You would not have picked Luck — a Stanford-educated, neckbeard-wearing, book club-attending, Settlers Of Catan-playing quarterback — to be the NFL’s latest radical. But that is what he became Saturday night. He showed a path forward for NFL players stuck in a velvet trap, for the players who don’t walk away, who can’t quit, no matter how badly they want to.
Luck’s announcement left fans and observers feeling shock and confusion and, in a handful of deluded cases, anger. Among those who have played, the emotions more likely to circulate were respect, awe and, in more than a handful of conflicted minds, envy.
“I think most people don’t have the [guts],” former defensive end Chris Long, who retired this year after 11 seasons, said in a text message. “Lots of players fantasize about walking away. Most get walked away.”
Luck is not the first player, or even the first star, to retire early because of the NFL’s ravages. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson and, just this past winter, Rob Gronkowski exited around age 30, still among the best at their positions. Chris Borland, a budding linebacker, quit the sport in 2015 at age 24, fearful of what it could do to him.
Luck’s retirement still sets him apart because of the position he plays. Quarterbacks in the current era don’t retire early. They play forever, like 40-somethings Tom Brady and Drew Brees. When even a quarterback leaves at 29, it opens more minds and perhaps grants a certain kind of permission.
The undertone of how his peers reacted to Luck’s retirement suggests Long is on to something about how many latent, wannabe retirees reside in NFL locker rooms. No active players accused Luck of anything but making a sound decision. Luck, it seems certain, will not be the last surprise retirement.
“Thank you Andrew Luck for having the courage to do what’s best for you and your family,” six-year NFL wide receiver Cecil Shorts III wrote on Twitter. “Football is a game, it’s not who you are. Nobody knows what you personally battle better than you. You gave the game and teammates your all. It was a pleasure watching you, much love!”
“Football doesn’t care about players,” former NFL tight end Martellus Bennett tweeted. “Players are starting to realize that more and more. The game gets what it needs from you then moves on. Now that players are getting what they need from the game and moving on it’s [messing] up the ecosystem.”
The reaction to Luck’s retirement — “It’s mostly been very positive by anyone with a brain,” as Long put it — may also convince others to follow suit. Luck made a selfish decision, but that is no longer a pejorative. The way athletes’ selfish decisions are perceived has changed. There are exceptions, of course, but fans and commentators have evolved to the point where athletes are now permitted, if not encouraged, to prioritize their own health, career or personal well-being rather than the good of a team.
In the past four years, Luck suffered a macabre collection of physical trauma: lacerated kidney, torn rotator cuff, shredded rib cartilage, torn abdomen, concussion. This summer, he and his doctors could not identify the precise nature of an injury in his calf and ankle area. His life had become, as he said, a cycle of injury and rehabilitation that had robbed him of his joy for football.
Who would want a job or life like that? Luck wasn’t positive he didn’t. Retiring, he said, was the hardest decision of his life.
Players who believe life might be better without football must cross a mental gantlet. They have to defy expectations set for them, by themselves and others, for most of their lives. Most NFL players have been the biggest, fastest, most talented people since they were little boys. They dream about playing in the NFL, they have to sacrifice and work like madmen to make it there, and pretty much everybody they know and don’t know cheers them for it.
Players who walk away must forgo enormous sums of money. Even a player drafted in the late rounds stands to make $480,000 per year. The Colts, in a show of good faith, are letting Luck keep tens of millions in bonuses, but he still rejected a $12 million salary this year.
They must face scorn from the distressingly sizable portion of the fan base that, like the Hoosiers who booed Luck late Saturday night, may allow themselves to become dumb-loud in a moment they will likely regret by the time they’re driving home.
They must bid farewell to a sport, despite its hazards, they probably still love. Luck broke down Saturday night, and he made clear he felt no resentment toward the sport. Those fortunate enough to experience a harmonious locker room will be hard-pressed to find that camaraderie outside football. The experience of competing against the world’s best athletes in the cauldron of an NFL field makes an athlete feel alive in a fashion unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere. Intoxication masks pain.
They must grapple with a change of self-identity. The NFL forces them, or at least wants them, to narrowly define themselves. Many have done it since high school: Football players play football. Before an NFL player retires, he faces a question. Are you a football player or not?
Years of pain behind him, more years of pain ahead, Luck arrived at that point this summer. Football had made him rich, and for a while it made him happy. In some corners, his choice was viewed as the easy way out. But first he had to decide he was no longer a football player, and that is anything but easy. Andrew Luck took the hard way out.
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