One of the most telling things about the 12 hours or so after Andrew Luck’s out-of-nowhere retirement announcement is the lack of conversation about legacy.
Here’s someone who was a college superstar, a No. 1 overall draft pick, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when healthy. Here’s a four-time Pro Bowler who leaves the game at 29 with four playoff appearances, no Super Bowls and probably no chance to get into the Hall of Fame, which would have seemed like a certainty after his first few years in the league.
A decade ago, under the very same circumstances, we might have viewed Luck as a disappointment for opting out with a decade of football ahead of him, for walking away without fulfilling his potential as one of the all-time greats.
ANDREW LUCK RETIRES: What we know about the Colts QB’s decision to walk away
But to the extent there’s been any conversation critical of Luck, it’s only about the timing of his decision on the eve of the regular season, not the decision itself or what it means for how he’ll be remembered, all of which suggests we’ve evolved in how we think and talk about this stuff.
More than ever in football, we have to view a player’s career in two different ways. Given the brutality of the sport and the long-term impact on the body that we’ve seen in excruciating detail across hundreds of former stars, legacy is now just as much about brain cells and body parts saved as it is championships won and statistical milestones achieved.
As much as the football industrial complex pushes back on the idea that this is an inherently unsafe sport, there’s no going back to a time when the pain and suffering is romanticized as the reflected glory of American masculinity. More than ever, it is OK to love the sport and appreciate the things it stands for while understanding that many who choose to play it will live out their final decades with unimaginable joint pain and foggy memories and, God forbid, suicidal thoughts.
To reconcile all that just so we can bear to watch, football fans have subconsciously accepted the bargain: When players walk away earlier than we expect with their bodies still intact, there’s really nothing to say but “congratulations.”
The emotional, perhaps inebriated few Indianapolis Colts fans inside the stadium who booed Luck on Saturday night when word leaked about his retirement will surely come to regret that today. Because at some point or another, every one of those people has had a friend or family member in a dangerous job.
And what do we do when those folks retire or find some other way to make a living that doesn’t require us to say a prayer or hold our breath every time they leave for work? We throw a big party and thank whatever God we worship that our loved ones walked away without paying too big a price.
That’s how we have to innately think about football now, which is troubling but also liberating.
Odds are, there are going to be more and more like Luck because it’s one of the most sensible and rational ways for players to think about their careers.
For many of them, at a certain point, the amount of money they’ve made is just a number that won’t have a real impact on the way they live the rest of their lives. So then comes a choice: Do you want to spend several more years putting your body through the brutality of the NFL, or do you want to take the freedom you’ve earned and do something else that won’t put your long-term health at risk?
Knowing what we know about football, anyone who criticizes a player for choosing the latter comes off like a troglodyte whose grasp of humanity runs no deeper than what play to call on third-and-three.
Likewise, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those who decide that their true passion is playing football for as long as they can, chasing Super Bowls and eventually getting a bronze bust placed in Canton.
But more than ever, we have to understand that accepting the cost of those things is going to be a privilege of the few. It is certainly one kind of legacy to be remembered as a champion in football and an all-time great. It is also a worthy one to be remembered as a human being who walked away too early rather than too late.