This story appears in the Sept. 9, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
An audience a few hundred filled the Egyptian Room of Indianapolis’s Old National Centre. It was May 2018, and renowned contemporary author John Green was appearing on a local NPR affiliate’s book podcast.
Green, lanky and bespectacled, clad in blazer and jeans, looked every bit the part of an author as he took the stage and settled into his red velvet tub chair. He has written best sellers The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, and the host prodded him over character development and the “act of observing, not participating in language.” But Green was primarily there to discuss his newest work, Turtles All the Way Down, a recent addition to the show’s book club. It’s a story about a young girl named Aza Holmes, who suffers from crippling anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her mind would pin her into dark places and persuade her to keep prying open a wound on her hand.
The host related Aza to his own life. “Through my injury and process over the last two or three years, I felt a little bit of the same anxiety and stress,” he said. “You mentioned pain, and that was interesting. For me, it’s very difficult to communicate pain to anyone else.” With that, the show’s host, Andrew Luck, moved on to the next topic.
That was just a few months before Luck, after missing the entirety of the 2017 season while recovering from surgery on his throwing shoulder, returned to the field. He rallied the Colts to the playoffs despite a 1–5 start, then earned Comeback Player of the Year honors. It was all thought to be a prelude to the second act of his career, in which he would claim the Super Bowl wins and MVP trophies expected of him when the Colts drafted him No. 1 seven years ago.
Instead, on Aug. 24, 19 days shy of his 30th birthday and 15 months after the night he shared the stage with Green, Luck announced his retirement in a stunning, impromptu press conference following a preseason game. An ad nauseam cycle of injuries—among the many there were the shoulder, a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle that he played through in 2015, a concussion in ’16 and, most recently, a left calf injury this summer—and recovery had become too much, he said. He wanted to exit football with his love for the game still intact.
Those who criticize Luck’s decision don’t believe he could have truly appreciated his teammates and the game as much as he had professed. Yet for years he also told interviewers that the sport wouldn’t define him, that he would be fine teaching history or using his architecture degree from Stanford. This is where he has now arrived. People who have crossed Luck’s path outside football describe a man who genuinely loves to try everything, which is what makes him capable of doing anything.
Twelve years ago, Luck, the star quarterback at Houston’s Stratford High, rolled into the classroom the Monday after a gutting early-October loss. The AP Literature teacher watched as the senior sat down, opened a notebook and began to write.
Then 30, Nathaniel Nakadate was in his second year at Stratford; before arriving in Texas he had been writing adventure pieces for a few high-profile surfing magazines. But he was fairly certain the platitudes about Texans and football—that they embraced it with near-religious zeal—were true. He knew for a fact that the quarterback was going places, and that a loss like this might linger.
“Tough weekend?” he asked.
“No, it was a good one,” Luck said. “We lost, and it’s just a reminder of things we can work on and pull together.” Even when he was a teenager, Luck’s perspective about football relative to the rest of the world was something that surprised the adults in his life.
In Nakadate’s class, which Luck asked to transfer into, he would disappear fully into an eclectic curriculum. They read African-American feminist literature. Devoured Kate Chopin. They laughed about the strange twists in Jane Eyre (Don’t mind that I’ve got a crazy woman chained in the attic or that I’ve been burned in a fire—let’s get together, Jane!) and broke down the absurdist flare of Tobias Wolff’s short story Hunters in the Snow (in which three friends go out hunting, one of them shoots another and while the injured friend bleeds out in the back of a truck in the cold, the other two stop at a series of taverns and diners to discuss their personal battles with monogamy and gluttony).
Luck would come to Nakadate for help writing college essays, something that still makes Nakadate laugh. Then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh was literally prowling the halls—really, every college coach in the country was prepared to grovel for Luck’s services. But Luck handed his teacher a piece of paper and said, “This one is for Stanford. It has to be perfect.”
“I have missed that kid and been proud of him since the day he left here,” Nakadate says, “but it has nothing to do with sports, and everything to do with the beautiful human he is.”
The two kept in touch lightly over the years—maybe a note here or there. Sometimes Nakadate would flip on a radio during one of his adventures, a fly-fishing trip for instance, and catch one of Luck’s games for the Cardinal. But as time went by, and as all the adulation grew exponentially for Luck, Nakadate was still seeing the same kid who had once been laughing in his classroom.
“He has the wisdom of knowing we have to follow our hearts in this life, and that we ultimately owe it to ourselves to keep on moving down the path to chase new dreams, no matter what the rest of the world thinks,” Nakadate says. “This is our one and only shot at life, and we need to go all in.”
Mark Miles looked down at the table of dinner guests and took in the chatter. There was Alexander Rossi, the winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500. There was star driver Tony Kanaan and his wife, Lauren. And next to them was Luck and his wife, Nicole.
Miles, the CEO of IndyCar, said he never remembered football coming up that evening. Luck was grilling Rossi and the Brazilian-born Kanaan on the intricacies of their life behind the wheel, down to the different nuances of various tracks on the circuit.
“And here, I was worried it was going to be a dull evening,” Miles says, looking back.
By now this had become a familiar sight for Miles, who often welcomed Luck to the raceway during the Indy 500. Luck would ride his bike to the track, then make his way to the second floor of the Pagoda suites, which are above the final straightaway and house the speedway’s timing and scoring operation. At any given point during a race, more than 80 million data points are being transferred there, and, perhaps most critically, the suites are isolated. Luck just wanted to be able to observe the noise, the buzzing engines and the frantic pit stops.
Luck would download the live racing app and take in the movement of the cars. He would ask Miles an endless string of questions, trying to understand the flow and rhythm of the race.
He never needed to force football into a conversation or activity and was happy to spend time with anyone or anything he found stimulating. That, or use his elevated platform to share his passions with others.
There were the visits to Riley Hospital for Children, so many of them unannounced. To the children’s museum. To breweries and artisanal restaurants named after Kurt Vonnegut books. For someone who values his solitude, he weaved in and out of the scene like some hybrid of Cosmo Kramer and Michel Foucault.
His personal book club took on a life of its own, with approximately 70 title recommendations over the course of three years—half for adults and half for children—and the podcast for the local NPR affiliate. When the radio partnership launched in 2017, the station had an intimate gathering in their offices for a handful of kids and parents who got to meet Luck and ask him questions. The next day, letters poured into WFYI, like the one from nine-year-old Lyle Patten’s mom, Rachel, who said that her son came home ready to dive into A Wrinkle in Time. “It helped so much with his self-confidence and continuing to build wonderful character traits,” she said. Or the one from a member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, who said that thanks to Luck, his mentee started reading Hatchet. Now the two of them had something to talk about.
If at any point during his ascent as an NFL quarterback, Luck began to question the hazards of the sport that got him there and the attention that accompanied it, it rarely surfaced publicly. Everyone in Indy had a story about the time Luck stayed out in the heat signing autographs or popped up from his secluded dinner table to take pictures or hung out after a commercial shoot to ask the kids what they were reading in school.
Says Miles, “There isn’t a shallow bone in his body.”
When former Colts tackle Joe Reitz heard Luck was retiring, he double-checked his phone to make sure the Twitter account of ESPN reporter Adam Schefter, who broke the story late on an otherwise quiet Saturday night, had not been hacked.
Reitz spent five seasons protecting Luck and becoming one of his closest friends. To everyone in the Colts’ locker room, there was no gap between off-field Andrew and football Andrew, as might be expected. He could talk to architects about building and Czech people about the history of the republic, then take charge of the huddle and convince every one of his teammates that they were going to win.
“His fire,” says Reitz, who retired after the 2016 season. “I mean, sometimes it can get lost when you’re talking about how good of a person he is off the field. Just the type of crazy, intense, cut-your-heart-out fire. That was him. And it was awesome to share those moments in the huddle, down 14, down 17, and he’s got this look in his eye. In the  playoffs against Kansas City, we were down 28 points in the third quarter and he’s just got this twinkle. You just knew something special was going to happen.”
The quarterback energized a team that had bottomed out after the neck injury and subsequent departure of Peyton Manning. In Luck’s rookie season, 2012, the Colts improved by nine wins, going 11–5, all while donning T-shirts that said colts 32, a reference to their most frequent position on preseason NFL power rankings.
Luck strung together moments of brilliance with a blend of talent and humility. He would get sacked and not only congratulate the defensive player who did it but also apologize to the offensive linemen who surrendered it. “My bad,” Luck would say. “I should have gotten rid of the ball quicker.”
Around the facility Reitz noticed that by the end of Luck’s rookie season, he had learned the names of every staffer, cook and trainer. He learned that Reitz, a passionate native Hoosier, loved Indiana-based trivia. After getting destroyed by Reitz during their early days together, Luck would eventually start stumping him on questions about pawpaw fruit or persimmon pie.
After Luck’s farewell speech, Reitz says he thought about how much he’d like his two sons to be like Andrew, to have a deep understanding and appreciation of the world, to have the courage and conviction to do what you feel is right. “I’m so happy for him,” Reitz says. “Just having peace.”
John Barton, Luck’s adviser in the architecture department at Stanford, says that if Luck wanted to jump right back into the world of building design, it would be “no problem” for him. Green jokes that if Luck decides to write a memoir, it could end up being the 21st-century version of Ball Four, the seminal nonfiction book by former major league pitcher Jim Bouton. He’ll become a father soon—in June, news broke that he and Nicole are expecting.
His football career is over, which means, for now, people are speaking about Luck in terms of an ending. But his retirement is also about what he was doing all along, and about the many things outside of throwing a football that ultimately matter. Football is over, but as Green says, “With Andrew, I wouldn’t put anything in the past tense.”
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