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FLIPPING THROUGH HIS MENTAL FILE OF HEART-STOPPING PLAYS EXECUTED by quarterback Andrew Luck last year, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh pauses at one that nearly made him yank out his hair. In the waning moments of the first half against Arizona State, Luck, then a redshirt freshman, was flushed out of the pocket near the Sun Devils' 30-yard line. "He was running toward our sideline, and I didn't see anybody open," says Harbaugh. "I was hoping he was just going to tuck the ball and get out-of-bounds. Then all of the sudden I saw him crank up a throw. I thought, Noooooooooooo!"
Spotting receiver Ryan Whalen covered near the five-yard line, Luck threw the ball across his body, leading Whalen away from two defenders. Whalen easily caught the ball and ran it to the two-yard line to set up a touchdown right before halftime. It was the kind of pumpkin-into-carriage play that Luck would make over and over in 2009 while deploying his rare combination of poise, vision and precision. "Andrew is the best player I've ever been associated with," says Harbaugh, who played quarterback in the NFL for 15 years. "There's nothing he can't do at the position."
In addition to throwing for 2,575 yards and 13 touchdowns against just four interceptions and earning the top passing efficiency rating in the league (143.5), Luck rushed for 418 yards on 61 carries, making him the second-leading rusher on the team and the first Stanford QB since Don Bunce in 1971 to run for more than 200 yards.
"Luck is a quarterback talent that comes along only once every six or seven years at this level," says college football analyst David Norrie. "He has prototypical NFL size [6' 4", 235]. He has the ability to throw the ball with velocity and touch. He's extremely accurate. He runs really well for his size. And he has all the intangibles: toughness, intellect, leadership. He plays well when the game is on the line. Midway through last season I was convinced he was the best quarterback in the country."
Luck comes by his football talents naturally—his father, Oliver, was a record-setting passer at West Virginia who went on to play for the Houston Oilers—but Andrew had to wait until fifth grade to test them. He spent most of his childhood living with his family in Frankfurt and London, where Oliver was an executive with NFL Europe. Like most of his friends Andrew was passionate about soccer, though he also played basketball and baseball at the American schools he attended, and he followed college football on the Armed Services Network. When the family moved back to Houston in 2000, Andrew played organized football for the first time and quickly gravitated to quarterback.
In three years at Houston's Stratford High he threw for 7,139 yards and 53 TDs and rushed for 2,085 yards. But he didn't give up his other sports. "I never played football year-round, and I think that helped me as a quarterback," he says. "[Playing multiple sports] helps you develop vision, helps you understand how people relate to each other in space."
Luck, an architectural design major, still loves soccer—he had an internship with the San Jose Earthquakes last summer—but football is where he'll make his mark. Whether or not he delivers Stanford a Pac-10 title this year, there's little doubt he'll deliver Cardinal fans, and the coach, a lot of thrills.