In the century that football has grown into the nation’s most-watched sport, the N.F.L. has expected players to act like warriors willing to suck up the pain and sacrifice their bodies for the good of the team, and to be grateful they are paid handsomely to do it.
Yet even as awareness of the physical toll of the sport rises, the sudden retirement just two weeks before the start of the season by the Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck at age 29 still provided a jolt.
Luck, a former first overall draft pick and one of the league’s brightest stars over the last seven seasons, said Saturday he could no longer take the years of pain and rehabilitation from a host of cringe-worthy injuries: a lacerated kidney, injured ribs, at least one concussion, torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder and, most recently, a calf and ankle injury.
It was not the first time a young player had stepped away supposedly in the prime of his or her career — several have done so in recent years — but it was one of the more vivid examples of the changing dynamics of a league striving to portray the game as safer than ever while its players increasingly weigh the consequences of continuing a career where the long-term physical issues only build as the seasons pile up.
Unlike in earlier eras, when players had to grind out a decade or more to maintain a high standard of living, the financial arrangements of today’s top players often make it easier to retire comfortably before they hit 30.
“There’s an immense amount of pressure for a No. 1 draft pick to be out there,” said Chris Borland, who shocked the football world when he retired from the San Francisco 49ers in 2015 after one standout season. “But you’re seeing more players prioritize their health over money.”
The minimum salary for rookies today is approaching $500,000. First-round draft picks receive signing bonuses worth millions of dollars more before they have taken a snap. (Luck’s first bonus was $14.5 million.) In years past, the third contract was pay dirt. Getting a second contract is now the goal, and Luck did. He signed a five-year contract worth up to $122 million in 2016. Even though he is leaving about half that money on the table, Luck has already been paid $97 million.
Of course, Luck is not really young in football years. By the time most N.F.L. players reach his age, they have been playing tackle football for two decades or more.
Living with pain and overcoming injuries is a central feature of their lives, and many are trapped in a cycle of injuries and rehabilitation that wear on them mentally as well as physically. It is a toll that carries on long after they retire.
“I feel tired, and not just in the physical sense,” Luck said Saturday. “The lack of progress just builds up and you turn the corner and run into another stumbling block.”
Last season, Matt Hasselbeck, a former N.F.L. quarterback — and a former teammate of Luck — who is now a television analyst, recalled a conversation he had with Luck before Luck had surgery on his shoulder that kept him off the field for the 2017 season. Hasselbeck warned Luck that the year of rehabilitation was “going to be the worst year of his career. It’s no fun, football’s not fun, life’s not fun.”
Hasselbeck said Luck admitted he had not considered the psychological pain that goes with surgery and rehabilitation.
“Everything’s harder, everything’s miserable and you’re going to ask yourself, ‘How long do I want to do this?’” Hasselbeck said.
Luck responded to the year of hard work with a throwback season in 2018. He played all 16 games, passing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, both of which were the second-best marks of his career. With a 10-6 record, Luck led the Colts back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
The future once again looked bright for Luck, the son of a well-known football executive, who after a standout career at Stanford stepped in to replace Peyton Manning as the face of the Colts.
Still, though Luck said on Saturday that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders with his decision to retire, some fans could not abide his decision. A round of boos greeted him as he left the field of a preseason game Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as news outlets began reporting his decision.
Randy Grimes, a former player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who struggled with injuries and now helps athletes overcome addiction to painkillers, said he was not surprised. In his view, little has changed since he last played in 1992.
Players are competitive, coaches are competitive, owners want a return on their investment and fans just want to watch football. The confluence often conspires to force players to make decisions that are not in the best interest of their long-term health.
“It’s always being in the training room and not being part of practice,” Grimes said. “That in itself forces you into a place of isolation and on an island even when you’re in the middle of it but alone.”
Some players — including Grimes during his career — have coped with the injuries and isolation by taking addictive painkillers that numb the pain but leave them with dangerous addictions. Other players grapple with the depression that comes from being in constant pain.
Then there is the ongoing issue of potential cognitive decline caused by repeated head hits. The N.F.L. has changed many rules of the game to reduce the number of dangerous plays, placed independent neurologists on the sidelines during games and strengthened its return-to-play protocols. Even so, many retired players struggle with memory loss, impulse control issues and in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
Most players have heard about former teammates with these and other struggles and some like Luck want to leave the game before it consumes them as well.
Players of Luck’s generation now consider a more ruthless calculation of health versus money, and that is putting them in conflict with team owners, who are always looking for more football, not less.
As they did during labor talks in 2011, the owners are pushing to extend the regular season from 16 to 18 games, and to expand the playoff calendar. The players are once again pushing back. They made concessions eight years ago so they could get more time off in the off-season and fewer practices with pads during the season.
The owners hope they can dangle enough money in front of the players to get them to change their minds. The players, on the other hand, are pushing for the league to lift its ban on the use of marijuana for pain relief.
“The conversation around 18 games is absurd, especially when the league is talking about player safety,” Borland said. “Late in the season, when teams are still playing Thursday night games, the locker room looks like a trauma ward.”
Luck knows this better than most players, having missed 26 games in his N.F.L. career. Even his successful return last season, when he won the N.F.L. Comeback Player of the Year Award, was not enough to keep him going. He was bothered by injuries to his calf and ankle this year and had barely practiced this off-season.
On Saturday, he told reporters he wavered about whether to stop playing. But over time he recognized that he spent the past four years on a never-ending cycle of trying to get healthy, and that he needed to break that loop.
Two weeks ago, he said, he decided to jump off the N.F.L. train and focus on himself.
“I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road,” he said Saturday, “and I made a vow to myself if I ever did again, I would choose me in a sense.”
Ben Shpigel contributed reporting.