Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts’ franchise quarterback and 2012 first overall pick, abruptly retired from the NFL due to the mental and physical toll that injuries have taken on him in his career. There are no words that can describe the feeling of shock around the NFL world when we saw this news. I’m still in awe that I’m writing this.
When the story moved from a tweet to an impromptu press conference from Luck, we got a much clearer picture of this sudden retirement. And I applaud and respect Luck for making this brave decision.
Luck’s spontaneous presser was powerful. I’d advise watching it if you can. It was emotional, honest, and direct. He spoke out about his career, the love he has for the game, and what led to this shocking development. The ultimate catalyst for the retirement is summed up with these thoughts from Luck:
“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 ... and the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I’ve been in.”
The cycle he’s referring to is rehab, which unfortunately is a process I know all too well.
Luck has an injury history that can wear on the body and mind
Luck’s relatively short career has seen him get beaten to a pulp. Here’s a list of all those injuries (courtesy of Zak Keefer, who covers the Colts for The Athletic):
Physical toll on Andrew Luck through 6 NFL seasons:— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) August 25, 2019
» Torn cartilage in 2 ribs
» partially torn abdomen
» a lacerated kidney that left him peeing blood
» at least 1 concussion
» a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder
» and this mysterious calf/ankle issue that led to this
This injury list is enough for a lifetime, let alone six years in the NFL. It’s a combination of poor help around him — specifically the offensive line, which was woefully undermanned for years — playing through the pain, and just plain old bad luck. But there’s no denying it: Luck has been in pain for years and, like most of us who put on the pads, he’s battled through the pain to play on Sundays.
Let’s step back for a second and just quickly detail the NFL calendar. Camp roughly starts in August. The game begins in September and run through the end of December. If you’re in the playoffs, it could last until the beginning of February.
The typical NFL week is:
- Monday: Rehab and recovery. Film session. Start to prepare for the following week.
- Tuesday: Even though this is an off day, players will come into the facility to either watch film, rehab, lift, recover, or do whatever else is needed.
- Wednesday and Thursday: Full days. 7-5 on the schedule but longer for quarterbacks, who often stay late to study the playbook for the upcoming opponent.
- Friday and Saturday: One of these is a walkthrough day and the other is a practice. Friday is often 7-1 and Saturday is more like 9-12.
- Sunday: Gameday.
Throughout the week, either before the morning meeting or following the afternoon one, players nursing injuries are squeezing in rehab sessions to help them prepare for Sunday.
When we begin the season, all of us are aware of the grind it can take. We are fully prepared for the physical toll the body will need to withstand. We will play in pain. We will have to “fight” through injuries to get on the field, or to help the team win, or to earn some money in the offseason. We are aware of the mental struggle the season can be, too. When you are in pain, you have to wrestle with it in your mind too.
The season is all-consuming. Every ounce of your energy, especially if you’re an elite-level player like Luck, is geared toward football. With that comes stress, anxiety, pain management, and trying to deal with life outside of football.
I know what people will say: “well, the money. Y’all make so much money, how can you have all of those negative emotions?” Yes, we do. And yes, the money helps make it worth going through. But that doesn’t change the pressure. This job is tough. Our careers are short. One injury and it could be over. Doing your job well gives your team a chance to win. Doing it poorly does not. And nowadays, players must deal with social media pointing out every bad play. That just makes it more stressful.
Still, we are all ready for this season. What we aren’t ever ready for is a prolonged rehab stint in the offseason.
Rehab dominates an offseason that’s supposed to be time for players to recharge
The offseason is a time for rest, recovery, family, and training for the upcoming season. We NEED that break from football. I don’t need to explain why we need that physical break — I think that’s understood. What is less understood, and harder to put into words, is the mental break needed from football.
The season means putting your family on the backburner. Just like y’all, we have hobbies outside our jobs and those are ignored during the season. Well, the offseason is a time to become a “regular” person for a few months before training starts up again.
You spend the first couple of months after the season reengaging with your family and friends as your body heals. Most of us return home. You take trips and decompress from the season. It’s precious and cherished time for an athlete. It’s what helps us prepare for the following season. We get reenergized. Being away from the job makes us realize how much we love it, and most of us eventually can’t wait until the following season begins.
But when you end a season with a major injury, or require surgery following a season, the offseason is altered. Instead of a period of relaxation and recovery, we are still in football mode while rehabbing. Most teams require their injured players to stay in the facility for their rehab. That means no going home to see family or sleeping in your own house. No hobbies. No traveling.
When your body should be recovering and the pain of the season fading away, you’re now dealing with more pain, often more intense after surgery. The stress returns as you know there’s a timetable for returning from injury. Also, you’re thinking about the future with your team: Will they redo my deal? Will they draft my replacement if I’m hurt?
There’s no other way to put it: Rehab is a freakin’ bitch. Nothing happens quickly, which is expected, but it’s so difficult for athletes who are often ultra competitive and aren’t used to their bodies failing them. Besides the strides being small and often hard to notice, you’re in pain — constant pain until the injury is healed, which can take months.
Rehab during the season might be even more grueling. You’re supposed to be playing, but you’re rehabbing an injury instead. It’s a lonely feeling. You go to meetings, maybe watch practice, but that’s it. You’re ignored as you fight back from an injury.
Now, with all that being said, we know the NFL has a 100 percent injury rate and you’re going to spend time in the training room. We understand you might have an offseason where rehab is required.
One offseason is manageable. Multiple offseason in a row, that’s where it becomes exhausting.
I can relate to what Luck went through because of own injuries
While I don’t have the injury history of Luck, I do know firsthand about the rehab process. In August 2014, I dislocated my big toe in my first year with the Giants. I rehabbed from the middle of August until late November, when I got to play again. I rehabbed in the morning, went to meetings, then rehabbed again during practice. Some days I even watched practice from the weight room. It sucked.
On Sundays, I’d watch the guys get after it, not feeling any of the glory of the win or the sting of defeat. I repeated this process for nine weeks until I was allowed to practice. I finally got back on the field for 1.5 games, before dislocating my ankle.
So I spent all this time working back from my toe, being questioned about my toughness because “it’s only a toe,” to now having a major lower-leg injury. Every single day of my offseason was spent working through the rehab process of this ankle. There were days I just couldn’t do it. I needed a break. I’d walk into the facility and just tell them I needed a day.
Not only was it taxing to my body and mind, but it took a toll on my family. We had a young son, who my wife was raising alone during the season. Then, during the time I’m supposed to be a part of the family again, I’m on a scooter for six weeks, followed by crutches for another six.
One thing about rehab that is misunderstood is you’re rehabbing the body part to get back, or at least close, to 100 percent. During that time, it’s hard to train the rest of your body at full capacity, especially with a leg injury. So you just feel behind where you’re supposed to be entering the season.
I had about four weeks before training camp when I was able to train close to full capacity as my ankle was close enough to 100 percent. I entered the 2015 season with an ankle around 80 percent, as my doctor told me. I had my usual duties of training camp, plus still spending time on my ankle.
The season started and I was playing OK. But, my ankle still wasn’t responding how I thought it should. I didn’t have the explosion and wasn’t able to play the style of ball I wanted.
It’s hard to explain what I was thinking as I watched film on Mondays and noticed my leg wasn’t moving quite like it felt during the game. It’s a humbling feeling. We played the Niners in Week 5 and my ankle took a beating. It was painful all week and started to burn a bit. We played the Eagles in Week 6 and the burning continued. I stopped being able to feel my foot, which of course, made playing football tough. I told the training staff, but no one believed me.
It continued against Dallas the following week and then again in New Orleans. It got so bad that my lower leg eventually shut down. The muscles stopped working in my shin and calf. I played the worst three-game stretch of my life during those weeks, and it ended with Cam Jordan bull-rushing me to the turf as I hopped backward on one leg before I took myself out.
It was embarrassing having to tell your coach you couldn’t play anymore. You look soft, especially when the pain isn’t something that can be easily diagnosed. After the game, I did get some testing, and the doctor realized I had some floating bodies and an extra muscle in the back of my ankle that was pressing on the nerve and it shut down my foot. An injection made it go away.
I played well the following two weeks — then I broke the same leg again, 364 days apart. My body kept failing me. My wheels kept breaking. So it was back to rehabbing once again, through another offseason. It was soul-crushing.
The Giants cut me, and I signed with the Lions. I was old, beat up, and my ankle didn’t function well anymore. I stuck it out because I just wanted to end my career upright, not on a cart.
It was a bad decision. I had no business playing that season because I wasn’t all-in. I tried to make it work. It didn’t. I was cut and my career ended. I have no regrets, but I was glad it was over.
That was just three years of rehab. Luck practically spent his entire career doing this. He’d fix one body part, and another would be broken. Imagine you’re fixing a car. The engine busts. It’s repaired, but then the belt breaks. Then the brakes go. Over and over.
Thus, it’s no surprise his joy for the game, or more distinctly, his joy of the process of preparing, has faded. It’s human nature. Eventually, you are over it. Luck had enough and he’s courageous for calling it quits when he decided it was time.
Retiring isn’t easy, even if you know it’s time. Most of us LOVE football and we are awesome at it. Some have been playing since they were small kids. We are the best of the best in the world, and it’s an awesome feeling. Crowds are cheering for you, fans love you, you’re noticed around town, you’re making money, and you’re living the dream for a young adult.
It all ends when you retire. It’s why plenty of players try playing past their prime. Guys who aren’t 100 percent attempt to make it work. The game is taxing enough when you’re all the way in. It’s foolish to play when you’re not. But, for the reasons above, players do it.
So I commend Andrew Luck for making this tough decision and wish him the best in retirement.