Given the circumstances, it’s remarkable Andrew Luck wasn’t playing for the Detroit Lions. The Colts franchise QB is retiring less than two weeks before the NFL season is slated to begin. There’s already a host of people, namely idiot Colts fans, ready to castigate Luck for his timing, but Luck is hardly the first NFL player to bow out of the sport in what ought to be his prime, nor will he be the last. The list keeps growing: Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Jason Worilds, Pat Tillman, Tiki Barber, Robert Smith, Vontae Davis, Lynn Swann, Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, and now Luck. Luck accomplished so much in his brief career—including the second-greatest comeback in playoff history—but his legacy will forever feel incomplete now.
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Luck was always a prime candidate to cut his own career short, given both his injury history and—GASP!—his open affection for outside interests, namely architecture. Those outside interests weren’t enough to prevent the Colts from drafting Luck, perhaps because they weren’t too political or demonstrative in nature, or perhaps because Luck’s father Oliver was also a Respected Football Man, or perhaps because Luck was, physically speaking, as well-built to withstand the rigors of football as anyone could possibly be.
But I assume the Colts banked on Luck being a lifer in the sport mostly because he was supremely talented and because he was, himself, a voracious football lover. You don’t have to go too far to find evidence of that love. Luck was the guy who WANTED to get hit by opposing pass rushers, because it helped him get his sea legs for game action. That’s how insane he was for the sport. That he felt as if he had no choice but to finally abandon it NOW, right when his team and the general football public would resent his decision the most, suggests he had little hope in being able to change his own mind. This was not a choice. This had to be done.
And while the NFL will handle Luck’s retirement with its usual false graciousness, the collective silent scream of GMs and scouts in the face of a draining talent pool is growing by the second. Luck is the largest domino to fall, by far. If he can walk away from the game (and from untold millions earnings in future earnings in a league in which good QBs play for quite a while) right before the season begins, anyone can. That means, going forward, teams are gonna be too scared shitless to draft ANYONE.
Try to think of another sport that has to deal with players not wanting to play it. This is only happening to the NFL, and all of the rule tweaks and happy penalty flag barrages they’ve concocted have not and will not curtail that exodus. That’s why scouts ask players all kinds of deranged shit at the combine, like If you were a jellybean, what flavor of jellybean would you be? or If you could murder a man and get away with it, wouldn’t you? All the 40 times and vertical jumps get their usual undue amount of attention. But what scouts REALLY want to learn about prospects when they come to the combine in Indianapolis—how fitting a locale at the moment—is, Are you too smart and rational to keep playing this game?
No one else besides the NFL is stupid enough to keep engineering ways to sustain an unsustainable game. Andrew Luck’s retirement will only increase the primal urgency of Football Men to find True Football Believers to play football: those who don’t ever question their faith in it. Richie Incognito is a seriously unwell man who should NOT be playing football right now, and yet the Oakland Raiders gleefully snatched him off the open market this offseason. Why? Because they know that Richie already tried to walk away from this sport—citing failing organs, no less—and still couldn’t bring himself to do it. That, against all intuition, is what EVERY team wants. They want you all in, and they don’t mean it in the Chuck Pagano way. They want people who are either willing to sacrifice all of themselves to play the game, or people who are too oblivious to know that’s what they’re doing. They do NOT want people who fully understand just who and what they’re giving their bodies over to. And they have cultivated a fan and media culture that looks down on pretty much any player who does not meet those insane criteria:
They want you to enlist. They want you to serve your team for God and country. That is the blueprint. The NFL has always been in love with its war metaphors. So it’s fitting that the league now finds itself existentially lost when trying to deal with the consequences of REAL human wreckage—of players discovering that this sport will kill them, and it will kill them faster the longer they play it. The NFL doesn’t want players like that. They want something beyond mere passion. They want players too obsessed to see the danger, or to feel the pain. They want you, pardon the expression, brain damaged. Andrew Luck knew better than to give his entire life to this league. He won’t be the last. In some critical ways, he is merely the first.