WESTFIELD — There has never been any question about Andrew Luck's love of football. Even as something of a renaissance man – he has several outside interests that occupy his non-football-contemplating mind – he still maintains a deep affection for his athletic passion. And yet, it wasn't until this torturous 18-month layoff, a time when he actually wondered whether his career might never resume, that Luck came to understand what the sport means to him.
Yes, he said Friday, it's cliché and all that, this idea of failing to fully appreciate something or someone until it's taken away. But if you were there, talking to the Colts quarterback after the morning walkthrough, if you heard the emotional wobble in his voice, you know something is very different for Andrew Luck 2.0.
He just seems so…joyful.
And he's seemed that way since the day the Colts convened at Grand Park.
"It's just fun for me; it really is,'' he said. "I think intellectually, I used to understand when people would say `You don't really appreciate it until it's taken away from you.' Yeah, of course, it's obvious. But I don't think I've ever truly felt that about something I loved a lot – a game. And I certainly emotionally feel that now and I appreciate things just a little bit differently. I'm allowing myself to have a little more fun with it, if that makes sense, and be a little more patient and not be too judgmental toward myself or somebody else or (about) something that has happened. It's more fun and it feels a little less stressful.''
For those who wonder – and I can't move 10 steps in this city without somebody asking – Luck looks absolutely fine. There were first-day jitters, but since then, the throws have been crisp and accurate and yes, he's let it rip a few times. The better news, though, is that he's recovering more quickly from every successive practice. The fatigue and soreness are diminishing. It's all good, for now.
"I feel like I bounce back more and more each practice; it takes a little less time (to recover),'' Luck said.
Does he throw bad passes now and again? Of course he does. Especially that first practice, when his head was swimming and he wasn't quite sure what he was doing.
But even when he was healthy and at the height of his powers, he threw bad passes sometimes.
The rust is getting knocked off, and everybody can see it.
"It's (the rust) falling off fast,'' Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni said. "That's what's amazing about him because mentally, he's unbelievable. He can see it. He sees it faster than anyone I've ever been around and anyone I've ever seen. So mentally, it's like he never missed a beat. Physically, it's getting better and better every day. I can't imagine it can get much better, but I can't wait until it does. …You can see why he was the player he was at Stanford, the No. 1 pick coming out and the player he's been in the NFL because it doesn't look like this everywhere. I know that. There's not a lot of teams that can come out and practice and be like, `Man, we are just better because he's out on the field.' ''
There are still tests ahead. It's one thing to throw in practice; it's quite another when you're dealing with the possibility of getting mauled by a 310-pound defensive lineman with a bad attitude. Luck needs a lot more than practice reps; he needs to get back up to game speed, needs to integrate the throwing motion he subtly altered out in LA into an actual game situation. He will have that experience next Thursday in Seattle when he's scheduled to play most, if not all, of the first quarter in a preseason game against the Seahawks.
And then there's the first hit.
How will he respond?
"I'm sure I'll think about that (the first hit) the night before the game,'' he said.
It's been a long haul — the surgery, the rehab, the trip to the Netherlands and then Los Angeles. It wasn't going to come back completely overnight, but rest assured, for Luck, it's coming back.
"Like that first practice, I was like `Whoa, what is going on? How do you hand the ball off? Where is everybody?''' Luck said, smiling. "I left practice thinking, `I don't know what I just did out there.' The second practice, I felt like I was back into a groove, (like it was) something I do recognize. And I've gotten more and more comfortable each day.'''
He's doing more than trying to bounce back from a surgery that sent him to the sidelines for longer than anybody could have anticipated. He's also learning a new offense and a relatively new team with new coaches. And he's trying to integrate the lessons he learned in Los Angeles, where throwing experts tweaked his delivery.
If you're expecting Luck circa 2012-14 early, you might be disappointed.
But it will fully come around.
It's just a matter of when.