The single most telling thing in the wake of Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement is the near-unanimous support for his decision from other football players. The sports shouters on your TV and in your Twitter machine can rail against soft millennials all they like, but the people who know what it’s like to play high-level football have, almost to a man, said Yeah, I get it. I absolutely understand why someone would want to not play this game anymore. Good for Andrew. Think about that! Think about how often you’re hearing it from star players, who’ve made tens or hundreds of millions of dollars from football, who devoted their entire lives to football, who must be said to love the game of football—and who acknowledge that for everything it’s given them, everything it takes away comes very close to tipping the scales.
Troy Aikman, who suffered a series of debilitating concussions, gets it. Bo Jackson, whose career ended early because of injuries, gets it:
Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, hugely wealthy men who have had relatively healthy careers (in the NFL, “relatively healthy” means only a couple major injuries), get it.
“I thought it was pretty disgusting,” Rodgers said of some Colts fans booing Luck as he left the field on Saturday.
“I thought it would’ve been more of a standing-ovation type thing and a thank you than boos.
“I, 100 percent, respect him immensely for his decision. I salute him for choosing quality of life. He’s a fantastic player, he had a great career and he’s got a lot to be proud of. Like many of us in this locker room, if not all of us, we all have interests outside of football. Andrew is an extremely bright guy, and I’m sure he’ll have a lot of things to transition into. I know what it’s like to deal with rehab and going through injuries. I’ve been on IR twice. It’s tough. He was on it pretty much for an entire season and next offseason trying to get his arm back.”
“Everybody wishes they could be healthy all the time,” said Tom Brady. “It is a contact sport and he’s certainly had his fair share of injuries, so guys retire at different times. Some at the end of the season, and I have seen a lot of guys retire before the season gets going and this is just one of those examples.”
But Brady and Rodgers are outliers for their health, and along with Aikman and Jackson, outliers for their wealth. The real grind of football is the one that chews up players like Rich Ohrnberger. His was, in many ways, a representative NFL career. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Ohrnberger was a guard who appeared in 31 games (starting five) over six seasons with three different teams. A journeyman, a second-stringer, the type of depth lineman that makes the league run. A man in near-constant pain.
It’s a really jarring thread, and I encourage you to read the whole thing, but it ends with Ohrnberger reaching the end of his rope, right around the time he realized NFL didn’t even want players with such extensive injury records, not when they could throw cheaper players on rookie contracts into the meat grinder instead.
Andrew Luck is not a typical NFL player. He has enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, and he appears to have a number of outside interests. Put another way, he doesn’t need football, at least not at a practical level. “Football is about dealing with pain,” Ohrnberger concluded bluntly. But what if you didn’t have to anymore?