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The Cautionary Tale of Andrew Luck

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Saturday evening, news broke that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is shockingly retiring from the NFL at just 29 years old. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft, four-time Pro Bowler, 2018 NFL Comeback Player of the Year and Stanford football great has had enough after seven painful years in the league.

“Wow. Just, wow.”

That’s all I could say when I heard the drop-your-cup-mid-sip news about my favorite NFL player.

When I began writing this column, I intended to focus squarely on former Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson and Owner Jim Irsay. Collectively, those two men failed the most talented quarterback to enter the NFL since Aaron Rodgers. Continually fielding a putrid offensive line, Grigson and Irsay fed Luck to the wolves. In each of his first three seasons, Luck suffered the most quarterback knockdowns in the league, a total of 352 hits in just 48 games.

Three hundred fifty-two.

I wanted to harp on how negligent and disgusting it was for the two of them to do what they did to Luck: supplying him with a laughable protection team that couldn’t save him from the pass rush, or failing to draft more offensive weapons to ease the burden of carrying the entire team. They had been gifted the keys to a brand-new Ferrari, put a brick on the gas pedal and rammed it through the garage wall Ferris-Bueller-style.

But while I was doing more research for this column, I came across a clip of Luck walking off his home field shortly after the retirement news broke, booed by his own team’s fans who hadn’t even given him an opportunity to explain himself.

You see, Luck was supposed to announce his retirement today. However, word leaked last night of his decision during the Colts preseason game against the Chicago Bears – a game he was attending in street clothes to support the Colts on the sidelines. So when the game ended and Luck retreated to the locker room with his teammates, the home fans inexplicably booed their perennial MVP -candidate of seven years.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. It’s taken the joy out of this game,” Luck said in the post-game press conference. “The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football.”

Fighting off tears, Luck went on to say how difficult the last four injury-riddled years have been for him.

In 2015, Luck urinated blood due to a lacerated kidney he suffered playing for the Colts. He missed the entire 2017 season due to shoulder surgery rehab. As The Athletic’s Zak Keeger reported, in total Luck suffered torn cartilage in two ribs, a partially torn abdomen, a concussion and a torn labrum. He then returned last year to throw 39 touchdown passes, leading the Colts all the way back to the second round of the playoffs and winning the league’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. Unfortunately, during this offseason Luck suffered another injury, and it was just too much.

But despite everything Luck did for the Colts, there was no love lost by the team’s fans when they found out that a new nagging lower body injury had proved to be the last straw and compelled him to retire.

Unfortunately, Colts fans’ reactions merely underscore the dehumanizing reality professional athletes face, especially football players. As an avid sports fan myself, I empathize with Colts fans and their frustrations. They went from dangerous Super Bowl contender to likely NFL cellar-dweller status before they could butter their halftime popcorn last night. It sucks. But that doesn’t excuse their stubbornly insular response and callous attitude towards Luck, whom is undoubtedly undergoing a trying time in his life. As if Luck hadn’t endured enough physical pain at the hands of the Colts organization, when asked about the booing he told reporters, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the reaction., Iit hurt., I’ll be honest.”

Football is cruel. Football fans are worse. Coarse fan reactions to delicate situations like this one make me second guess my loving allegiance to professional sports teams. At the end of the day, it’s simply a bunch of grown men playing games. How would you feel if someone judged your entire character on the basis of you quitting a game of ping pong?

It’s different, but not really. Bottom line, we as sports fans need to do better. I say “sports” and not just “football” because Luck’s situation isn’t an isolated incident. Athletes across all sports have to deal with petulant and downright disrespectful fans far too often. In baseball, Boston Red Sox fans shouted racial epithets at outfielder Adam Jones in 2017 when he played for the Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile in the NBA, Houston Rockets point guard Russell Westbrook has repeatedly dealt with similarly hostile Utah Jazz fans. The Toronto Raptors’ home crowd cheered when two-time Finals MVP and then-member of the Golden State Warriors Kevin Durant suffered a torn Achilles, sidelining him for the remainder of the championship series.

It’s hard for fans to emotionally calibrate with sports. It’s so tantalizing to fully immerse oneself in a sports team’s reality – to align part of your identity with a franchise by saying “we won” and “we’re getting better.” I know this because I do it often. To a certain degree that is okay. Hell, it’s not just okay, it’s encouraged. There’s nothing more exhilarating than your team securing a big win or claiming a title.

But we run into trouble when we lose touch with reality – when we forget that Andrew Luck is a human being who has a desire to live a fulfilled and happy life. So what gives anybody the right to disrespect him with jeers as he leaves his home field for the last time due to circumstances he’s had no control over? We all just have to be better.

No Colts fans, you are not all bad people, I’ve been guilty of hating players solely because of things they did that affected my favorite teams. But I do realize there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. This public shaming of an all-around exemplary human shows how many fans in the sports world don’t have a concept of that line of human decency. A lot of sports fans need to take a step back and recalibrate how they perceive and treat athletes.

“I love my team” is not a valid excuse to act like an awful human being. 

Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.