There are two things you need to understand about Andrew Luck today. One is that he is not like other players. He is an unapologetic geek who started a book club and has never defined his self-worth by his salary or celebrity. In the weeks leading up to the 2011 Orange Bowl, when he was a junior year at Stanford, people understood that his impending NFL decision was not much of a decision at all. He loved school, his teammates, and his girlfriend. Why would he leave?
The other thing you need to understand about Andrew Luck is that he is like every other football player. A bad day at the office ends with an injury; a good day merely ends with pain. Most people who watch football every week don’t really understand the level of violence involved. Television doesn’t quite capture it. Most stadium seats, even the best ones, are too far away. We see the nastiest collisions and dirtiest hits and we wince, but if you stand on the sideline for a few plays, you realize quickly:
They are all dirty hits.
They may be legal. The technique might be proper. But if most of us got hit like that once, we would remember it for the rest of our lives — unless, of course, we didn’t remember it at all.
Now put those two things together, and ask this, about Andrew Luck: Why would he stay?
He loved school, he loved his teammates, he married his girlfriend. He didn’t need the NFL eight years ago and he doesn’t need it today. The fans in Indy booed him as he left the field Saturday night because they need him – not to survive, obviously, but probably to win the Super Bowl. (To be fair to Indy fans: they were shocked and disappointed. Give it two days and put Luck on Meridian Street, and I bet people line up to thank him.)
There was, inevitably, some chirping from fans and talking heads who think Luck quit on his team, took the easy way out, blah, blah, blah. It is telling that other players, even the best of them, understand and applaud his decision. They know the price of playing in the NFL is too high. It does not make logical sense. They just put logic aside to do it.
Most of them do the same math problem that Andrew Luck just did as he made his decision. They just plug in different numbers and get a different result. Fans would be shocked how many players are just hoping to play long enough so that they qualify for a pension, or how many lose their love of the game while they are still good enough to play it. The feeling inside an NFL locker room is not like an NBA locker room. People are physically hurting all the time. Every day of the season, on every team, somebody is wondering how much longer he can do this.
Most of them keep going anyway. They do it out of love, out of habit, out of commitment, for the money, and out of fear that they will be lost if they leave. Nobody is obligated to play football and nobody should apologize for doing it.
Luck was beaten up a lot in his first few years in the league. His front office assembled a porous offensive line, his coaching staff failed to compensate with creative scheming, and Luck (like a lot of young, unselfish quarterbacks) sometimes held onto the ball too long. Imagine a 29-year-old relative or friend who suffered these injuries on the job: a lacerated kidney, a torn labrum, torn cartilage in his ribs, a concussion, a torn abdominal muscle. You might understand if that relative or friend switched careers, right?
Still: Aaron Rodgers has been pretty thoroughly beaten up. Peyton Manning squeezed every minute of football out of his body that he possibly could, despite neck surgeries that would have ended most careers. Brett Favre was hit far more than Andrew Luck, and just as brutally, and played into his 40s.
They never seemed to lose their desire to play. Even Rodgers, as smart and worldly as he is, is completely committed to being Aaron Rodgers.
Andrew Luck is just different. For his entire adult life, Luck tried to be completely devoted to his job without being defined by it. That’s a hard trick to pull off, no matter your profession. Think of all the people who can’t let it go — no matter the age, no matter what they do. Luck is comfortable with who he is. We should not ask him to be who he is not.