Indianapolis Colts football fans will wish they could take this back, but they cannot. It was too late the moment it happened. It stained a city in a way that can’t ever quite be scrubbed clean.
Only in an age driven by the immediacy of social media could this have happened. It was during Saturday night’s Colts home preseason game. Star quarterback Andrew Luck had planned to announce the next day that he was retiring. That night, not playing, he was on the sideline enjoying himself with his teammates for what would be the last time.
Then the news broke during the game, and it spread faster than any wildfire. It was trending on Twitter in seconds. It was caroming throughout Lucas Oil Stadium.
When the game ended and Luck walked off the field in street clothes the fans who loved him an hour before booed him. Loudly.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear it,” he said of that booing, forced to make his announcement that night. “It hurt.”
And there you have the perfect epitaph to an NFL career cut short by choice:
That is what this sport does to a body and a mind. It hurts. It leaves scars. It makes men in their 30s limp. It leaves hands gnarled and misshapen. It cuts short lives, and sometimes makes the end of those lives torturous.
Veteran Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could sympathize.
“I watched all 26 minutes of his press conference and it hurt, man,” said Fitzpatrick following Monday’s practuce. “It hurt my heart to watch, because I love watching him play football. It really affected me and hurt my heart to see him up there like that, knowing how much he loved the game. That one was tough to watch.”
Said younger Dolphins QB Josh Rosen: “I loved Andrew Luck. That was my guy. Going to Stanford, I looked up to him. I was really bummed that he felt so tortured inside as to where he needed to leave the game for those demons to go away.”
Congratulations, Andrew Luck. You got out. In time and on your terms. Maybe before the physical toll turned permanent. Maybe before too many concussions began to take ownership of your brain, your ability to function.
“It hurt,” Luck said of the booing.
This hurt, too: Luck fights and plays through more injuries than any man should, only to hear himself called as quitter by some on social media. To hear his “commitment” and his “grit” questioned.
It hurt: the shoulder injuries that shelved him for the entire 2017 season. The torn cartilage in two ribs. The lacerated kidney. The torn labrum. The calf injury and high ankle sprain. The partially torn abdomen.
A professional athlete fights through all of this only to then hear his toughness questioned by the same fans who call in sick with the sniffles. Fights through all of that to hear booing escort him off the field.
There is some thought Luck’s retirement could be temporary, that he could unretire at some point, maybe even later this season. He is young, turning 30 in two weeks. He is coming off a 39-touchdown season. That he could yet change his mind is not unfathomable. Maybe that hope is why the Colts gifted him $24.8 million in bonus money it could have legally contested.
But you always wonder how the Colts fans’ parting gift — that booing — might factor in a possible return.
Yes, Luck’s timing was unfortunate. Ideally retirement comes right after a season, before the draft, certainly before training camp, not so close to the regular season. But his is Luck’s body. His life.
So for now the decision that shocks and rocks this NFL season turns Jacoby Brissett into the Indy starter and knocks the Colts from bona fide Super Bowl contenders to likely just another team fighting for an AFC wild card spot.
There is much to wonder in the wake of the of stunning news.
Is it the most shocking retirement in NFL history? Much company there, from Jim Brown retiring in his prime on a movie set in 1966 to Barry Sanders quitting in ‘99 just shy of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Dolphins fans surely recall when Ricky Williams, the best running back in football in 2002-03 with 3,225 yards and 25 TDs, abruptly quit on the eve of ‘04 training camp. Luck though, might be the biggest retirement stunner if only because of his position.
Is Canton now out of the picture for what was a Hall of Fame career? Likely, but I wouldn’t count Canton totally out. Gayle Sayers also played only seven seasons but got in. Luck had 23,671 yards and 171 TDs. Will voters wish to be punitive for his decision to save his own body and health?
[Quick side note of possible impact on the Dolphins: Unless Brissett looks like an absolute star, count Indy now among the relative few teams that might be quarterback-hunting in the 2020 draft. That’s added competition for teams like Miami that almost certainly will be].
To those who are vilifying Luck today, I hope there are more who have tried understanding.
He has a life bigger than football. If only more players did.
Luck is a bright mind, an avid reader whose favorite book is “Papillon,” the autobiographical novel by Henri Charriere, about a man who spends 14 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder. (One wonders if football in some ways began to feel like a personal prison to Luck?)
This past spring Luck married his longtime girlfriend. In June the couple announced they are expecting their first child.
His career might be ending, but his life is just beginning.
To a man who understood his life is more important than football, congratulations.