Andrew Luck retired, as the story goes, due to physical injuries and the lack of mental fortitude to fight through them. His retirement has been treated as a regular run-of-the-mill injuries piled up, just couldn’t play through them anymore retirement, the type you expect from a QB in his late 30s, not late 20s. After all, he suffered numerous injuries. He got hit a lot. It’s an easy story to tell.
It’s not the actual story.
Sports fans are spoiled in a way. When a player is injured, the team announces exactly what the injury is, what the expected recovery timeline is, and generally provides on-going updates. For the vast majority of injuries, this is the way things are done. Every injury has a quick, easy diagnosis with a static prognosis that will be met reasonably closely. After all, that’s the way things are always done.
What injury caused Andrew Luck to retire?
Luck was diagnosed with a mild calf strain in March 2019, but that appears to have been healed at some point. When he got to training camp, it was either a “small little bone” or a high ankle “issue”, and the only thing that could be confirmed was that he was suffering pain in his calf and ankle. There was no official diagnosis announced by the team. It’s not clear there was any official diagnosis at all.
This is not the first time Luck has suffered from pain without clear diagnosis. Luck’s shoulder saga was well-covered. Pain, surgery for a torn labrum, more pain, and while he played in 2018, it’s fair to question whether he was really healthy, given that the backup had to throw hail marys. Healthy enough to play? Yes. Healthy? No. What is/was his shoulder injury? Well, there may have been a labrum issue, but much like the calf, even after it was fixed, something seemed to linger.
Hot takers around the league have already started asking which young QB is going to retire next. Is it going to be Deshaun Watson? Carson Wentz? It makes sense on a surface level – Luck suffered a lot of injuries by taking a lot of hits, Watson and Wentz have both suffered injuries and take a lot of hits.
But that misses the real story. Luck didn’t retire due to injury accumulation. Luck retired because nobody even knows what his injuries are.
Geoff Schwartz wrote a great article about the mental toll rehab takes. He explained how much rehab it took to get back to just 80 percent health and what happens when you can’t take the time to get it back to 100 percent. This is how we typically talk about injuries. We laughed when Joel Embiid was at 69%. It’s simply the language of sports fans, to talk about recovery in terms of percentage of recovery.
What happens when you’re diagnosed with a calf strain, rehab it, the area still hurts, and after 4 months of rehab, you are still in pain and have no idea what the cause is? How do you rehab “this area generally hurts”? How do you get back to 100% when you are 50% and every day of rehab sets you back another 1% without any progress?
You do what Andrew Luck did: you stop.
He didn’t retire because he’s a lazy millennial. He didn’t retire because he lacked mental fortitude. He didn’t retire because he took 250 hits behind bad offensive lines and suffered myriad injuries as a result. He retired because after the 2018 season ended, he developed a mystery injury, tried to heal it, and couldn’t. This is extremely unusual, as sports injuries go, but unusual doesn’t make it any less true. He is healthy enough to still enjoy life, but not healthy enough to play football, and he had no path to reaching that level of health.
There has been a lot of blame thrown around, especially accusing the Colts of mishandling Luck and his injuries. Again, this is the easy story to tell, but is it true? It assumes that Luck had a “normal” injury that the Colts made worse by not diagnosing or treating it properly. But Luck’s injuries simply aren’t normal. It’s hard to accept, but we now know it’s the truth. Whatever is happening with Luck’s body is outside the standard accepted norm for athlete injuries.
“Superstar athlete suffers weird unexplained injuries that derail his career and force his retirement” is super unsatisfying. There’s no lessons to be learned. It doesn’t mean anything for anybody else. There’s nobody to blame. It’s just a thing that happened that took a good thing away from all of us.
And that just sucks.