The world of professional sports is a cruel one. Only a few are lucky to go out on their terms, leaving the game better than they found it.
Andrew Luck was supposed to be one of those few.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) August 25, 2019
What happens when a generational talent calls it career far sooner than expected? A prospect dubbed with few flaws falls from grace in a city he helped save during a dark time. The man who congratulated defenders on making a tackle now must defend his decision on why choosing a life without cleats is the only way to live.
Instead of hoisting a trophy shortly, he’ll hopefully have the strength to hoist his child, who’s set to be born later this year.
The NFL community was shocked when news broke out heading into the fourth quarter on Saturday night that the career of a Canton bound player would come to an unsettling end.
No one wanted to believe the tweet heard round the world.
It wasn’t right; it couldn’t be. Reports were falsified and rumors had spread, infecting the Twitter-verse and leading to mouths dropping in front of screens.
But the nightmare that never seemed to end was a reality. A report was false: the one about his calf injury being a minor setback. It had spread to his ankle and concern finally arrived. By then, it was too late, and the damage had already been done.
There were no second thoughts, no ultimate comebacks, no more setbacks. All that was left was a locker to clean out and a ride to take the 29-year-old retiree home to rest.
Luck gave his heart and soul to football. In the end, it was football that broke both.
The real Andrew Luck
As the buzzer echoed in the old Georgia dome, the Carolina Panthers were officially on the clock. It seemed like destiny that Marty Hurney would pick the man who finished second in Heisman voting, first in April’s draft. He’d just thrown for 3,338 yards and led Stanford to an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Built like a linebacker with a shotgun attached at his shoulder, Luck stood as perhaps the most polished prospect since Peyton Manning in 1998. With a charismatic smile, a charming demeanor and extensive knowledge from a family of footballers, Hurney had his man.
On January 2, 2011, the Queen City’s eyes turned to Palo Alto. Four days later, the race for the first pick truly began. Luck declined to enter the draft, deciding to return for one more season.
Was it for a chance at a National Championship? Could it be he wanted the Heisman? Was a Pac 10 Player of the Year not enough?
No, all great reasons but far from reality.
Luck returned to finish what he started – his college education. He wanted his degree, and nothing would change his mind.
Over the years, many have reported the incredible mind of the quarterback found in Lucas Oil Stadium. With a degree in Architectural Design, Luck was smart, smarter than any reporter in the room. Enamored by the world around him following living overseas, he used words you’d have to look up in a dictionary to understand what he meant.
The nicest guy the game has ever seen. 💯 pic.twitter.com/O2vcQqNgm2
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 25, 2019
You could walk into any locker room Luck graced throughout his career, Stratford High, Stanford, and Indianapolis; everyone would say the same thing — Andrew was teammate first and a quarterback second. He wanted to talk about his receivers success or the offensive line, he built up his brothers in trenches, even when they let him down.
And then there was the smile. Infectious, warming and filled with life, one couldn’t help but reciprocate the emotion back. Even in troubling times, the grin appeared at press conferences, interviews, and events all around the city.
The dream turned into a nightmare
As the final seconds ticked away in 2011, Jim Irsay had to make a decision. Would he wait to hear the prognosis of the franchise’s greatest player, or finally start fresh? A risk worth taking, Irsay parted ways with Peyton Manning to draft the man who likely would have been taken first a season ago.
But seven years after making one of the riskiest decision in sports history, the man who replaced Manning for someone he thought could bring championships home now will stare at the only Lombardi Trophy the latter delivered.
In many a way, Irsay played the quartermaster in Luck’s eventual demise.
The Colts owner stuck with Ryan Grigson as the team’s general manager. He vogued for him time after time, believing he could change the narrative each season.
The duo failed to see the flaws in Luck’s offensive line. Sack by sack, hit by hit, the body of the franchise signal-caller withered away.
Irsay or Grigson never addressed the problem at hand, drafting pass-catchers instead of pass blockers and trading away first-round picks for below-average running backs. They stuck with a defensive-minded coach despite having the face of the franchise on offense.
It showed on the field as Luck would fall to the ground, get back up, and hope the pressure would stop long enough for him to catch his breath. He played through the pain of a torn cartilage muscle in his ribs.
And a torn abdomen.
And with a lacerated kidney against the eventual Super Bowl Champs that left him peeing blood.
And that still doesn’t include a bad ankle, injured thumb, concussion and torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that should have ended his career.
Colts fans booed this Andrew Luck😔 pic.twitter.com/zPKzxse8eR
— Football Is Life (@FootbaIl_Tweets) August 26, 2019
But instead, he returned each season, ready to be the leader his team needed. After all, the team came first and he came second. But little by little, that smile started to fade. If you looked closely, it was just for show. The pain took that joy and crushed it behind closed doors.
It became too much, and soon it would engulf Luck for the 2017 season. It was only then Irsay finally gave his quarterback the help he needed.
Hiring Chris Ballard, the GM did his best to rebuild the roster; trading prime picks for second-day selections. Moving back in the draft to take the best player and at a position of need, Quenton Nelson was going to help fix the quarterback. Thirty-one picks later, Braden Smith would enter the conversation.
They hired a coach to help get his quarterback back to standard form. Frank Riech had worked with Carson Wentz and transformed him into an MVP candidate. When he went down, he guided Nick Foles to a Super Bowl MVP and a Championship to Philadelphia.
Despite the 1-5 start and a body that needed to heal, Luck defied the odds. The protection held and he delivered once more. Winning nine of their last 10 games, Indy would return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. They embarrassed division rival Houston in their backyard and had momentum moving towards Kansas City.
Although the 18 point loss would bruise the ego, it would not break the spirit. In one season, the comeback kid looked like himself once more. Not just as the player, but as the man who loved the game.
The LUCKiest man on earth
The final thoughts of Andrew Austen Luck should not be written on a night of a pointless preseason outing in 2019. The story was meant to conclude a decade down the line – long after Tom Brady and Drew Brees called it quits, passing the torch over to the reignited gunslinger.
It should be years from now as a grey streaked mutton chop beard quarterback announces this is the end. With a Lombardi Trophy in one hand, a ring on his finger and an MVP award in the other, He could finally let go. He’d finally accomplish what he was destined to become.
Luck would smile, let out a laugh and just say goodbye.
Instead, he’ll leave without a trophy, no big-name awards and the one ring on his finger comes from his wife, Nicole. His promising career started quickly and ended in a similar fashion.
What defines courage? Luck’s a good start when bringing up the word. Choosing his life over his love, his health over his heart and being sane over being the savior, he’ll walk away with the ability to live a semi-healthy life.
With hopes his prime years were on the horizon, Luck threw it away for the chance to be himself again. Exhausted from bearing the pain season after season, he can rest now.
It takes courage to step away from something you love. It takes more to put yourself before others. Luck did both with grace and no regrets.
The career that should have ended a decade down the line wrote its final words early into Sunday morning. All that’s left are the ‘what if’s’ when speaking of the legend that is Andrew Luck.
Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson.