Sept. 2, 2011
by Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. --Contrary to popular belief, Andrew Luck's most memorable athletic play wasn't running over Cal defensive back Sean Cattouse during a scramble last year or pummeling USC defender Shareece Wright after a fumble recovery.
Flash back to 2007, when Luck, a senior at Stratford High in Houston Texas was playing basketball against cross-town rival Michael Thomas of Nimitz High. Thomas, now a hard-hitting senior free safety at Stanford, was cruising to the hoop for what he thought was a routine fast break lay-up to cap a decisive win when Luck appeared out of nowhere to swat away his shot.
"I should have just run out the clock," Thomas recalled this week. "But I tried to get greedy and he blocked it into the second row. It was funny. As soon as he blocked it, he started smiling."
Said Luck, "It may have been my shining athletic moment."
Both competed in football and basketball and were standout quarterbacks. In three varsity seasons, the versatile Luck threw for 7,139 yards and 53 touchdowns while competing 59 percent of his throws, and also ran for 2,000 yards and was ranked the No. 4 quarterback in the nation by Scout.com. Meanwhile, the scrambling Thomas amassed 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior and 548 yards and three scores as a senior, and was ranked the 43rd best running back in the nation by Scout.com.
Their official first meeting came at a University of Texas Football Camp prior to their junior year.
"He was throwing passes to me," Thomas said. "That's when we first got to talking. I was thinking, `Hey man, this guy seems pretty cool.' "
Luck was equally impressed. He remembers watching game-film of Thomas before Stratford played Nimitz.
"He was a quarterback, but played a little defense, too," said Luck. "We would watch a little film on their defense before we played them and our coaches were like, `Hey, check this film out.' So we'd watch the offense and see how fast he was. And we would go like, `Oh my God,' "
By senior year, Luck had accepted a football scholarship to Stanford and Thomas was weighing his options.
"I was also being recruited by Stanford and we talked at a basketball game," Thomas said. "I was just thinking, `Wow, this guy is a great football player.' Just meeting him those couple times I thought, `He seems different. I saw something in him right then. He's going to school for all the same reasons I'm going to school.' It seemed like a perfect fit. I thought we had a good chance to be successful."
Fast forward to 2010, when Luck and Thomas helped lead Stanford to a school-best 12-1 record capped by a dominating 40-12 win against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Both had stellar seasons, Luck passing for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 500 more while earning Pac-10 Conference Offensive Player of the Year, and was runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The seemingly always smiling and chatty Thomas was the team's third-leading tackler with 61 stops - 43 solo - and was an honorable mention All-Pac 10 selection. He also recorded an interception, forced three fumbles and recovered a fumble. Against UCLA, he was all over the field, finishing with five tackles, two forced fumbles and returned a fumble 21 yards for a touchdown.
Last week, The Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football and head coach David Shaw announced that Luck and Thomas had been elected co-captains by their teammates for the 2011 season, which starts Saturday against San Jose State. A fitting tribute for the Houston natives, who believe so much in each other.
"It's crazy," said Thomas. "I mean, you have high expectations for yourself when you're coming in, but to actually be in this situation, it's just an honor and a blessing."
"It's an amazing honor," said Luck, a redshirt junior who has already announced he will skip his senior season. "Any time you're recognized by a vote of your teammates, it means more than anything else. I'm excited and humbled by it."
Don't expect either player to change. Though both take their roles very seriously, they know actions speak louder than words.
"I'm not going to give a million speeches a day now," Luck said. "I'll still do the same things I've always done and I think the guys know that. I don't think it will change anything except that now I'll walk out for the coin toss before games instead of throwing on the sideline."
Added Thomas, "Being captain of the defense and co-captain of the team - it comes with responsibility. You can ask a lot of guys, I'm pretty vocal - probably more vocal than I should be at times. If something needs to be said, I'll say it. I was talking to Andrew and he feels the same way."
Admittedly, Thomas was a little concerned when he first received the good news.
"After having a conversation with (teammate) Johnson Bademosi, I was very nervous thinking about all the things I might have to do," said Thomas. "But he set me aside and said, `Mike, you don't have to do anything more than you've already been doing. That's why we appointed you captain. When you have to step up and say something, you'll feel it.' ''
Thomas still marvels at what Luck has accomplished and respects him even more off the field.
"Just his worth ethic and everything he does," Thomas said. "He's competitive in the classroom, too.
"We're all proud of him and want to play for him because he works so hard. He's not big-headed and thinks everything comes to him. Every time he goes to make those extra throws after practice he invites the DBs to come and get beat. And so we go out there and accept that challenge. I love playing against him because he only makes us better."
The feeling is definitely mutual.
Mark Soltau has been writing about amateur and professional sports for 34 years. The Palo Alto native spent 16 years at the San Francisco Examiner covering Stanford Athletics, the 49ers and golf, earning many national writing awards. In 1997, Soltau became a Bay Area columnist and national golf writer for CBS Sportsline and was also named editor of Tigerwoods.com. In 2002, he joined Golf Digest as a Contributing Editor and has covered 70 major championships.