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Andrew Luck inspiring Colts, children to read through book club

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INDIANAPOLIS -- We do not know much, for now, about Andrew Luck's recovery from shoulder surgery. He is regaining strength and his throwing motion. He isn't practicing yet. The Indianapolis Colts do not think he will start the regular season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but nobody is willing to commit to him playing in the regular-season opener, either.

We have much better insight into how the quarterback spent the last few months when he wasn't rehabbing one of the NFL's most important arms: reading about Lewis and Clark and westward expansion ... and the interior life of an octopus ... and a fictitious Greek worker's lust for life.

Luck is what would result if your favorite English teacher turned out to also be a stupendous athlete, if Albus Dumbledore happened to be a Quidditch icon.

Almost as soon as he arrived in the NFL, teammates noted that Luck often carried a book with him along with his playbook -- former Colts running back Vick Ballard remembers that Luck once had a book on the history of concrete. Luck chatted about what he was reading and occasionally handed off his favorite tomes. Early in his rookie season, Luck told a reporter he had just signed up for New York Times home delivery. Luck was teased about all of this in the locker room, because everything is fodder there. But as an enthusiastic reader since childhood, Luck continues to put his zeal for the written word on display -- he even admits to having a deep knowledge of international gymnastics gossip, because he picks up the gymnastics magazine his girlfriend, a gymnast herself, receives.

That is why Luck, while remaining tight-lipped about his recovery and hewing to the team's boilerplate answer that he is on schedule and experiencing no setbacks, was happy to spend more than a half-hour during training camp in Indianapolis excitedly talking about the Andrew Luck Book Club, which recently celebrated its first anniversary.

"You learn a lot of lessons," Luck said. "Books allow you to live another life and put yourself in another person's shoes. I don't know what it's like to grow up as XYZ, but you read a book and maybe you feel just a little sliver of growing up a different person in a different place.

"I think the value of reading is so important, and why not share that value? The whole point is to encourage someone to read who would otherwise not have picked up a book."

So don't expect Luck to make one of his monthly selections for adults (each month features a "veteran book" for adults and a "rookie book" for children) "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values," a 1974 fictionalized autobiography that is considered a modern classic on popular philosophy. Luck has never been able to get through it, and has set it aside.

"I might take a stab at it again at some point," he said. "Probably not."

Luck credits his parents for his love of reading. The book club was an idea he talked about with his mom, Kathy, and girlfriend, Nicole, and a few friends for a couple of years, and he was determined that if he put his name to any project, it would center around reading.

When Luck first arrived from Stanford as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, he shunned most endorsement opportunities and non-football endeavors. Luck's father, Oliver, a former NFL quarterback who is now an NCAA executive, had counseled his son to limit off-field pursuits for his first few years as a pro, so he could focus on the game. When the book club was finally launched last year, the intent was to let it grow organically -- one of Luck's preferred words.

This is a decidedly personal and low-tech operation. Luck has a few people who help with the social media part of managing an online book club that is open to children and adults alike (there is a Facebook page and Twitter feed). He has read to classrooms and at libraries. And he recently began recording a monthly podcast -- mostly conversations with authors, including children's writer T.A. Barron, the author of the Merlin Saga, the first book of which was one of the past monthly selections -- that also airs on WFYI, Indianapolis's National Public Radio member station.

But the books are all him, and the vetting process is nothing more elaborate than a friend or family member recommending a book or Luck picking up something he's been meaning to get to.

"I pick the books -- someone else does not pick them for me," Luck said. "I want to keep it honest."

Luck's own favorite genre is historical fiction. His favorite author? Bernard Cornwell. Luck has been reading Cornwell, who is best known for novels based on the Napoleonic Wars, since high school. So far, none of Cornwell's books has made the book club.

And Luck still occasionally picks up a volume from the "Adventures of Tintin," the series of comic albums created by a Belgian cartoonist that features a young reporter and adventurer.

"I loooove the 'Adventures of Tintin,' " Luck said. "I'm not embarrassed to say that."

In a 30-second introductory video posted on AndrewLuckBookClub.com around the first of the month, Luck somewhat giddily explains the appeal of his choices. ("He is so exuberant," said Michelle Hine, whose second-grade class at McClelland Elementary in Indianapolis read "Zen Shorts," a past children's selection. "I really couldn't introduce the book any better than he does on those videos.") The children's books are usually those Luck and his siblings read themselves as kids -- "Black Beauty," "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "Little House on the Prairie" were past choices. "Wonder" is the August pick. He told one class that "Maniac Magee" was his own favorite children's book.

"That may be the most fun part, picking up books you read as a kid," Luck said. "Whoa, this is the exact same as I remember it or Whoa, I see a very different perspective. There's things that hit you -- children's books are a little heavy."

The books for adults are more eclectic and provide a window into Luck's wide range of interests. "Zorba the Greek," the August pick, was the selection because a former teammate who is of Greek ancestry talked about it so much. Luck has had historian Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West" on his nightstand for a few months since a former Stanford teammate, who is descended from a member of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, gave it to him. "Dune," a science fiction classic, is a favorite of Colts punter Jeff Locke, who frequently talks about books with Luck.

There are a few unmistakable characteristics of the book club. The list is noticeably not sports-centric. Only Phil Knight's memoir, "Shoe Dog," ("For such a private person to write about himself must be tough," Luck said) and "The Boys in the Boat," the story of an American crew team competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, touch on sports. Luck, though, said he will read Bruce Arians' new book, has already read Colts coach Chuck Pagano's book and remembers reading Peyton Manning's biography when he was a kid. He loved "Junction Boys," the famed chronicle of one of Bear Bryant's training camps at Texas A&M, and the moral dilemmas resolved in the Chip Hilton series of sports novels for adolescents.

And Luck is not much for light reading. His favorite book -- ever -- is "Papillon," a book club selection that is the autobiography of a man wrongly convicted of murder who served time in a French penal colony before finally escaping. ("I just really like the story -- I don't care if it's true or not," he said of the tale that has been suspected of embellishment.) And one of Luck's recent choices was "Hillbilly Elegy," the blockbuster memoir and examination of the decline of the white working class, particularly in Appalachia, that is frequently cited as a good explainer for the 2016 presidential election. (Its author, J.D. Vance, is on Luck's wish list for the podcast, although Luck shrugs at his inability to land him: "He's in demand.")

The books are uniformly challenging. Whatever preconceived notions exist about the intellectual capabilities of professional athletes, this book club will not reinforce them.

"He is not a normal human being," said Locke, who said he reads 15 books per season, because he has two or three hours each day at work when his primary goal is to get off his feet and rest, while most of his teammates are in meetings.

Luck has nowhere near as much time in the fall to commit to the book club, so, for the first time, he's working his Rolodex to recruit guest editors to keep it up and running during the regular season. Luck says the demands of game preparation limit his in-season reading to only one or two books. Still, he keeps books on his nightstand, purposely choosing something dense or something he has already read, so that he won't be tempted to stay up late reading.

"I still do try to read, 5 to 10 minutes a night before going to bed," he said. "It slows me down. I know some people, it wakes them up, but for me, it gets me off of football generally."

Because there is no formal membership, Luck has no idea how many people are following his book club. Luck has no designs on seizing Oprah's mantle as a publishing kingmaker -- he's happy if he can encourage kids to read -- but since Luck began the club, Indianapolis-area librarians have called the Colts to ask for advance notice of the selections so they can order extra copies. Ballard -- to whom Luck gave "Unbroken," about the trials and triumphs of Olympian Louis Zamperini, to help Ballard through the season-ending knee injury he suffered in 2013 -- follows the club on Twitter and has become an avid reader, blowing through 20 books so far this year as he prepares to return to college. And Luck has visited schools, in person and via Skype, to talk with classes that have read some of the books.

Those have had an impact. Hine, the Indianapolis teacher, said after her class read "Zen Shorts," she saw a boy who was not an enthusiastic reader check the book out of the school library. He explained that he was going to read the book to his mom, the way Luck had read to the class.

Last school year, Luck Skyped with a class of fifth graders from Carlisle Elementary School, in the southwest part of Indiana. Their teacher, Katie Akers, had her class read "Number the Stars," one of Luck's choices for children, which is a historical novel about the escape of a Jewish family from Nazi-occupied Copenhagen during World War II. The kids liked the book so much that when the school had its book sale, Akers noticed they were searching for similar books about escaping from Nazis and World War II.

Carlisle is a rural and largely poor area, and Akers said children often don't receive much encouragement to read outside of school. When Luck spoke to them, he talked about how books can transport you to different places.

"To see somebody like Andrew reading and enjoying it, that's a huge deal," Akers said. "Really, it's the male figure that is so great. They don't see men read. Most of the teachers are women, so they see that. They don't get that at home. That's a huge part, too -- he's a big, strong man. It's not just nerds who read; NFL stars read, too. Everybody does. Coming from a poor, rural area, some kids never leave here. If you would read, you could leave here in your mind and then maybe you'll want to go to these places when you're grown up."

With the season about to begin, Luck is close to turning over his club to the guest editors for a few months. Luck hasn't read any self-motivation books, although considering how anxious he is to get back on the field following surgery, he presumably doesn't need them. Luck said he'll probably think about ways to improve the book club after the season.

One selection that will not be coming to the book club: anything written by Luck himself.

"No, no, no -- I'm not very good," Luck said. "I'm an architecture major. We didn't have to write that much."

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