Given the toll football takes on their bodies, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when NFL players walk away from the sport. Nonetheless, the reaction to Andrew Luck’s retirement announcement on Saturday can fairly be described as “shock.” The Indianapolis Colts quarterback is just short of 30 years old—that is, 12 years younger than Tom Brady, who was drafted by the New England Patriots when Luck was 10. After missing a full season due to a shoulder injury, Luck returned last year to lead the Colts to the playoffs (something he has done in each season he has been healthy), throwing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. But in a press conference after Saturday’s preseason game against the Bears, Luck told reporters that he just couldn’t do it any longer. “I’m in pain,” he said. “I’m still in pain.”
Luck had sat out this preseason with an ankle injury, and since 2015 he’s missed playing time due to a lacerated kidney, torn abdomen, cracked ribs, a concussion, and that severely hurt shoulder. “It’s been four years of this injury, pain, rehab cycle,” he said on Saturday.
It’s bitterly ironic then that one of the most memorable aspects of Luck’s on-the-field personality was his eagerness to compliment the opponents who knocked him to the ground. Shortly after his announcement that he couldn’t take the pain football has inflicted on his body and mind, NFL-affiliated social media account the Checkdown posted a video of Luck giving props to defenders.
In the heat of action, Luck found kind words for just about everybody. In this video from a 2016 game against the Chiefs, he fumbles a snap and apologizes to the referee who helps him emerge from the pile. Then, as he jogs back to the sideline, Luck reassures his center: “You’re fine! That one’s on me.”
In 2015, Kevin Clark wrote a story about Luck’s supernatural politeness for the Wall Street Journal. He contacted 12 defenders who’d recorded a hit on Luck, “and each player said he received the same message from Luck.” That message would be “good job,” “nice hit,” or some other eager compliment. “In all the years I’ve played football I have never heard anything like it,” Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said.
“He’s the nicest guy you’d ever meet in your life,” cornerback Richard Sherman said of Luck. That statement came during an NFL segment on “football etiquette” which, unsurprisingly, focused mostly on the Colts quarterback.
The Colts cursed Luck with plenty of opportunities to compliment defenders. He was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league between 2012 and 2016, including 41 times during a particularly brutal 2016 campaign. “There were times when you play through pain, there were times when it felt great,” Luck said after that season. “The reality is everybody plays through pain in the NFL. I’ve played through pain every year.”
Those who defend the violent nature of football frequently argue that the players “know what they’re getting into.” But that doesn’t make what they’re getting into hurt any less. Luck, the son of a former NFL quarterback, understood better than anyone that pain is part and parcel of the game. It’s why he showered his opponents with compliments after hits—he understood that inflicting pain was just part of their job. Enduring it will no longer be part of Luck’s. “For me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football,” he said on Saturday.
Before he opened up the press conference to questions from reporters, Luck found time to issue one final compliment. “I guess, in a philosophical sense, I want to thank football for so many wonderful moments in my life,” he said. All too often in the last seven years, football didn’t thank him back.