Sports

What Andrew Luck’s Retirement Means

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) drops back to pass against the Houston Texans in the first quarter in a AFC Wild Card playoff football game at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, January 5, 2019. (Thomas B. Shea/USA TODAY Sports)
Don’t rage at him, Indianapolis fans. Appreciate the thrills that he gave you.

There are bigger problems in the world at the moment — tensions in Kashmir, Uyghurs in concentration camps, a potential Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong — but for a whole bunch of people in the state of Indiana, Saturday night brought the most shocking and horrific news short of the apocalypse: Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is retiring.

It is hard to overstate just how shocked the football world is to see an absolute top-tier superstar choose to retire, with little warning, still seemingly in his prime, and still lacking a Super Bowl championship. Just shy of 30, Luck announced to the world last night that persistent injuries had taken away his love for the game.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said during a press conference after sitting out last night’s preseason game. “It’s taken the joy out of this game. . . . The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football. This is not an easy decision. It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.”

It is equally hard to overstate the hype and excitement that surrounded Luck’s entry into the world of professional football. While playing at Stanford University, he stood out like a high-schooler among middle-schoolers, NFL teams allegedly contemplated tanking their seasons to ensure having the first overall pick in the draft and the opportunity to select the suitably named Luck. In 2011, the Colts “won” by going 2–14. There was never any doubt who Indianapolis would select.

Luck lived up to the hype immediately, starting from Day One and making the Pro Bowl his first three years. He led the Colts to three eleven-win seasons, and a little further in the playoffs each year — first the wild-card round, then the divisional round, then the conference championship game. The NFL had found its next golden-boy superstar quarterback. In 2015, the stage appeared set for the Colts to return to the Super Bowl . . . and then the injuries started to hit. A shoulder injury forced Luck to sit out two games. He came back, but a few games later the team announced he had suffered a “lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle.” He missed the rest of the season, and that, sadly, was a harbinger of things to come.

In 2016, he missed one game with a concussion. He played well, but the team went only 8–8. Shortly after the season ended, Luck underwent surgery to repair a right-shoulder injury — to his throwing arm — that had been lingering since the previous season. This sort of thing is relatively routine for NFL quarterbacks, and the expectation was that Luck would be back sometime early next season. He and the team waited for the shoulder to heal . . . and waited . . . and waited. Luck missed training camp, then the preseason, then the start of the 2017 season, and they eventually decided to put him on injured reserve. It’s rare for a quarterback to miss an entire year, and if Luck had said that his shoulder had never healed correctly and announced his retirement then, few would have been shocked.

But Luck’s shoulder did appear to heal correctly, because when he returned to the field in 2018, he and his arm were sterling as ever. He started all 16 games, threw for more than 4,500 yards, threw 39 touchdowns, and led the Colts back to the playoffs, where they lost in the divisional round. He was named Comeback Player of the Year. It appeared that the story of Andrew Luck in the NFL had many more chapters to go.

Now Luck will join the considerable ranks of great NFL players whose careers were cut short by injury. Football is a violent sport; the possibility for injury is ever-present, as it is in most of professional athletics. The NFL is understandably concerned about concussions and hard hits — some would argue, not concerned enough — but 200- to 300-pound bodies crashing into one another inevitably leads to injuries of all kinds. That risk of injury would not go away even if the game switched to “two-hand touch” and banned tackling. One of the most feared injuries in NFL circles is a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, the infamous ACL, an injury that can easily happen in non-contact situations.

The news broke during last night’s preseason game; when Luck walked off the field in Indianapolis last night, many fans booed. While one can forgive the fans’ sense of shock and frustration, it’s a graceless, classless response to a man making, in his words, the hardest decision of his life.

Right now, all over the greater Indianapolis area, there are children with Luck jerseys, who watch every game aired before bedtime, with tears in their eyes. Say it ain’t true, Andrew. They don’t realize it now, but in a generation they’ll be telling their kids about the times they watched Luck engineer an amazing game-winning drive. Sometime in autumn 2044, they’ll be watching the 8D VR holo-projection of the Indianapolis Colts against the London Beefeaters, telling their children, “You kids think Rod Schmidlap is good, and he is, but you guys should have seen Andrew Luck in his prime!”

But this is why people watch sports; it doesn’t stick to a prearranged script. (Fox Sports used to promote its baseball postseason coverage with the line “You can’t script October.”) Defeat and disappointment are inevitable, even in the most illustrious careers. Just as it is better to have loved and lost that never to have loved at all, it is better to enjoy those thrilling moments of victory and excellence, even when you know that it could all end with a sudden injury.

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