On Andrew Luck’s NFL Retirement And Trusting When To Walk Away

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The life of a professional athlete at the very top of their sport tends to be a pretty public one. There’s an entire industry dedicated to speculation and analysis when it comes to these folks, one that this very website exists within (on the more respectful side of things, thankfully). It’s rare that something unexpected happens within elite sports that are so delicately devoured by fans and media alike… but the retirement of NFL quarterback Andrew Luck was one of those stunning moments that instantly shake you to the core.

Players as good as Andrew Luck simply don’t walk away from the game like this. He was drafted first overall in 2011 and it wasn’t even a consideration. The Indianapolis Colts, fresh off a thoroughly efficient single-year tank effort, traded away the greatest player in their history (Peyton Manning – who would go on to win another Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos) in order to clear space for a guy who appeared to be a once in a generation talent. Now, they say that about folks every couple years but Luck really did live up to the hype. Despite playing for what tended to be a pretty mud Colts team his late game heroics and his outrageous playmaking ability saw him evolve into one of the league’s most feared exponents.

And in 2019 he was primed to lead probably the most deeply stacked team he’s ever had. He’s 29 years old and coming off possibly his strongest season yet, throwing 4593 yards at 67.3% completion with 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Everything was looking so good. And then he got injured again.

Andrew Luck had been going back and forth for ten days, apparently, when he finally decided once and for all that he didn’t wanna do this thing any longer. He was planning on a press conference the day after the Colts’ third preseason game, against the Chicago Bears, but with the decision already well known within the inner circle of the Indianapolis Colts for a few days somehow the word got out earlier than expected. Adam Shefter leaked the news during that game and that news spread throughout the punters in the crowd. Some of whom then made the disgraceful decision to boo him as he walked off the field – Luck had been on the sidelines with his teammates – for the final time. Luck called a snap press conference after the game where he made the announcement official.

Watching him speak upon that podium was devastating. This was a man whose passion and dedication had led him to the very peak of his pursuit now being forced to admit to the world that his passion and dedication had gone. Tears were shed. There sat a broken man, addressing a shocked media, with an emotional rawness that hammered home the reality of this situation and offered a rare glimpse into the mental toll that athletes deal with beneath the glamoured surface.

For Andrew Luck it was the injuries. After making the playoffs in his first three seasons he suffered a shoulder injury in the third game of the 2015 season which caused him to miss the first two games of his professional career. He returned swiftly enough but then a lacerated kidney and a partial tear to his abdominal muscle ended up costing him the final two months of the season with recovery going slower than expected. Before the 2016 season Luck signed a $140m contract extension that made him (briefly) the highest paid player in the NFL. He was great that season, but a weak supporting cast saw the Colts finish 8-8 and their general manager was fired. Luck missed one game with concussion that year and played through the lingering effects of that shoulder injury from the season before and would undergo surgery the following January to deal with it.

Once again though, recovery was slower than anticipated. Luck was withheld from training camps and preseason and it was expected that he’d miss some of the regular season too. By week four he was ready to return to practice but nowhere near ready to play. In November he was placed on injured reserve, ending his season without a single pass attempt. He sought fresh opinions in Europe on the issue and ended up needing another surgery on that shoulder in February 2018. That had people wondering if he’d ever play again… though come week one of 2018, there he was. Luck took a month or so to ease back into things but he rallied his side from a 1-5 start to sneak on into the playoffs where they beat Houston in the wildcard round – Luck’s first playoff win for four years. Andrew Luck was a Pro-Bowler and the Comeback Player of the Year. But he came into 2019 preseason with a niggling calf injury that he then re-aggravated and that had him in doubt for the start of the upcoming season.

What does it take for a person to give up the thing that defines them?

Does that defining aspect of a person’s life ever become so permanent that they are immune to reinvention?

How much courage does it require for one’s internal conviction to be strong enough to outweigh the pressure of external influences?

When does the quest to succeed turn from motivation to burden?

How much pain can someone endure before they need to walk away?

To compete at the highest level of sport – or any field – it takes the kind of singular focus that most of us can’t even comprehend. When that focus starts to go is when things get ugly and for Andrew Luck the spell had been broken. This is not a decision he made lightly, in fact he leaves nearly $60m on the table by walking away as he has. But he’s walked away by his own means in a sport where too many people carry on a little too long. Luck’s ability wasn’t on the wane, in fact he was arguably coming into his vintage years… however any top athlete will tell you that talent is only part of the equation. Often when older athletes talk about retirement it’s not the games that told them it was over but the struggle to get up in the morning and train. All the other necessary things that make getting to that floodlit arena possible. Luck’s body is broken and battered and he’s clearly suffered immensely over the last four years. He could continue to play through that and probably still put up great numbers on a great team and earn great rewards except that suddenly it was making him miserable.

This guy got married a few months ago and his wife is expecting their first child. He’s earned enough money to live on for the rest of his life and he clearly has interests beyond sport. He famously stayed in college to complete his architectural degree despite being a consensus top pick and while he’s not the only top level sportsperson with their own book club, he might be the only one who is also a master at Settlers of Catan. Plus he still hasn’t watched Game of Thrones because he wants to have read all the books first.

If it’s all a matter of priorities - and that’s basically what life is, isn’t it? - then the only thing keeping him playing a sport that he no longer felt the same passion for would be negative influences. The voices of others. The pressure from fans. The demands of coaches and management. The fear of failure. The complacency of doing what’s expected of him. The greed of collecting all those millions of remaining dollars. The egocentric desire to leave the most competitive legacy possible. Only that last one is a driving force for success but that’s where you have to stop and ask yourself: at what cost? To lead a team to a Super Bowl victory but be walking with a permanent limp by the time he’s forty? To break quarterback records in massive stadiums but be unable to throw the ball around in his own backyard with his future kids? But it’s not even really about the future, it’s about now and you have to applaud a fella for being able to strip all of that back and say: no, I’m not enjoying this.

We live these strange and inconceivable lives just trying to do the best we can to get by. Often it’s easy to forget that we are getting by as that quest for more more more leaves you feeling inadequate and underachieved. But these are all illusions. The things that we acquire, both possessions and external validation, are just ways we have of trying to fill a void inside us that is always going to be there. Because, you know, if life were perfect then it wouldn’t be worth living. We do the best we can to get by in all our own ways and it’s up to us and us alone to decide when the getting by is good enough. Anyone who booed Andrew Luck for retiring when he has is clearly still looking for what Luck has already found.

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