John Feinstein is a Post contributor and the author of “Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports.”
Like most people, I was surprised when I heard the news Saturday that Andrew Luck had decided to retire from the NFL a few weeks shy of turning 30 — walking away from almost $60 million he was due to be paid by the Indianapolis Colts over the next three seasons.
Surprised — yes, but shocked? No. Having spent a good deal of time with Luck two seasons ago while researching a book on playing quarterback in the NFL, I knew that Luck isn’t like most athletes. He loved playing the game and played it extremely well. But he doesn’t need to play the game.
In 40 years as a reporter, I can’t begin to count the number of athletes I’ve asked what they plan on doing when their playing days are over. Most of the time the answers are remarkably similar: coach, get a job in TV or radio, or become a scout leading to a job as a general manager.
When I asked Luck the routine question in March 2018, he smiled almost sheepishly. “Honestly,” he said, “I think I could be very happy teaching high school history.”
That is an answer I’d never gotten before — or since.
When I first sat down with Luck before the start of the 2017 season, he was recovering from shoulder surgery. He had spent the entire 2016 season in considerable pain but played well. When he got to the point where he couldn’t pull open a door without feeling pain, he knew he had to have surgery. He expected to be ready for training camp because that’s what the doctors had told him in January.
He ended up missing the entire season. And it was a terrible experience.
He talked about how guilty he felt standing on the sideline, helpless to keep his team from losing; about how depressed he became when every time he thought he was making progress, the pain would return; about how he had to flee to Europe for two months to rehab there because being under the media microscope in Indianapolis was impossible as weeks passed with no sign of improvement.
“I love being a football player,” he said to me after he’d finally started to feel better. “But it isn’t my identity, never has been. I love being around my teammates, being part of a team and competing. But I had to make peace with the idea that I might NOT come back before I could make progress toward coming back. That was the hardest part.”
Luck returned last season to lead a team that had won four games without him in 2017 to 11 wins and a spot in the second round of the playoffs. He was voted the league’s comeback player of the year. No one can say he didn’t give the team everything he had. And it’s worth remembering that he could have spent the season on injured reserve and been paid the $9.1 million he was due this fall.
It’s no mere coincidence that no active NFL player has criticized or questioned his decision. Those who do don’t understand how painful it is to play football at the highest level. I’m not talking about injuries, I’m talking about just playing. If you have ever stood on an NFL sideline and watched the way huge men hit one another, it is amazing that anyone ever gets up, even after a routine play.
Those who booed Luck on Saturday or have criticized him can’t understand this. It doesn’t look that painful from a distance. There is something of a Roman Colosseum feel to football: If one gladiator falls, cart him off and bring on the next one. Because NFL players are paid so well, many fans feel they are owed a willingness to sacrifice body and soul.
To call Luck’s decision a trend is going too far. Many — if not most — players will be dragged (or carted) off the field still wanting to play the game. But since the discovery of what football can do to the brain; since more and more former players have come forward to describe the painful lives they now lead, there has been a noticeable and steady drop in high school participation, and more players are retiring young. They have made a lot of money, and they want to walk away with their minds and bodies intact.
Luck said Saturday that all the injuries he’s had the past four years — the latest being a lingering ankle and calf problem — took the joy out of football for him. If there’s no joy in doing something that hurts all the time, there’s no reason to go on.
And, I suspect, if he decides to teach high school history, he’ll be great at it.