There have been some shocking retirements in the NFL over the years, with Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers and Calvin Johnson immediately coming to mind.
But none of them compare to what just happened with Andrew Luck, who confirmed Saturday night that he is ready to walk away from pro football at the age of 29.
“This isn’t how I envisioned this or planned this, but I’m going to retire,” Luck said at a hastily arranged news conference after Saturday night’s Colts-Bears preseason game in Indianapolis. “This is the hardest decision of my life, but it’s the right decision for me.”
Luck was one of the most highly decorated college quarterbacks in history, was the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 and carried on the legacy left behind by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, who was shown the door after a series of neck surgeries to make way for Luck.
But Luck’s own injury issues prompted his retirement. He missed the entire 2017 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. He missed most of training camp and the preseason this year because of a lower leg problem. He once suffered a lacerated kidney. And a partially torn abdomen. And torn rib cartilage.
It eventually wore on him and caused him to lose the passion for the game he had played – and dominated – for much of his life.
“I’ve been stuck in this process,” he said of the constant rehabbing from injuries. “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. It’s taken the joy out of this game. The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football.”
Credit Luck for a self-awareness that many elite athletes either don’t have or don’t want to admit. Luck is super smart, a voracious reader whose intellect is every bit as sharp as his athletic ability.
Most players grind through the inevitable injuries that football always delivers, enduring the endless hours in rehab to get ready for Sundays. Many hang on too long and don’t know when it’s time to leave until a coach taps them on the shoulder. Only a handful get to walk away on their own terms, players like former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan and former Broncos quarterback John Elway – Hall of Famers who walked off into their NFL sunsets after a Super Bowl run.
Many fans can’t understand what athletes go through, the sacrifice, the pain, the anguish, and the life-changing requirements it takes to play. But Luck, whose wife, Nicole, is expecting their first child, grew so weary of the process that he no longer loved the sport as he once did.
He didn’t want to live a lie, so he walked away.
And as he walked off the field Saturday night, with word swirling through the stadium about his retirement after ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news, some Colts fans had the audacity to boo one of the most consequential players in franchise history. A player who may not have delivered a championship, but who sacrificed his body in that quest and did everything possible to get there.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I heard the reaction,” Luck said. “It hurt. It hurt.”
It was pathetic.
Luck may one day come to regret his decision, and perhaps he’ll even think about returning to the game. Time will heal his wounds, and he may get the itch to play again. After all, he isn’t even 30, and some quarterbacks can play into their 40s.
But those who know Luck best know that he is a man of introspection, and that he does not take anything lightly. Especially when it comes to his life and his livelihood.
Luck has made nearly $100 million in his career, so he certainly doesn’t need the money. And with all the maladies that have afflicted him, he now realizes he doesn’t need the frustration of playing in pain. Of living in pain.
So, he made the gut-wrenching decision to step away. A decision that will reverberate throughout the NFL and will almost certainly ruin the Colts chances of a championship run.
But the most important thing for Luck himself: He walks away at peace.