Andrew Luck & The Growing Trend of Early Retirement in the NFL: A Personal Perspective

On Saturday August 24, 2019, 29 year old Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts retired from professional football. In Luck’s words, “it was the hardest decision of his life” to join the ranks of Calvin Johnson, Barry Sanders, Patrick Willis, and the growing list of other players who cut their career short at the top of their game. As a promising and successful quarterback, though, Luck stands out. Why would he walk away? Why now?

The media was shocked. Some fans booed, some understood. Luck seemed crushed during his surreal retirement press conference. This was the same guy who once congratulated those who sacked him and rallied teammates to comeback victories.

He loved the game, that much is obvious – and it’s hard to give up something you love.

An easy game to love, a hard game to give up

I loved football more than anything growing up. Playing, watching, following – all of it. It’s the most strategically fun team sport around. Deciding to stop wasn’t easy.

My parents & I on homecoming night during my senior year

I stopped playing when I was 18 years old, mainly because I wasn’t good enough to play at a big time university & didn’t see it as “worth it” to try to play at a smaller program. Doing so would come at the expense of education & other uses of my time – anyone who played high school ball knows that football is a full-time job.

I was lucky enough to attend a college where I could call color & play-by-play for the football team on the radio. It was nice to be close to the game I loved, even if it wasn’t worth trying to play anymore. I suspect Andrew Luck will find a way to be around football post-retirement.

The long term costs of playing a game you love

When I was younger, this is was the only thing I wanted

I never had a major injury due to football, likely because I only played for 10 years of my life (ages 9-18) and very fortunately had good coaches who taught me how to protect myself when blocking and tackling.

I also never played long enough or consistently enough against the caliber of athletes that could make it at the pro level – the kind of athletes that battered Andrew Luck season-after-season over his professional career, after he endured the beatings of the high school and college ranks.

When people in my life ask me if their kids should play football, I say “absolutely, it’s the most fun they’ll ever have playing team sports…just hope they don’t go pro.”

I don’t believe the human body is meant to take the kind of beating, over the amount of time, that would allow one to have a sustained pro career.
 Research has been growing in the past 10 years to support this belief.

What does the future of football look like?

The human body can only take so much punishment and that punishment gets exponentially more intense at each level of the game. It’s no surprise youth leagues are shrinking around the nation. It’s also no surprise that pro players are retiring early.

More and more players are coming to the conclusion that 20+ years of brutality is no life to live.

As a fan of the game today, it’s a conflicting realization to simultaneously:

1) Want to see the “best of the best” compete professionally

2) Know that the “best of the best” are slowly killing themselves, over time, banging their heads snap after snap over the course of 15-20 yrs (through middle school, high school, college, and pro), accumulating the head injuries that result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)…on top of any body-mangling that occurs during a player’s career.

Football is an extremely hard game to walk away from. It’s fun, it builds character, it teaches hard work, and it rewards working together. It’s also killing our very best athletes mentally and physically.

What’s the solution? Eliminating the pro game and only having college teams? Forcing players to retire by age 30? No contact leagues until high school? Who knows.

I really miss playing this game. I’m also glad I stopped.

What I do know is that we’re watching a great, yet brutal, game decay. Perhaps for the best? There’s many sports to play & young athletes now choosing them instead (notably, basketball).

When the pipeline dries up, when the best we have quit for a healthier life – what’s left?

We’ll find out soon enough.