The most stunning retirement in NFL history took place on the kind of night that usually warms the football world to all it loves about America’s game. The third week of the preseason providing a real glimpse of the opener to come. Major college football debuting in prime time, resplendent in all of its excessive, self-perpetuating noise. A hint of fall weather cracking the summer haze.
On that night, Andrew Luck, one of the greatest quarterback prospects of the last decade, a player who made the Pro Bowl in four of his first six seasons, the fulcrum of one of the most upwardly trending teams in football, walked away at the age of 29. He quit a little more than two weeks before the Colts’ first game of the season. Reporters on hand described him on the sidelines of a preseason game against the Chicago Bears as the news broke, just quietly talking to teammates as if the pomp and hysteria had no remaining draw on him whatsoever.
He choked up during an impromptu press conference afterward, and finally told the truth about a spider web of issues accumulating in his body.
“Right now,” he said, “my journey just doesn’t include football moving forward.”
He was asked about the inevitable what if—what if you finally feel better? What if one day the ankle and the shoulder and all the other bruises heal?—and shut the door. “Very clearly” in his mind, the future won’t include football.
“I have so much clarity about my next steps moving forward,” he said.
More than Barry Sanders, more than Calvin Johnson, more than Jim Brown, more than Ricky Williams, more than Patrick Willis, more than Chris Borland, this decision will shake the league to its core. It will arm the red meaters who claim this generation is just too soft. It will embolden the football is evil crowd, who applaud the fact that our nation’s best and brightest athletes are starting to defect from a sport that started as a simulation war game during times of peace. It will enrage football’s lower class, all who probably wish they were as well off as Luck, and that they had the choice to walk away before the game took something serious from them, too. Chances are, Luck is not going to want to be a symbol or an idea hoisted above the sport that made him famous. His demeanor on Saturday night was that of a man looking forward to just disappearing for a while. He may not have a choice.
He talked about "myriad issues." Luck was catastrophically mismanaged early in his career, even if he continued to put a positive spin on it through his final moments. Desperation caused the adults in the room to shove him through pain for the greater good. A labrum tear in his throwing shoulder. A Grade 3 tear in his abdomen. A Grade One concussion. A slice in his kidney. Blood when he peed. This summer was a calf, then an ankle. More rehab. More repetitive recovery movements. More time for the gravity of life and football to set in.
You could argue that, when you’re as smart as Luck is, coming into work every day to get violently throttled, ultimately for the financial and social benefit of some panel of emotionless plutocrats tearing their way through American decency, might have lost its luster. Missing the 2017 season in its entirety gave him a chance to see the buffalo herd from afar, and there’s a good chance it didn’t look appealing anymore—especially for someone with a degree from Stanford and a few million dollars in his pocket. During his time at the podium, he said he didn’t want to leave “resentful” of the game. This was his chance to get away with love in his heart.
He was always wired differently. Video games and craft beer. Books—tons and tons of books. The kind of ideology that seemed to rage against football’s military-industrial complex, but an outward personality that pleased all the gatekeepers. Maybe we should have seen this coming. So many interviews always included that buzz word—perspective—the knowledge that none of this really matters at the end of the day with a wife that loves you. Inner peace.
An excerpt from an Indianapolis Star story in June:
Perfect example: He exited the locker room that night in K.C., fresh off that one-sided, 31-13 loss, with a beaming smile across his face. His fiancée, and now-wife Nicole, was there waiting for him. They hugged and walked out arm-in-arm. In that moment, you’d never know his team had lost by 18 points.
“I remember being very sad, it was bad day, I played very poorly,” Luck said Tuesday. “(But) something I learned last year, that if my worth as a human was going to be tied into how I did—the result of a performance in a football game—then I was going to have, pardon my French, a real (expletive) life. I learned that from my shoulder saga, through the year.”
An excerpt from a Sports Illustrated story in July:
Do you think 10 years from now you’ll view your shoulder surgery as a blessing in disguise?
“I’ll say it right now—I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Luck said. “Absolutely. It forced me to reevaluate many, many things in my life. And the result has been … yeah, really positive. And I shudder to think of not having that. I don’t think I’m married if that had not happened. I think I eff that up. I truly do. I truly do.”
It’s jarring, the moment anyone in any career stares down the lifecycle; a glimpse at what you provide the machine and what the machine really provides you. How many of us could realize that all the pomp, the noise and the deification was merely a small and fleeting slice of life? How many of us could dissect the dopamine hit that powers some of the most outsized egos that walk the planet?
How many of us could just walk away?