On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin spoke with retired NFL players Jake Plummer and Nate Jackson about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement. A transcript of that discussion is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited. You can listen to the full conversation by clicking on the player below.
Josh Levin: Andrew Luck led the Colts to the second round of the playoffs last year, a season in which he threw 39 touchdown passes. But in the years before that he’d been hurt a lot: torn cartilage in his shoulder, busted ribs, a lacerated kidney. And this offseason he had calf and ankle injuries that would not get better. Nate, it was interesting that Luck didn’t blame football in announcing his retirement—that he said, “All I feel is love for this game and love for my teammates.” What do you hear when he says that?
Nate Jackson: I hear a very conflicted man who’s dealing with some really complex emotions. Like he said, he loves the memories, but he’s had enough of it mentally and physically and actually has the wherewithal to do something about that.
I think there are a lot of players who have those thoughts. I know I did when I was dealing with all those injuries. I know Jake did. Eventually, he walked away from it. But it’s very rare that a guy actually does get to walk away on his own terms. I don’t think he has all the answers right now. When I left, I was bitter toward the people who ended it for me because I didn’t end it on my own terms. For him to be able to do this, it takes a separation from yourself that I think is very rare.
Stefan Fatsis: Jake, the parallel with Luck isn’t perfect with your career. You played into your 30s, you were by NFL standards relatively injury-free, you missed almost no playing time, and you had been done dirty by the Denver Broncos while Luck was still beloved. But you both could’ve stayed in the league, and you both left millions of dollars in future earnings on the table. But neither you nor Andrew Luck, it sounds like, could will yourselves mentally to keep playing, and I think that’s an overlooked point, that you can’t play in the NFL if you’re not right mentally.
Jake Plummer: It’s a game you’ve got to be 100 percent wholehearted into it—mind, body, and everything—because if not, then you can suffer tremendously, whether it’s that injury or letting down the guy next to you because it’s all about team. He’s the quarterback. He’s the focal point. And you’re dealing with a guy who also is not your typical football jock. He’s a very smart guy who does a lot of things outside of the game, so I know he’s not going to twiddle his thumbs and wonder what’s next.
I’m not sure if this is the final time we’ll see Luck playing football. If I could have taken a year off around Year Eight or Nine, I might have had a little bit more love for the game and yearning to get back out there and play. It sounds to me like he’s just tired, and I know from rehabbing my hips post-career, if I’d had to go through anything near what he’s done with rehab, I would have walked away from the game. There’s no way in hell I would’ve spent four years trying to get back on the field just to get hurt again. It would have dawned on me, This is not what I want to be doing.
It’s also an easy decision when you have millions in the bank to walk away like he’s doing. It was easier for me, so I imagine for him it’s the same thing, whereas for Nate—you had to keep going, man. You had to play and keep pushing to try to make as much as you can in the time you could because everyone forgets, we’re not all on the same pay scale in the NFL.
Levin: Nate, one thing that we don’t see as fans is rehab. It must be so hard to make it through that time off the field, in pain, not knowing if you’re going to get back.
Jackson: Yeah, it’s a pretty depressing time because you get pulled out of the process with your teammates. You’re not going to meetings anymore. You’re not out on the field. You’re not traveling. And the rewarding parts of it are gone. Andrew Luck missed an entire season trying to figure out that shoulder thing, and then he goes over to the Netherlands, and by all accounts he had a kind of come-to-Jesus moment over there where he was alone with his wife, and they were thinking about all the things that they’d been through.
Fatsis: I was actually pleasantly surprised by the bulk of the reaction to Luck’s retirement. There have been some morons on Twitter, but by and large it’s been remarkably supportive. Do you guys think that after a decade of CTE news, NFL fans—like players—are becoming more empathetic about what playing this game does to the players?
Plummer: That’s a hard one. His home stadium, when he walked off, they booed him there in Indianapolis. Fans are sometimes just kind of oblivious to real life. They think of us as gladiators, as superheroes, and really we’re the same people that get up, have coffee, take a dump, put our pants on, and brush our teeth. We’re humans. We just have a skill set that sets us apart and gives us an opportunity to make money. So the fans that have a bad reaction to it—some people could not fathom that I walked away, and I would say, “I played 10 seasons. I played 10 straight seasons in the NFL, and I got benched at the end. So I was done.”
These fans that don’t understand what goes into it and what we put our bodies and our minds and our families and our brains through, they’re the ones screaming F-bombs with their child right next to them. But some of those idiots are also supplying the money for the players to make the money they’re making now.
The fans that do start to get it, they maybe have children themselves, and they wonder about how important a game like football is for longevity, for health and wellness. If you’re lucky, you get out of it relatively unscathed, but otherwise we deal with ghosts from our past, the ones that have played football for a long time. So, my kudos to the fans that understand. The ones that don’t, they’re the kind of the people that are sometimes driving things the wrong way in our own country.
Fatsis: From the NFL’s perspective, the league couldn’t have asked for anything more in an early retirement. Luck didn’t say a single negative word about the NFL or about the sport. He never mentioned concussions or brain injury. Even his references to his injuries, I thought, were pretty oblique. It was about frustration, not concern about being healthy enough to play with his kids.
Jackson: He’s just a very humble guy. You could just tell how much he cares about everybody in that organization and he does not want to say one single bad word. He also understands that the psyche of a team is very fragile. He was the leader of this team and if on his way out he’s saying, “Yeah, this game is pretty awful for you, man. I don’t know why I’m doing it, so I’m lucky I’m getting out of it right now”—what are his teammates going to think about that? I think that he’s very aware that the news cycle will pick up on any little negative thing that he says, so he’s just the consummate professional.
Plummer: He should be thinking about himself right now, not be worried that he’s going to let down the organization or that his teammates are going to be mad at him. I know that from experience when you retire, your teammates are like, “Man, you’re able to retire. That’s awesome.” Because like I said earlier, a lot of guys … to reference Nate and your career, you play as long as you can because you’re trying to make as much salary as you can.
For him, it’s not about money. This is about his personal and mental and physical health, and I would be surprised if becoming a father is not something on his mind. He’s a thinker. He has a lot of interests outside of football. He reminds me of some people I played with—you included, Nate—that have a zest for life.
Fatsis: Luck came from a very privileged background. His father Oliver was an NFL quarterback, but he went on to become a lawyer and moved into football management; he’s running the new XFL now. In a profile of Oliver Luck in Grantland, when he was the athletic director at West Virginia he said, “We always tell our student-athletes: Don’t let sports use you—you use it. You be selfish. You use it to get a free education, you use it to meet people. Don’t let it chew you up.” Clearly Andrew Luck was conditioned to think in this sort of progressive, rational way about football.
Levin: When we interviewed John Urschel earlier this year, the Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman who left to get a Ph.D. in math, I asked him about the football personnel people who might say that it’s a red flag when players have outside interests. And Urschel said that was actually kind of a valid point—that he did have this other thing that he could go and do that took him away from football. Do you think that Luck’s retirement, him being a guy who was an architecture major and has all of these other things going on in his life, will give pause to general managers who might now think, Maybe we don’t want guys who care about things other than the sport?
Jackson: I think it depends on the manner in which you care about it. I think if they were to go back and have the opportunity to draft Andrew Luck again, they probably would have done the same thing, because you never heard him being asked a question about the game and he said, “No, no, no. Actually, I really want to talk about architecture right now.” It’s the moment you use that platform to talk about other things that it becomes the dreaded D-word: It’s a distraction, and at that point you’ve got to go. Colin Kaepernick is a great example of that. They want football guys to be playing football when they’re there, talking football. When you go home you can be into whatever you want, but the minute you bring it to work, then you’ve got to go.
Plummer: Thinkers are not really allowed much. They don’t want you to be thinking outside of what’s next, practice, this script, the bus ride. Nate, you always said that everything we need to learn to function as a normal civilian is above us, and we’re never allowed to go up there and learn how to be managers, marketers, salesmen, or anything. They want you to be a football player and football player only. So I applaud Andrew Luck. I wish him the best, and I think he made a great decision.