What Andrew Luck’s Retirement Says About the NFL

August 26, 2019

Saturday evening, during a slate of otherwise forgettable NFL preseason games, word began circulating that Andrew Luck, the Pro Bowl quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, was retiring, just two weeks ahead of the 2019 regular season. The news came as a shock. Luck had a history of injuries: Most recently, he missed the 2017 campaign following complications from shoulder surgery, and after returning last year, he had been held out of this year’s preseason because of calf and ankle issues. But he was just 29 years old in a league where top quarterbacks can now aim to play into their 40s. When healthy, he was one of the NFL’s most valuable players, and last season was one of his best; he threw for 39 touchdowns and a career-high 4,593 yards for a Colts team that reached the playoffs and seemed poised to reestablish itself as a title contender. He was a true franchise quarterback, perhaps the most envied status in American pro sports.

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The news of his retirement broke during the Colts’ game against the Chicago Bears, and after walking off the sideline to a chorus of boos, Luck held a press conference explaining his decision. “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” he said, referring to both the pain of his injuries and the degree of dedication required to recover from them. “It’s taken the joy out of this game.”

 

The past half decade has seen a number of NFL players quit the sport earlier than expected because of concerns about long-term health. In March, at the age of 29, the Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski joined the lengthening list. But if Luck’s decision is one data point in a developing pattern, it’s a particularly harrowing one. Throughout his career, Luck had a poster-boy aspect: smart and tough, skilled enough to unlock a defense, and courageous enough to battle back from the damage the game would inflict on him. He had been the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, then its leader in passing touchdowns, then its comeback player of the year, a kind of unofficial ambassador figuring heavily in pregame shows and TV promos. Now he is the latest and most startling example of the toll the sport exacts—and of the willingness of some players to walk away from it.

On the field, Luck lacked nothing but health. He had a talent for understanding the weak points in opposing defenses, a knack he credited in part to his architecture studies at Stanford. He was an accurate passer, a bold and burly runner, and a well-respected leader, and he loved the game enough to compliment opponents on their hits against him. After inheriting the Colts’ starting job from Peyton Manning—as daunting a task as a quarterback is likely to find—he set about making his own mark on the franchise. His 4,374 passing yards in his first season remain an NFL rookie record, and Indianapolis won 53 of the 86 games he started in six seasons, reaching the playoffs four times. Luck’s defining moment came in January 2014, when he led the Colts back from a 28-point deficit against the Kansas City Chiefs, the second-largest postseason comeback ever. One late touchdown came when he recovered a fumble and dove headfirst into the end zone, another when he found the receiver T. Y. Hilton with a 64-yard strike.

Owing to a combination of his physical style of play and plain misfortune, though, Luck was beset by injury. His ailments included a lacerated kidney, torn rib cartilage, and a concussion. “After 2016, where I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice [because of a shoulder injury], I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again,” Luck said this weekend. The leg injury that hampered him this summer—which was reported, at various times, to center on his calf, ankle, or, in the words of the Colts owner Jim Irsay, a “small little bone”—suggested a similarly murky road to recovery.

Luck’s retirement demonstrates the extent to which football and bodily harm remain inseparable, even as the NFL espouses its commitment to player safety. The quarterback is often the safest player on the field, with amended league rules protecting him from the hits receivers or linemen incur throughout the game, but no amount of helmet technology or rulebook tinkering can change the basic fact of one world-class athlete bringing another swiftly to the ground. Saturday night, Luck seemed to face what players have to try to forget in order to do their jobs: that pain is not incidental, but central to the game. “The only way forward for me,” he said, “is to remove myself from football.”

The jeering from some Indianapolis fans as Luck left the field Saturday night was soon echoed by predictably macho perspectives from sports commentators, but Luck’s fellow players voiced their support of his decision. “I think it takes an immense amount of courage, an immense amount of self-reflection, and a lot of guts to do what he’s doing,” the Houston Texans defensive lineman J. J. Watt said, adding, “Nobody has had to go through what he has had to go through. Nobody has been through the rehab and injuries.”

“We’re looked at as superheroes and not human beings,” said the quarterback Robert Griffin III, who won the 2012 Rookie of the Year award over Luck, on Sunday. “For him to have that human element, to express it in the press conference after the game, go and talk to the media and answer questions, I thought that was really big.” The Colts, for their part, have elected not to askLuck to pay back the signing bonuses they might have recouped.

The sentiments expressed by Luck’s peers, along with the recent string of early NFL retirees, suggest a generation of players more cognizant than ever of the trade-off required to play professional football. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” the linebacker Chris Borland said when he retired in 2015 after just one NFL season because of concerns about head injuries, a move less shocking than Luck’s only because of his relative anonymity. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

In many ways, Luck’s retirement also reflects the crisis of conscience experienced by individual fans—and the sports culture at large—over football. The son of a former quarterback and football executive, he grew up in the game, and on the field and sideline he could be as giddily enthusiastic as any diehard. But on Saturday night, his face showed different emotions. There was sadness, but also relief. “It’s the hardest decision of my life,” Luck said. “But it is the right decision for me.”

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