KRAVITZ: Emotional Luck overcomes the jitters, plays well in return and…survives his first hit

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) is tackled by Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner during the first half of an NFL football preseason game, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Andrew Luck on his first game back
Frank Reich Seahawks postgame
Bob Kravitz

SEATTLE, Wash, (WTHR) - Andrew Luck wondered, just the way we all wondered: What would happen when he took his first hit? He wondered about it all day, has wondered about it for weeks now, at least ever since the opening of training camp. Would that golden right arm fall off – not literally, but you get the point – or would he take the lick and bounce back up none the worse for wear?

And then it happened, quickly. In the first quarter of the Colts' 19-17 preseason victory over the Seattle, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner tackled Luck after a scramble up the middle, and all of Indianapolis held its collective breath. Oh, no, will he get up in one piece?

Well. Luck not only got up, but he let out a primal scream – YAHHHHH! – and then high-fived Jack Doyle. You've never seen anybody more excited about a perfunctory 1-yard run. You've never seen anybody so excited to get hit by a maleficent linebacker. Luck, who acknowledged he was bouncing off the walls all day in anticipation of this first game back in more than a year-and-a-half, acted like he'd just thrown a game-winning touchdown pass.

"There was this sense of `OK, get hit, get up and make sure you're not broken,'' Luck said. "It's the most excited I've ever been and ever will be about getting hit. We got it out of the way. …I was very nervous, very nervous. I care very much about this game, this team and what I'm trying to do on a personal level, so it was nice to take a very big step…It's nice to put a couple of questions away that linger in the back of your mind: Can you take a hit. Will you be able to do XYZ, blah blah blah, so it eases a little of that anxiety. And only game-type action could alleviate that…I was curious (about taking that first hit). Very much.''

You don't think this mattered a whole lot?

This mattered a whole lot, not only to the fans, not only to the organization, not only to Luck's teammates, but it meant a lot – it meant the world – to Luck. Thursday night here in Seattle, he hurdled one of his biggest obstacles. Shoot, when he got sacked later in the game by the Seahawks' Rasheem Green, he bounced back up and smiled at Green as if to say, "Thanks, I needed that.''

This is all a very roundabout way of saying the following: Andrew Luck is back. In a bit more than a quarter, he went 6-of-9 for 64 yards, leading two scoring drives. From the start, he looked completely comfortable, even as the butterflies fluttered in his belly and his emotions were running amok. He began with a nifty swing pass to Marlin Mack, who turned it into a 17-yard gain. He found T.Y. Hilton – and how good is it to see that connection again? – on an out route. He stepped up in the pocket, he showed command and he made the right throws. And give credit to Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, who made sure to give Luck relatively easy, quick throws, just to get his sea legs back under him.

"The first play is always a little nerve-wracking in any game, but especially this one,'' he said. "After that, (the game) sort of slowed down and the rhythm, the flow of a huddle, calling a play, knowing where the play clocks are, getting to the line of scrimmage, knowing what your cues are, that operation takes over. For lack of a better word, it felt natural.''

All day long, Luck waited and wondered and went a little bit crazy. He got up unusually early – thanks, Pacific Coast time – grabbed an espresso, walked around, did a quick workout, went to meetings and waited. And waited some more. His emotions were all over the place, and soon, he found himself debating how he should deal with these rushes of emotion.

"I was like, how do I approach it? Do I try to control my emotions?'' he said. "And then I said, `Ah, screw it, whatever I want to think and feel I'm going to feel it and let that happen, and it was like the pressure was off me…I really enjoyed it. I really had fun. I didn't know if I'd ever have this much fun practicing and playing football… I sort of decided that what I felt, I was going to feel. I didn't feel like I had to be in charge. I think I took the pressure off myself. And I'm sure there will be some other times when there are those rushes of emotion.''

Like in the season opener.

A few times during pre-game warmups, Reich sidled up to Luck and shared some thoughts. Reich knew that Luck was crawling out of his skin. Everybody could see it. He was bouncing around before the game, exhorting teammates, acting like a little kid on Christmas morning. Meaningless preseason game? Not for the quarterback.

"I could tell (he was emotional) the whole warmup,'' Reich said. "…He kept saying how excited he was. And right before he went out, he said, and I'm paraphrasing, `I've got a lot of emotion going right now; let's see if I can control this because I'm pretty jacked up.' Obviously, he came out in that first drive and handled it like we expected…

"That's exactly what we were hoping to get in terms of him finding a rhythm and moving the ball. We want to finish in the end zone, have to finish there, but that was a good start.''

Yep, Luck is back.

Not all the way back, of course, although you can't reach too many hard-and-fast conclusions after just a quarter-and-change of preseason play. Who knows, Luck might blow the tamped-down expectations completely out of the water and come out of the gate playing at an elite level. More likely, though, there will be hiccups, moments when Luck isn't his best self, times when the rust of a 585-day "layoff'' will be evident. Common sense says it will take a while before Luck fully returns to form – remember Peyton Manning circa 2008? – but for one night, an enormously important night, a therapeutic night, Luck returned to the field and looked a whole lot like the old Andrew Luck.

Was it perfect? No, it wasn't perfect. The Colts didn't get into the end zone, and there was one wayward pass intended for T.Y. Hilton. This, though, is a progression, as Luck has told us a thousand times.

"I thought he looked awesome,'' said Adam Vinatieri, who was 3-for-3 on field goals, including one bomb from 51 yards. "I thought he looked like the Andrew Luck that we all know and love. That's what the preseason is for: You knock the cobwebs off. But I thought he looked fantastic. He did exactly what he needed to do. He moved around in the pocket well and threw some really nice balls. Shoot, I'm excited for the year.

"…He was fired up to get out there. We were in pregame warmups and he was like `Man, I'm excited.' You could see it in his face that he was ready to get out there. When you haven’t gotten hit in a year, that gets you right back into the swing of things.''

You know what's been cool about this comeback? This may sound crazy, and maybe it only strikes me because I'm a journalist, but since the time Luck showed up at camp, he has revealed his personality and humanity, even his human fragility, in ways he's never revealed them before. He has been open about his feelings, about the long and difficult journey back from the football abyss, about how all of this has made him feel. He could have underplayed the importance of all this, been too cool for school and dismissed it as a big deal in the media's eyes only. Instead, he has been forthcoming and emotional and real.

I never disliked Luck, not at all, but I really like Luck 2.0.

Of course, you care about any of that. You care about his ability to play football at an elite level. He's not all the way back yet, but he doesn't have to be just yet. In time – maybe in the opener, maybe early in the regular season, sometime – he will return to his old form, and we will be reminded what a special quarterback he was, and will be again.

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