This week, Andrew Luck shocked the world by announcing his retirement from professional football. The former first overall draft pick is just 29-years-old, and despite battling through a string of difficult injuries, he had put together a career worthy of his high draft capital.
But football no longer appealed to Luck. And he’s not alone. In recent years, many players of a lower profile than Luck have decided to hang up the cleats years before age might have forced them to. The worrying trend has reached a new height in Luck, and nothing could be more troublesome for the National Football League.
Once in a Generation
Andrew Luck was once viewed as the greatest prospect in a generation. Born in Houston and raised by a former NCAA and NFL quarterback, he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. He committed to Stanford, where he would play under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw.
After redshirting for a season, Luck became the first freshman quarterback to earn a starting job at Stanford in over a decade. In the following season, he led a program that had only won 10 games in a season once since World War II to a 12 win total. Over his career, he transformed Stanford from a competitive afterthought to the class of the Pac-10/Pac-12.
In his 2011 season, he cemented his legacy as one of college football’s great legends. He was a first-team All American, the Maxwell Award as the best all-around player in NCAA, the Walter Camp Award for the Collegiate Player of the Year, and was a runner-up for the Heisman Award. He also won the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and took home many other honors. By that point, he was the consensus first overall pick in the draft.
The Indianapolis Colts selected Luck, winning the first pick thanks to an abysmal season brought about by a serious injury sustained by their franchise quarterback Peyton Manning. They thought they were ready for the future with a new franchise QB, and early results proved them right.
Luck dominated as a rookie, setting records for the most passing yards, most game-winning drives, and most fourth-quarter comebacks by a rookie quarterback. His second season was just as good, and he set another record for most passing yards through his first two (and ultimately three) seasons. It looked like nothing could stop Luck from shattering the mold for a franchise quarterback.
Unfortunately, the perspective started to shift for Luck in his fourth season in the league. A shoulder injury forced him to miss the first games of his career. Then, after a brief return, he suffered a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle. The Colts initially set a timetable of 2-6 weeks for his return, but the issues lingered and he did not make it back to the field that season. He played only seven games on the year.
Even so, Luck signed an extension in the offseason valued at $140 million, with $87 million guaranteed. It made him the highest-paid player in the league at the time, and no one questioned it. It was apparent that Luck was the franchise, and he deserved to be paid as such.
He played a strong 2016 season, and nothing seemed to be amiss until after the season. The team announced that Luck would undergo surgery on his throwing shoulder to address an issue that had lingered since 2015. The recovery process stalled and stalled and stalled, and forced Luck to miss training camp and the preseason. When the regular season began and he still wasn’t ready, fans (and fantasy football owners) became concerned. As time wore on, the problem seemed more and more severe, and ultimately, Luck missed the entire 2017 season.
He came back the following season. And while his on-field play was still stellar, it was obvious he hadn’t truly recovered from his injuries. He missed practices, and analysts constantly scrutinized him to see if he would be fit to play. At the end of the year, he had cobbled together a very impressive campaign and hadn’t missed any games. He was named to his fourth Pro Bowl and was honored as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Little did anyone know at the time, but the final game of 2018 would be the final game of Luck’s NFL career. During the preseason for the 2019 season, he could not play in any games because of lingering injury troubles. His fate was shrouded in mystery until a shocking report from NFL insider Adam Schefter made it crystal clear: Luck would retire. At an emotional press conference following the news, Luck explained his decision:
I’ve been stuck in this process. 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. This is not an easy decision. It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.
The press conference solidified the report and brought an end to an incredible career, but one that ended far too soon. While quarterbacks like Tom Brady vow to play beyond their 45th birthday, Luck’s career wouldn’t see his 30th.
Big Trouble for the NFL
Leaving aside the controversy about fans booing and analysts criticizing Luck, his decision could prove disastrous for the NFL.
In recent years, we’ve seen a growing trend in early retirements from the NFL. The brutal, demanding nature of the game proves too difficult for some, even for some of the league’s top stars like Tiki Barber and Calvin Johnson.
But never before have we seen a franchise quarterback at the top of his game and at the top of the league’s pay scale willingly forego all that to put an end to his football torment. While Luck’s injuries weren’t directly tied to the most controversial of football injuries, concussions, they are still evidence of the traumatic impact of the sport on young men’s careers.
Luck’s decision has widespread ramifications. Because of the absolute importance and relative scarcity of centerpiece quarterbacks in the league, his retirement permanently changes the fate of the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC South, and the NFL altogether. It is now without one of its biggest stars and highest-paid players, retired a decade early because of nagging injuries.
If the NFL wants to shut its ears to this, they can buy into the narrative that Luck is soft and that his retirement is an anomaly. But that would be foolish. They need instead to sit Luck down in a room, preferably with Johnson, Barber, and others who have made similar decisions, and find out what needs to be done to prevent these departures in the future.
Improving the safety of football isn’t only a moral requirement, it’s a financial necessity. The NFL relies on its stars to market its sport. And if even the biggest contracts in the league can’t prevent those stars from hanging up the cleats early, then something needs to change.