The last time Andrew Luck made a shocking decision that rocked the football world, it came in January of 2011. He’d just finished second in the Heisman Trophy race to Cam Newton, led Stanford to a 12-1 record and emerged as the presumptive favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Luck had just completed his junior year at Stanford, and his NFL stock could go only down. Plus, the college coach who improbably recruited him there, Jim Harbaugh, was on the cusp of taking an NFL job later that week.
When every sign screamed it would be wise to head off to the NFL, Luck returned to Stanford for one more year. In vintage understated Luck style, he released a one-line statement about his decision. Likely one line more than he wanted to.
The news that came about the 29-year-old Luck’s retirement on Saturday night was infinitely more shocking. ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the story that Luck would be retiring, which Luck confirmed later in a news conference. He said the decision, which he wrestled with the past two weeks, was a culmination of four years of struggling with injuries.
Basically, the cycle of injury and recovery left Luck in a place where it compromised his ability to live a normal life: “I can’t live the life I want to live, moving forward.”
The decision was greeted by myriad reactions, to borrow one of the SAT words Luck used on the podium. And it reminded me of the reaction of his father, Oliver, when he heard his son’s decision being ripped on the radio back in 2011.
“It’s a Rorschach test for people’s values system,” Oliver Luck said of people’s reactions that day.
The remark reverberates today, as internet blather ranged from everything from how it impacted people’s fantasy teams to XFL conspiracies to how much guaranteed money Luck was giving up. He was even booed as he walked off the field in Indianapolis Saturday night, where the Colts were playing the Bears.
I covered Luck extensively in college, which colors my perspective in taking the Rorschach test of how to view his latest shocking decision. Luck is one of my five favorite athletes I’ve gotten to know in my 20 years of covering college sports. And while I’m sad for the end of a playing career in which he never got to exploit all of his talent, my reaction evolved to anticipating how much he’ll end up enjoying whatever he does next.
As former Stanford assistant Mike Bloomgren, now the head coach at Rice, told me on the phone late Saturday: “Don’t worry about Andrew Luck, he’s going to be more than fine.”
Back when Luck decided to return to Stanford, I ended up spending a day with him that winter. I later found out that he didn’t want to do any interviews about returning, as one of the great allures of Stanford to Luck was the school’s bubble that allowed him to blend in. But the Pac-10 office interceded, and there was Luck one day in February politely explaining why he still had a flip phone, stayed off social media and kept a bookstore bag over his bike seat to fend off the rain.
I learned a bit that day about what made Luck tick. He relished the bubble at Stanford so much that while he was happy to tour across campus with me, I wasn’t invited into his classes or dorm. So I trailed him for the day with a photographer, dined with him at lunch and enjoyed his artful dodges in talking about his least favorite subject – himself.
Luck was unfailingly engaging and polite, often asking questions to me – about that night’s Syracuse-UConn game, cheating in college football, the personalities of other coaches – in part to avoid questions about himself. The funny lasting memory I have of that day involves Luck’s self-awareness. We were eating lunch, but he always bought his in the morning to save time waiting in line. So after we bought Subway sandwiches, he kindly offered to hold my sub in his backpack while he went to class, realizing I’d stand out schlepping around a footlong around campus.
All the different topics that came up that day showed how many other things Andrew Luck valued outside of football. He returned to graduate with a degree in architectural design from the school of engineering at Stanford, which requires a dizzying intellect. But Luck had so many other interests, as he grew up partly in Europe and loved following soccer so much he got teased by his teammates for wearing a Houston Dynamo MLS jersey.
Catching a full day at the Big East Tournament – at least in that iteration of the league – was on his sports bucket list. He loved chatting about stadium designs and Stanford traditions like taking a dip in the Hoover Tower Fountain. Anything, pretty much, that didn’t involve himself.
The most I pulled out of Luck that day, other than a few of his trademark dorky laughs, was this nugget about his decision to return to Stanford: “I think I knew pretty much all along what I was going to do.”
It would be disingenuous to intimate that I’d kept in any kind of consistent touch with Luck, outside an occasional interview, in the eight years since he left Stanford. He’s nearly 30 now and has dealt with a whole host of serious and gruesome medical issues.
But from knowing him then and chatting with his dad – XFL commissioner and former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck – frequently over the years, the one thing I’m confident about is how annoyed Luck would be that people verbalized their disappointment about his retirement’s impact on their fantasy team. (Yes, like O.J. Simpson.)
Just like he admitted Saturday night that the nonsensical booing from fans in the stadium irked him. “It hurt,” he said. “I’ll be honest.”
Luck, like many NFL players, is viscerally offended when the subject of their reality impinging on someone else’s fantasy is broached with them. Oliver Luck would chuckle over the years, saying that the quickest way to shut down a conversation with Andrew would be mentioning how something he or his teammate did – especially an injury – impacted their fantasy team.
Considering the bleak nature of his physical reality the past few years, who could blame Luck for developing an edge about it. Luck’s recent NFL life was no fantasy, as Colts writer Zak Keefer of The Athletic tweeted last night that Luck dealt with a litany of serious injuries – torn cartilage in his ribs, partially torn abdomen, a concussion, torn labrum, the lingering ankle injury and, of course, the lacerated kidney that left him peeing blood.
“For me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it does not involve football,” Luck said in his news conference.
When Luck initially committed to Stanford back in high school in 2007, it could be considered his first shocking football decision. The Cardinal were coming off a 1-11 season, and he had much more prestigious offers.
I have no idea what’s next for Andrew Luck. He could go into architecture and design stadiums. He could move to Europe and raise his own family over there, as he and his wife Nicole are expecting their first child. He could go back under the Stanford bubble for another degree. After making $97 million in salary in the NFL, there’s plenty of options.
The reality for Andrew Luck’s future is that he was smart enough to realize there was too much else out there in life to keep enduring all that physical pain. And regardless of which passions he chases or direction he heads, I look forward to him surprising us all again at where it ends up.
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