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Andrew Luck’s retirement speaks to the rigors and risks of the NFL

Touchdown Wire logo Touchdown Wire 8/25/2019 Doug Farrar
USA TODAY © USA TODAY USA TODAY

When this came across your Twitter account, you certainly checked Adam Schefter's account for authenticity a few hundred times. Was it fake? Was he hacked? Or was Andrew Luck, the first overall pick in the 2012 draft… the quarterback of his generation who seemed most likely to find greatness from his first NFL snap… was really retiring at age 29?

Luck has had a brutal couple of years. The 2018 Comeback Player of the Year missed the entire 2017 season due to shoulder injuries that he played through most of the 2016 campaign, and his 2019 preseason had been hampered by ankle and calf issues. Luck saw the end of the road coming, despite the fact that this was a road he had traveled brilliantly throughout his career.

"There was an uncertainty, an apprehension," Luck told Zak Keefer of The Athletic last year. "I was scared, scared in my core, in my insides. There was a time I was very scared about football, and about my place in football."

And during his Saturday press conference making it official, he echoed-and amplified-those concerns.

"I've been stuck in this process. I haven't been able to life the live I want to live. It's taken the joy out of this game… the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football."

One thing we don't talk about when it comes to physical injuries is the mental toll they take on players. When Luck says he's mentally worn down and ready to move on from the NFL, he's probably not talking about the intellectual challenges. Luck is as smart as anyone in the NFL, including any coach. He's mastered the physical challenges at every level, as well.

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But the cumulative effect of injuries starts to add up in the mind. Players are far better informed about the negative effects of everything from head trauma to torn ACLs, and there's no stigma anymore-or at least there shouldn't be-when a player decides the inexorable grind isn't worth it. When you know that if you stay on the track, you may not be able to pick your grandchildren up, or remember their names.

That may be why Andrew Luck is walking away from the game long before the game could take him out. He's leaving $64 million behind on the five-year, $122.97 million contract extension he signed in 2016.

How worn down do you have to be to shut the door on the thing you've loved most of all, and that much money as well?

Pretty damned tired. And the game can wear you down in multiple ways.

Luck isn't the only one to make that choice, though he's the most celebrated of this era. Jim Brown retired before he was 30. Barry Sanders decided to hang 'em up when he still had plenty left in the tank. Two Hall of Famers who decided they didn't want to play the lottery with their lives anymore. There are many more, and their numbers are increasing.

You may remember the story of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland. The team's third-round pick in 2014, Borland performed at a near-Defensive Rookie of the Year pace for one season, amassing 84 solo tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. Like Luck, Borland seemed to grasp the intricacies of his position in the transition from college to the NFL as few players do.

And like Luck, he turned his back on the game before the game could take him out. Around that same time, three other 49ers players-offensive lineman Anthony Davis, linebacker Patrick Willis, and defensive lineman Justin Smith-all left the game when they could still have played. Rob Gronkowski still could have played when he retired following the 2018 season, but injuries had taken their toll on perhaps the greatest tight end in NFL history.

Borland retired after one season following his own extensive research on the effects of head trauma, and years later, he had no regrets.

Chris Borland loved football, but he chose to retire because he feared the long-term effects of head trauma. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

"At times, I would oscillate between feeling trapped and feeling aimless," Borland told USA Today's Mike Jones in April 2018. "I really, at times, wanted to avoid this issue. There's a degree of irony. I quit not to deal with CTE and at least intellectually deal with it as much as anyone, and I laugh at that irony sometimes, and that stress. But on the other hand, I had opportunities walking away, but didn't know what I wanted to do. … Ultimately, I'm very fortunate to have my health and different opportunities and I've settled into a place and I've embraced the role."

The irony is that Borland now works with After The Impact Fund, a non-profit organization that helps treat both former NFL players and military veterans who suffer from traumatic injuries. Borland has found his mission beyond the game, and though he may still feel a pull from what the game can give you, the bargain ultimately wasn't worth it.

Whether Andrew Luck has already found his mission beyond the game is unknown at this point. But the shock of his retirement isn't really that shocking when you imagine an elite athlete, feeling imprisoned by his own injured body, and trying to find the best way out.

Better that than the alternative-to be imprisoned in a broken-down body for the rest of one's life.

MORE:

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Andrew Luck's Contract Situation is Straightforward

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