While the Mannings, the undisputed first family of Louisiana football, provide most of the celebrity wattage for their annual Manning Passing Academy high school skills camp, this year's crop of counselors could have doubled as a shortlist of Heisman Trophy candidates. But even with such high-profile signal callers as Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Florida State's E.J. Manuel in attendance, it was Stanford's Andrew Luck who drew the majority of the inevitable Manning comparisons.
It's easy to see why: At 6-4 and 235 pounds, Luck looks like Peyton and Eli's long-lost brother, at least from the neck down. Throw in beautiful mechanics, an NFL-ready arm and the distinctly Manning-esque decision to return to Stanford, and the correlation seems complete. Even Peyton Manning himself wasn't shy showering praise on last year's Heisman runner-up.
"He's a big, strong, good-looking quarterback who's going to have a great senior year and I think it's great for college football," Manning said. "It speaks a lot about his school and his passion for college football, and I hope he has a great senior year and stays healthy. When the time comes I think he'll be an excellent quarterback in the NFL for a long time."
Upon further inspection, distinct differences emerge. The first thing you notice when you talk to Andrew Luck is that, above all else, he is a Stanford kind of guy. It is a good thing, for example, that his frame is more filled out than his beard, which is trying very hard but was not among Luck’s many genetic gifts. With a broad, freckled face, and unkempt mass of curly black hair, he seems much more like the engineering student that he is than the face of an NFL franchise he will become.
"I love being able to represent the university," Luck said. "It's a little more gratifying to come to a school where we weren't successful and get some wins and recognition to show people that it can be done through some hard work. That’s not to say we don't have some good players, with guys drafted pretty regularly and a lot of guys playing in the league now. But it is nice to represent the university."
Peyton and Eli have also both been through the media ringer enough to know how to give reporters an answer without giving them an opportunity to twist their words. Luck has not developed this caution. Asked about growing his hair, Luck lets his hair down.
"I don't want to put a helmet on,” he said, laughing. A controversy-minded reporter could have decontextualized this mock vanity as some sort of Tom Brady joke, but it wasn't. It was just a college guy having a good time. While answering a question about his concerns for Stanford's upcoming season, he appeared to drop a sort of half-ironic "Seinfeld" reference, which, in case you weren't sure, is not something that Peyton or Eli (or really any NFL quarterback) commonly do.
"I'm always apprehensive before the season: How are we going to do?” Luck said. "Are we going to be good? Are we going to have enough time to put the work in that we need too? Yada yada yada.”
As for the notion that Luck has found a mentor in the Colts' four-time league MVP, this also seems to be only half true. While Luck and Manning talk, it is clear that Andrew Luck is quite capable of making the right decision for Andrew Luck.
"I don’t know if I've counseled him," Manning said. "Andrew came to the camp last year and he's back again this year. He called me this year, but really he called me to tell me that he was going to stay. I think people thought that he called me for advice. He called me and said he was going to stay, which I was very excited about."
As you may have heard, kids who go to Stanford are smart, and Luck has been sharp enough not to miss the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest to ever play the game.
"I had the opportunity to call [Peyton], so I did, obviously," Luck said. "He's been my football hero forever. I had made up my mind already but I wanted to get a little bit of advice about situations that might come up after, how to handle the upcoming season and working out and things of that nature. I couldn't ask for more, he was very generous with his time and his wisdom, so I was on Cloud 9.”
Perhaps Luck's most Manning-like off-field quality is his unfailing ability to remain humble in the face of tremendously lofty praise. While the Mannings' down-home Southern manners sometimes make their unfailing politeness seem more like a reflex, Luck comes off as extremely genuine. Asked about the Peyton comparisons he responds, laughing:
"He's the best. I don't know if I'll ever be at that level, but it's nice to hear it. It's definitely a compliment.”
When the smart-guy-from-Stanford topic comes up, with the implied message that football players at other schools aren't serious students, he sidesteps the blitz:
"There are smart guys everywhere."
When the question about being a role model comes up, he doesn't preach:
"I don’t know. If I can be a help, I’ll be a help. I don’t do the right thing all the time (laughs)."
While the Manning comparisons may not be entirely accurate, it is clear that there is a lot to like about Luck in his own, West-Coast-college-guy kind of way. When asked whether he ever let his mind wander to what life would be like if he had chosen the Cam Newton route and opted for the riches of Charlotte and the NFL over the all-night study sessions of Palo Alto, all he offers is a short friendly no. He's doing just fine.
"Coach Fulmer always used to try to get me to call these juniors and tell them to stay in school," Manning said, relating what he would have told Luck if he had asked for his advice on the matter. "I said I can't do that -- you know, Jamal Lewis and the other great juniors that Tennessee had -- every kid has to make his own decision, but I do tell kids that if you want to stay, it's okay to stay. That’s the advice that Tim Duncan, who was at Wake Forest at the time, told me. He said it's okay to stay if you want to be a senior, so I was proud of Andrew for making that decision."
While Luck is no Peyton Manning, that's okay with him. Andrew Luck, it's clear, is quite comfortable being Andrew Luck. The smart money is that that is going to be fantastic news for some, um, fortunate NFL franchise next April.