Andrew Luck had about 64 million reasons to keep playing football. That is roughly the paycheck he is walking away from in his decision to retire.
It only took one reason to make him walk away.
“It’s (my injuries) taken the joy out of the game,” said Luck in his press conference following a preseason game against the Bears on August 24.
For the Colts fans who booed him, the media barkers who are criticizing him and ESPN’s Adam Schefter who broke the story, shame on all of you. When it comes to getting the “scoop” today, there are no rules and no consideration for the consequences. Luck earned the right to make that announcement himself. Someone who has covered the NFL for so long knew better, but making those phones ping was more important. It showed a complete lack of respect for Luck.
Battling through injuries is one of the most frustrating, isolating and enduring challenges athletes must face. It requires a level of perseverance most fans cannot even begin to comprehend. The relentless pressure to return and the guilt of letting your team down are psychologically debilitating. And let’s not forget, in many cases, the physical pain of the injury and the grueling rehabilitation.
This was not a guy who casually decided it was too much. This is a player who has been through, in his own words, “Four years of the injury, pain, rehab cycle.” Four years in the prime of his life. He is the son of a coach, who was himself an NFL player. Football and sports have been a part of his life since he was born. Deciding to walk away, was, according to Luck, the “hardest decision of my life.” No sane person would question his decision.
With all of the financial reasons and intrinsic pressure to keep fighting through the injury cycle to find his way back to the game he loves, his decision was sealed when the “joy” of the game was gone. Not even the legitimate expectations of a run at a Super Bowl could overshadow the reality that the road to the game was no longer enjoyable. It is the fundamental element that lures us to the game as youngsters –fun. And when it disappears, regardless of age, it is the primary reason why we quit playing.
A long time ago on a football field in central Wisconsin, I learned that same lesson. I grew up a typical Packers’ fan and absolutely fell in love with the game. We even challenged the gang from across town to a game, and won decisively 174-6. You can’t make that up, and if you are keeping score at home, that is 29 touchdowns. Pretty certain we have some Super-8 footage in the Bauer archives. I knew then, in our backyard games, exactly what Luck means by the “joy” of the game.
It wasn’t until as a 90-pound freshman that I got my first taste of organized football. I got absolutely destroyed every day on the practice field and tormented in the locker room. Slowly, begrudgingly, my love for playing football disappeared. I believe I had two or three concussions, I can’t remember for certain, as the upperclassmen took joy in punishing me. We had this spring-loaded running back gauntlet machine we had to run through. I got stuck in it day after day. It even sounds funny to me today, but back then it was humiliating. I started looking for every excuse possible to miss practice – to miss something I thought I loved to do. Suddenly, without warning, there was no joy in football anymore. In fact, it was painful and embarrassing.
I never played again after my freshman year.
Do I regret that decision? I do. Did I grow up to be a quitter? I did not. I don’t blame anyone – athletics and how we coached were different back then. Everything that happened to me was considered status quo. My parents didn’t intervene, didn’t try to get the coach fired and didn’t shame me for not playing again. It just happened that football in a small town where everybody practiced together wasn’t really built for me. I am sure other small players endured, but for me I had learned that the game was fun, and when that disappeared and was replaced with pain and embarrassment. I moved on.
In the gladiator culture of football, where physical domination is encouraged and applauded, backing away is seen as a sign of weakness. Some national pundits, searching for a knee-jerk reaction, are criticizing Luck for being too soft and deserting his teammates. The cliché “no pain, no gain” just doesn’t resonate here. This is a quality of life choice that should be respected, not chastised.
Along Luck’s journey, he discovered a second very important lesson. “Something I learned last year,” he said, “that if my worth as a human was going to be tied into how I did – the result of a performance in a football game – then I was going to have, pardon my French, a real s****y life.”
Unfortunately for millions of professional sports fans across the country, that is a concept they have yet to grasp. The athletic prowess of our children is an accepted measuring stick we conveniently use to validate ourselves as parents and shamefully for some the worth of our children. Winning can then become the fuel that when abused is a wildfire that incinerates the “joy” of the game and burns out athletes. The process can become such a big part of our life that we can forget how to separate the game from who we are.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who recruited Luck, knows the toll the game can take on players. “Our game is something we play, it’s not who we are,” he said upon learning of Luck’s decision.
At one point in my coaching career, I was deep in that place where the game consumes you. I rode that rollercoaster of using winning and losing to validate myself as a coach and it took an emotional toll on everyone around me. I no longer allow the scoreboard to control me, and in the process have re-discovered the “joy” of each season’s journey.
The majority of athletes don’t have 64 million reasons to play. They have just one: ”joy.” It is what we feel when we play as youngsters in the backyard and what we will experience if we are fortunate enough to be coached by someone who understands the importance of that feeling.
Protecting the happiness that athletic participation can produce is a tremendous responsibility for every coach and parent to oversee.
Thanks Andrew Luck for confirming what we already knew – you can’t put a price on happiness.
Dan Bauer is a freelance writer, retired teacher and hockey coach in Wausau, Wis. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.