per day.
One's basketball game can tell you all you need to know about someone's personality.
Luck was Dennis Rodman without the tattoos. He set screens. He dove for loose balls. He was a menace on the boards and rarely ever shot.
On the soccer field? A natural. Luck spent 10 of his first 11 years of childhood in Europe, so futbol was his first love. Manic footwork in tight quarters later helped him dance in a collapsing pocket. Luck's brother, Addison, plays at Yale.
In soccer, like basketball, Luck looked to set up teammates first.
"If he had a wide-open shot at the goal and somebody was running up next to him, he'd pass it off to score it," Bredthauer says. "But then, when the game was on the line, and you needed him to do something crazy, he'd come in there and bicycle kick it!
"OK, he wouldn't do that…"
But he would finish. Somehow. There is, Bredthauer and Hughes repeat, a killer instinct inside their friend.
He's an architect at heart
During study halls, Luck didn't thumb through iPhone apps. He drew. One desk over, Hughes watched Luck scribble designs of football stadiums. His passion for architecture ran deep. He'd detail to Hughes which stadium structures would go where.
When he wasn't molding himself into the next John Elway, next Peyton Manning, next can't-miss gem at the position, Luck was named the valedictorian at Stratford High—a school of 2,000 students that consistently ranks among the best in the country academically—and earned a 3.48 GPA at Stanford.
No wonder the convenient narrative to push is that Luck "flips a switch"—that he's a nerd off the field and a maniac on it. When questions trend in this direction, everyone close to him hems and haws and disagrees.
There's no total transformation here. He's that inquisitive mind designing a stadium 24/7.
"I feel like I need to tell a story on how he can flip a switch like that," says Hughes, "but he's very consistent as far as his personality goes. I don't think I've ever been around—and I cover football players all the time— there's nobody I've come across who can be as dominant a football player as he can while keeping the aw-shucks mentality while being the ultimate team player. He's just a nice guy."
Colts backup Scott Tolzien sees this daily. He, too, pumps the brakes on the Incredible Hulk narrative.
Luck is the same person…wherever he is.
"I wouldn't say there's two different personalities," Tolzien says. "He's just comfortable with who he is. He has a lot of interests. He's not one-track-minded. It's not football only. He's very knowledgeable. He's fascinated by a lot of things, and I admire that about him.
"I've learned a lot about the world from him."
So does Luck ever get…pissed? Angry? Annoyed? Anything?
The only time Bredthauer remembers when Luck would get mad was if anyone lollygagged at practice. If someone wasn't paying attention, he says that Luck "would jump our asses." But if Bredthauer dropped a pass, if a lineman missed a block, if any one of his teammates ever did anything wrong, Luck's facial expression would never change. He didn't utter a word. Didn't even scowl. Many times, Luck would even say "my bad" when it was obviously a teammate's fault.
"And I'd say, 'You put that perfectly on the money. I should've caught that!'" Bredthauer says. "That's how he was when I met him to where he is now. It works for him, so why change it?"
Former Colts running back Vick Ballard chatted with Luck every day. Their lockers were next to each other. He echoes Bredthauer. The only time he ever, ever, saw Luck angry was when he was angry at himself.
And yet, that kid who gave his friends welts still makes an appearance.
Says Ballard, "He grabs the game by the throat and takes over."
It seems like a borderline-demented urban legend, but when Luck is drilled by a defender, yes, he congratulates that defender on his hit. With the Packers, in 2012, linebacker Erik Walden dinged Luck, and Luck was quick to reply, "Good job!"
Huh? Come again? That same game, an untouched Nick Perry annihilated an unsuspecting Luck at maximum force.
Luck simply stood up, completely unaffected.
From the sideline, Walden was spooked.
"He wasn't even fazed by it!" Walden says. "He popped straight up and was smiling. I was like, 'He's a freak. He's an animal.' To take a hit like that? And pop straight up with a smile on your face? Yeah. Definitely."
Luck then orchestrated one of his 13 career fourth-quarter comebacks.
One season later, Walden signed with the Colts. Initially, he saw a quarterback who was still sheepish in Peyton's shadow. An introvert. Now he sees a quarterback who is setting a vocal tone daily.
And a physical tone every time he jumps off the turf.
"He just gravitates confidence throughout the whole team," Walden says. "Each guy has his own confidence, but when he's playing well, that s--t builds up the whole team. He doesn't really get rattled. If he makes a mistake, he's not rattled. Even if we give up a touchdown, we feel we can win any game.
"It's just in his DNA. You either have it or you don't, and he's got it."
This facial expression seems forced. Awkward, even. Uncomfortable. Luck spikes his snoozefest, cliche-heavy press conferences with this same look for emphasis.
His eyebrows rise to the middle of his forehead. His voice has punch. His eyes widen.
Everyone close to the quarterback insists this is no act. Those eyes you see are what they see in every huddle. Bredthauer can still remember Stratford's rematch with Cypress Falls (Texas) in high school. The year before, they lost at Reliant Stadium to Cy Falls on a missed extra point.
This was a shot at revenge. It was sleeting. It was cold. Cy Falls was loaded with D-I athletes. And during a rain delay, inside the visitors' locker room, Luck noticed players were losing energy.
So he spoke up. He locked eyes with teammates.
"I knew we weren't going to leave there without winning the game somehow," Bredthauer says.
Luck went 19-of-33 for 270 yards with two scores in a 43-34 win.
Any time he recites a play in the huddle—at Stratford, at Stanford, in Indy—he shoots teammates this same wide-eyed look.
"It's almost like he's discovering something new every single time," Bredthauer says. "He's enlightened. And he wants to get across what he's saying. He wants everybody to understand the end goal. And it's not BS. I see some guys sometimes say one thing and then go off and do something different. Andrew has been straight-laced. He has a path, and he's on it.
"It's addicting. The Colts are buying in, too."
The Colts bought in the night of Jan. 4, 2014.
Luck played like he was back in Cy Falls. In the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, his Colts trailed the Kansas City Chiefs 31-10 at the half, and he traveled stall to stall, player to player, repeating, "We're going to win this game. We're going to win."
On the first play of the second half, Luck threw an interception; Kansas City scored three plays later, and the Colts trailed 38-10. Instantly, tight end Weslye Saunders was overcome with regret. He could have signed with the Chiefs midseason instead—could have replaced Travis Kelce and starred on a team that was destined to make a Super Bowl run.
Then, Luck assured everyone again: "We're going to win." He threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns in a historic 45-44 win.
"Andrew still kept that fire in his eyes," Saunders says. "He's a monster."
There's no transformation here.
But Luck thrives with his back against the wall.
"In crunch time, he gets it," Hilton says. "For us, we just kind of feed off him. In crunch time, he's always like that. You can see it in his face. He might not say much, but it's there. It's just a look that tells you, 'It's time to go do this.' … That was our defining moment here. That's one of those times he took over. He kept saying, 'We're going to win this game. Keep fighting. We're going to get it.'"
Yes, he uses a flip phone
After signing a $140 million contract, Luck celebrated by replacing his old flip phone with a—drum roll, please!—new flip phone. He's not ashamed. Luck posted a photo on Facebook with the message, "Thanks to AT&T for hooking up the new phone! #FlipPhonesAreBack."
Usually when players return to their locker after practice, they're juggling two iPhones.
Yes, Ballard admits, this was "strange."
"If anybody had a flip phone," Ballard says, "they were probably a grandparent. Because it's simple. It's a phone with buttons, period."
When Ballard visited Luck's home, he discovered his quarterback also owned a—gasp!—landline. Hey, at least it was cordless.
Such is the Life of Luck: mind-blowingly simple. He had a flip phone as a teenager; it worked just fine, so of course he'd have a flip phone as an adult.
People ask Hughes and Bredthauer all the time if Luck is like this in real life.
Yes, they say.
"He's just your regular old guy," Hughes says, "who happens to be very smart and very good at football."
Bredthauer hears the horror stories of other quarterbacks who shut out old friends.
"Andrew has done the opposite," he says. "He's established his relationships and childhood memories even more."
Inside the locker room, he's fiercely loyal. When Ballard tore his ACL in 2013, Luck left the book Unbroken in his locker. Ballard was never much of a reader, but soon he dove into this true story of WWII hero Louis Zamperini. Learning about the former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash, spent 47 days on a raft and then lived through two-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war inspired him through his knee rehabilitation. And when the Colts released Ballard, Luck was one of the "two or three" people with the Colts who actually called him.
Calling, of course, on that damn flip phone.
"He personally called me and said, 'I'm sorry,'" Ballard says. "That says a lot about his character. Maybe five, 10 minutes. Not many people call. People get cut in the NFL every day. It's just a nature of the business. He's just a real, real good dude, man."
Three different times, Ballard says it's simply not in Luck's nature to make enemies. No thirst for retribution drives Luck—Ballard saw his quarterback pat defenders on the back all the time.
Say what you want about Aaron Rodgers: The two-time MVP is insanely competitive. Does Luck possess enough mean to elevate from very good to great? Ballard thinks back to the Colts' comeback win over Detroit in 2012, when Luck erased a 12-point deficit with three-and-a-half minutes left to win. That winning play call, four verticals with Donnie Avery sliding underneath, still gives him goosebumps.
When he hears critics label Luck "overrated," when he hears that Luck is "too nice," he cringes.
"Those people haven't played with him," Ballard says. "They don't know the type of competitor he is. He definitely has some badass in him."
Ballard still has that Unbroken book, too.
"I might call him up one day," he says, "to see if he can sign it for me."
He's a tour guide
Always reading, always learning. Of course, Luck became a history teacher in this locker room.
Every time the Colts hit the road, those eyes widen, and he tells a story:
• In Europe. During the Colts' London trip this season, Luck was popping trivia questions to teammates. Questions like, center Ryan Kelly recalls, "Did you know the Big Ben tower has this many frames of glass?"
"I don't know if that's from reading a s--t ton," Kelly says, "or if it's stuff he learned at Stanford."
Not only did Luck live overseas, he also backpacked through Europe with four of his friends after graduating from high school. The crew stayed at hostels from London to Paris to Munich to Rome, even hiking to Neuschwanstein Castle. Luck was the one who planned the entire itinerary.
• In Denver. Upon landing, Luck directed teammates' attention to "Blucifer." The 32-foot statue of a horse with glowing red eyes actually killed the man who designed it. New Mexico sculptor Luis Jimenez died in 2006 when a chunk of the horse fell on him and pinned him to the ground. Jimenez had been working on the horse for a decade and faced lawsuits for not finishing it on time.
The horse was later pieced together and displayed at the airport.
"It's like, 'What?!'" Kelly says. "How does he know that stuff?"
"He knows stuff that people haven't heard of yet," running back Robert Turbin says, "or seen on the news or read about yet."
• In Houston. The whole bus ride from the airport to the team hotel, Saunders remembers Luck provided a site-by-site tour of every historical monument. Maybe this information was not all retained, but players weren't rolling their eyes either. What's cheesy and boring to us outsiders is absorbed by insiders.
"He's our leader on the field," Saunders says, "so we listen when he speaks."
Maybe this is Luck's most endearing quality—he relates to everyone. Black. White. Receiver. Lineman. Special teams gunner. Water boy. He can sit down at a table and chat for 20 minutes about anything with anybody, because somewhere along his path of enlightenment he's learned about something that makes you tick.
"I noticed that real quick when I first got here," Kelly says. "He's knowledgeable about so many different things. Guys are just drawn to that. It's cool because he really does care about his teammates and the guys around him. He wants to see everybody be successful, even though this league can be a turnstile sometimes with guys just rolling in and out."
A different drive
Before training camp began, Chuck Pagano told all players to text or email him a picture of what motivates them. What's their reason to wake up, to sweat, to grind day after day? Players had no clue what Pagano's plan was—until those pictures were posted in their respective lockers.
"To remind us," Turbin says, "that this is what you play for."
Ninety percent of players chose pictures of family. A parent. A wife. A child. Turbin even saw some quotes. Luck? He was the only player with a photo of the Lombardi Trophy in his locker.
This season has been another jerky roller-coaster for the 5-6 Colts. Painful losses quickly negate uplifting wins. Their dam of an offensive line breaks weekly. Through six different line combinations, Luck has been pressured an NFL-high 44.5 percent of his dropbacks, with a NFL-high 35 sacks, 10 hits while throwing and 14 batted passes, per Pro Football Focus.
Everyone here still believes. Never mind the fact that this roster was constructed with a blunt knife. Trading a first-rounder for Trent Richardson? Drafting Bjoern Werner in the first? A Knicks-like string of free-agent flops? Luck dusts himself off and gives the team realistic championship hopes. He taps each lineman on the head between series and then gets drilled again.
"He's taken some hits, man," Turbin says. "You see it on tape, and you're like, 'I don't know how he got up from that one.' And he does. He does every time."
Turbin was teammates with Russell Wilson for two Super Bowl runs. He knows a special QB when he sees one.
He puts Luck in that stratosphere.
"You have to have leadership to handle good situations and handle not-so-good situations," Turbin says. "If you have that leadership, you're always in a fight. When you don't have leadership, that's when your team tanks and your team gets worse. You see it every year. Somebody. In all sports it happens. When you have great leadership, it gives you that stability, confidence and belief that we can go anywhere when things aren't going our way.
"We're still in the fight."
A new sheriff
Peyton's presence always looms. His spirit. He's the one who turned a basketball town into a football town. He won four of his record five MVP awards right here in Indianapolis.
On the day of the Titans win, Manning returned in his white No. 18 for the first time. He was a Colt again as the organization honored the 2006 title team at halftime.
There were still 20 seconds left in the second quarter—but who cares?—when Manning's face appeared on the video board. Fans turned their attention to him, filling the stadium with raucous applause.
Highlights looped to the tune of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" and Queen's "We Are the Champions." Highlights of Manning's validation. His 38-34 slaying of the dragon that was the Tom Brady-led Patriots. His 29-17 Super Bowl triumph over the Bears at rain-slopped Dolphin Stadium. These wins effectively deleted all of the questions Andrew Luck is facing now.
Manning was "too nice" once upon a time too.
Players from that '06 team were introduced, one by one, and safety Mike Doss fanned Manning in Wayne's World-like "We're not worthy!" worship.
This nice guy eventually finished first. Now, it's up to Luck.
Wins like this have provided glimmers of hope his five seasons. After the game, Frank Gore explains that he knew Luck was wired differently when he saw the quarterback truck-sticking tacklers in college. He saw a quiet yet deadly "beast."
"I'm cool, quiet off the field," Gore says, "but when you do something you love and you know what it takes? It comes out of you."
A string of winnable games awaits the Colts. In the comatose AFC South, they're only a half-game back. The quarterback gives them a chance. There's no question Luck's talent is on par with Manning's—with anyone who's ever played the position.
So he'll try to win into January the only way he knows how.
With a football in one hand, a book in the other and everyone behind him believing.
"He knows what it takes," Hilton says. "We have to follow his lead."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.