Saturday ushered in a long-anticipated college football season with a marquee matchup between the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators. The Gators, ranked No. 8 to start the year, pulled out a narrow victory in a back-and-forth contest in the highest-rated regular season game on ESPN in three years.
This should’ve been the biggest story in football yesterday, but it wasn’t — not by a longshot. In fact, what should have been the most hopeful and celebratory day for the sport was derailed by devastating news. The early retirement of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck dominated the weekend’s headlines, and for good reason.
Luck, 29, was one of the sport’s brightest young stars and a consensus top-five player at football’s most important position. He’s less than a year removed from leading the Colts back to the playoffs after missing the entire 2017 campaign with a shoulder injury. In fact, it was only a few months ago that Luck picked up his fourth Pro Bowl appearance and was voted AP’s NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Luck was also voted by his fellow players as the 20th best player in the league last season, according to NFL Network’s annual poll.
Since Calvin Johnson’s shocking retirement in 2016, no player has left the game in the prime of his career, especially not at Luck’s position or caliber. By all indications, Luck was a player at the top of his game — a true team leader who seemed capable of leading Indy to its first Super Bowl victory in over 12 years.
This was the fate Luck was destined for — that is, until ESPN’s Adam Schefter first broke the news of his retirement on Twitter during the Colts’ preseason game Saturday night. Soon after, some confused and angry Colts fans at Indy’s Lucas Oil Field booed Luck as he walked off the field. A few minutes later, with tears in his eyes, Luck officially announced his retirement in an emotional postgame press conference, citing mental wear and tear from constant injury and rehab.
This is an obvious concern for the NFL. Luck’s situation is an omen in a league and sport where the question of long-term viability is increasingly prevalent in the minds of players, team personnel and league executives. And while the sport’s long-term physical consequences are well-documented in recent years, this is one of the first instances of a Pro Bowl-caliber player blindsiding the football world with his retirement.
Luck has battled injuries for the better part of his career. He missed over 25 games in three seasons before his comeback last year. Players from around the league, like Richard Sherman and J.J. Watt, have expressed their support for his decision. He’s a tough, well-respected man and player, despite what your weird, couch-sitting, never-played-a-day-in-his-life neighbor might say about Luck’s fortitude.
The most cynical of football fans will argue that Luck will be fine. After all, he’s got a degree in architectural design from Stanford and nearly $100 million in on-field earnings from his seven years with the Colts. Hell, who knows, he could come back in two years and take over for a freshly-retired Tom Brady in New England. Or he could sign the biggest deal in history with the upstart XFL, of which his father is the commissioner. He can’t really be done — can he?
He most likely is, and good for him. Not many of us have the courage to walk away from something we love, especially something that’s defined us for most of our lives. He’s paid his dues, and he’s reaped the consequences of an illustrious, if unexpectedly short, career in the NFL.
Either way, Luck’s retirement comes as a huge blow for fans who have loved watching him play with the pure passion and joy that he brought every weekend since his days at Stanford. For players, he was exactly the kind of guy you want to play with: smart, tough, kind and deeply empathetic. In fact, he was well-known throughout the league for his tendency to congratulate opposing players after they tackled him or picked him off. That’s how much he loved the game and the people who played it.
That joy is gone, or at least diminished to the extent that he decided to retire, and that’s a terrifying prospect for a dangerous sport built on passion.
Matthew Philips is a senior writing about football. He is also a former lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Catch or No Catch,” runs every other Tuesday.