ANDERSON, Ind. — The NFL’s new highest-paid player hasn’t changed so much that he can’t relax and appreciate a short drive North on Interstate-69.
That Andrew Luck can enjoy such things is a reminder that the Indianapolis Colts quarterback stays grounded, even after signing a six-year, $140 million contract last month.
It’s also a reminder that it must be time for training camp. While some players moan and groan about being confined to the campus community of Anderson University for the better part of three weeks, Luck grins and gushes about seemingly every aspect of it.
He sounds like a giddy geek on this sun-splashed Tuesday morning.
“It’s ball all day and you don’t really have to think about anything,” Luck said. “You can wear the same clothes, you know, two weeks in a row and no one is going to judge you unless you start smelling and then someone tells you you smell.”
Luck, 26, wrinkles his nose at the observation. He amuses himself.
“What’s not to like about camp?” he said, pausing to think. “Not much. They do a really nice job of taking care of us here at Anderson. The food is great. Love living in the dorms. The air conditioning is probably better than what I have in my condo, so that’s great.”
Luck laughs about that perk.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s a great time of year.”
After three years of being perhaps the NFL’s brightest rising star, Luck became mortal last season as a series of injuries including a lacerated kidney sidelined him for nine games. Instead of playing in a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, he was still on the mend after a disappointing 8-8 season came to an end.
That didn’t discourage Colts owner Jim Irsay from opening up his checkbook to lock up Luck for the next six years, an expensive endeavor that guarantees No. 12 a record $87 million.
Asked where he is physically, Luck said without hesitation, “100 percent.”
If the Colts are going to return to the playoffs, they must keep Luck healthy to lead one of the more potent offenses with Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and a talented group of speedy pass catchers and running back Frank Gore providing balance to a rushing game that has been continually lacking in recent years.
The Colts used half of their eight draft picks on offensive linemen, including a first-round selection on center Ryan Kelly, who has been plugged into the starting lineup from day one. Luck has had to play with five centers before Kelly.
The right side of the O-line still needs to be sorted out in camp, but this has the potential to be Luck’s best line since he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. Aside from Luck taking more hits in his first three season than any quarterback in the league, he’s been sacked 115 times in four seasons.
He’s also had to adjust to three different playcallers and offenses, from Bruce Arians to Pep Hamilton to Rob Chudzinski. Hamilton had worked with Luck for one year at Stanford, so seeing him fired and replaced with “Chud” last season was difficult. As it turned out, Luck worked with Chudzinski for only one game, a 27-24 home victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Denver. The passer got hurt in the final quarter but finished the game and learned in the days after that he had suffered a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle.
Some are convinced Luck was never himself after taking a hit to the shoulder in a season-opening loss at Buffalo. A memorable sideline moment from a Week 3 road win at Tennessee showed Luck wince in pain when Matt Hasselbeck patted him on the chest.
In his time away, critics question if Luck has learned his lesson about not taking unnecessary punishment — his eventual season-ending injuries came at the end of a scramble. And can the quarterback cut down on his turnovers — he had 12 interceptions and one lost fumble in seven 2015 starts. In his four seasons, Luck has 101 touchdown passes versus 55 interceptions and 14 lost fumbles.
He laughed at the suggestion he’s no longer a young player as he enters his fifth season.
“I don’t feel old,” he said. “I still feel like a kid at heart.”
The reality is Luck just turns 27 in September. But the other undeniable reality is that when a player is paid more than any other in the NFL, more is expected and the margin for error can be unmerciful. Most mention Luck with the expectation that he has the talent to join the league’s elite players at his position. As that debate rages on whether he’s attained that level of performance with a 3-3 playoff record and one AFC Championship Game reached, his paycheck says he’s an elite player.
Luck gave the expected answer when asked if his new contract would change his expectations and the pressure that comes with the job.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “And I’ve always thought this about pressure and expectations. One, I’ve always had very high expectations for myself, probably higher than other people expect. As far as pressure, I think pressure is a privilege, pressure from a coach, your teammates, from close friends and family is what’s important to me and you can’t control what folks are going to say, good or bad. I’ve never got too caught up in that.”
He insists not much has changed, regardless of his contract. The Colts still aspire to contend for a Super Bowl, they’re just not making the mistake of talking about it this year. Too much was said last preseason, and look where the team ended up.
Enough with the talk. Just drive, Andrew Luck says, and stay driven.
“I love making the morning drive up here,” Luck said of the one-hour trip from Indianapolis. “It’s like a perfect length of time from Indy. It’s not too short where you just show up, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re here.’ And it’s not too long to where you’re sitting in the car brooding. It’s very exiting. It’s fun. It’s a nice, easy drive.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.