He had known for more than a week. Even though he has been unable to play most of the preseason because of a strange injury to his left calf and ankle, he had mustered the pain tolerance to take the field before a preseason game Aug. 17 against Cleveland and make a few practice throws. Some considered it evidence that he might return soon. But for Luck, it was closure. As he grinned and threw spirals, he was quietly letting the game go.
“I was thinking, ‘This is the last time I’ll throw the ball at Lucas Oil Stadium in a Colts uniform,’ ” he admitted.
A week later, his decision became official. Luck called it a hard decision — “the hardest of my life,” he said — but it also was a clear one. He is only 29 years old, but football has wrecked his body and stolen his joy. Over the past four years, his injuries have been brutal and relentless: shoulder sprain, torn cartilage in the ribs, partially torn abdomen, lacerated kidney, concussion, torn labrum in his right shoulder and now the calf and ankle problem that hasn’t healed.
Luck has missed a season and a half of playing time because of injuries. He awoke one morning after a game and noticed blood in his urine. He lost the entire 2017 season because of a difficult recovery from shoulder surgery. But he returned in 2018, threw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, led the Colts to the second round of the playoffs and was the NFL comeback player of the year.
He was back, and so was Indianapolis, which felt it had put together a Super Bowl-caliber roster for this season. Then another injury made Luck reassess everything.
“For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason,” Luck said Saturday night. “And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.”
The delightful thing about Luck always had been his love for the sport. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in architectural design, and he could have been great in various jobs related to engineering (maybe he still will be). He didn’t play football out of necessity or simply because he was so good at it. He didn’t use the game as a way out of a tough life. He loved it, really loved it. He geeked out on football. He learned it from his father, Oliver, a former NFL quarterback, athletic director and business executive who now serves as the CEO and commissioner of the XFL. At Stanford, Andrew Luck helped Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw turn the football program into a powerhouse and became one of the greatest NFL quarterback prospects ever.
Luck, the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft, proved worthy of the hype. He succeeded Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and took command in a manner that Aaron Rodgers, who followed Brett Favre magnificently in Green Bay, could appreciate. The Colts finished with an 11-5 record during each of Luck’s first three years and advanced to the AFC championship game in the 2014 season. Luck had a 53-33 record in 86 career starts and made four postseason appearances. He was on a Hall of Fame track. Given his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame, you figured he could play for eight to 12 more seasons.
But from the beginning, the Colts may have asked too much of him. He amassed 627 pass attempts as a rookie in 2012, an average of 39.2 per game. He was sacked 41 times that year. For his career, Luck averaged 38.3 passes per game. He came back last season and threw a career-high 639 passes. He had come from a balanced system at Stanford with an intricate running game, and while it was apparent in college that Luck was capable of directing just about any offensive system, it’s rare for a team to put so much pressure on a quarterback so early in his NFL career. He won and thrived, but eventually his body paid the price.
So now we must place Luck in his own category of ephemeral quarterbacking greatness. The NFL hasn’t seen anyone quite like him. He didn’t make it to his 30th birthday, which is three weeks away, but he still played long enough to amass 23,671 yards and 171 touchdowns. Through 86 starts, his production was on pace with some of the most prolific players in history at the position. His career feels like a flash, but it wasn’t. He was halfway to immortality.
We have seen legends leave too soon: Jim Brown, Barry Sanders. We have seen injuries and ailments cut brilliant careers short: Gale Sayers, Kenny Easley. Recently, we have seen a concerning cluster of great ones bow out shockingly: Luck joins linebacker Patrick Willis and wide receiver Calvin Johnson on a growing list. But despite advancements in brain research and the anecdotal evidence of football’s many debilitating effects, there are still 100 NFL players who plan on playing “until the wheels fall off” for every one athlete who seriously worries about the game shortening his career. And if you’re a quarterback — in a league that keeps adjusting the rules seemingly to keep quarterbacks healthy — you’re far more likely to fantasize about Tom Brady-esque longevity than to anticipate a premature ending.
Does Luck’s retirement represent a watershed moment for NFL players to be even more thoughtful about the dangers of the game? No, not necessarily. It will take about a dozen players on the level of Luck, Willis and Johnson to quit around the same time to spark a dramatic shift. Right now, we’re inching toward a moment, and perhaps Luck’s decision moves the conversation an entire foot. But currently there is no urgent desire from players to escape.
It’s a slow process to change the mentality. Nevertheless, teams would be wise to consider the situation dire. The NFL should feel desperate to improve the way it trains and cares for athletes and how it manages their workload. It also should increase the resources to help the players recover mentally from injuries. In their reactions to Luck, current and former players transition quickly from shock to understanding the physical and mental toll of grinding out a football career.
In the middle of a tweet about Luck on Saturday night, Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette said, “man y’all don’t know much we put in for this sport.”
They put in so much that one of the game’s brightest young quarterbacks walked away from perhaps $250 million in future earnings when you factor in the remaining three years of his contract and at least one more mega-extension that probably would have been worth more than $40 million per season.
“I’ve been stuck in this process,” Luck said. “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. It’s taken the joy out of this game. After 2016 when I played in pain and wasn’t regularly able to practice, I made a vow I wouldn’t go down that path again. The only way forward is to remove myself from this cycle. I came to the proverbial fork in the road and made a vow if I ever did again, I would choose me, in a sense.”
That’s not a selfish choice. After all Luck has been through, it’s understandable. And wise.