Athletes are people, too
What do you do when you lose passion for the job that you love?
That’s a question many of us will ask ourselves at some point in our lives. You might have gone to school, earned an expensive degree, and after years of effort, you finally land a dream job.
However, eventually you get worn down. The long hours, the frequently growing list of responsibilities, the long commute to work, among other frustrations. Finally, you eventually wake up in the morning and even though there’s still a part of you that likes what you do, you just can’t bring yourself to go into work.
Now just imagine that during all that time, you battled serious health issues, such as a sprained shoulder, lacerated kidney, partially torn abdominal muscle, torn cartilage in your ribs, a damaged labrum that required you to have surgery, a calf issue that won’t go away and at least one concussion.
Even if you really loved your profession, by this point, you’d probably ask yourself if this was worth it anymore.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had all of those physical ailments listed above, and eventually he realized he just couldn’t bring himself to lace up his spikes, put on his pads, strap on his helmet and compete for our amusement.
He stunningly announced his retirement last weekend and as he walked off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, some Colts fans decided to shower him with boos.
Since the news of his retirement broke on social media earlier than he hoped for, Luck was forced to address the media that Saturday night after the Colts’ preseason game, instead of the following day.
Fighting back tears, he talked about how retiring was the “hardest decision” of his life, but it was the “right decision.” He talked about how he “felt stuck” in the long string of injuries, and after playing through pain during the 2016 season, he said he made a “vow” that he wouldn’t do that again.
Luck also said that he loved football, the Colts, his teammates, and yes, even the fans. The statement that stuck out the most was this — he felt that he was “unable to pour my heart and soul into this position.” And that it ‘would not only sell myself short, but the team in the end as well.”
Luck basically admitted that he felt that if he continued to play this season, he would be not only be hurting himself, but also the Colts. So retirement from the game he cherished was the only conclusion.
And yet, people hated him for that. Even with those words, fans and members of the media criticized him for being a bad teammate, being selfish, not fighting hard enough, among other accusations.
One loudmouth radio host decided to condemn not only Luck for retiring, but an entire generation of people as well. Thankfully, he was rightfully slammed by fans, fellow media members and most importantly, athletes, who said he wouldn’t understand what Luck is going through because he never played pro football and shouldn’t be judging anybody.
That’s the thing. We shouldn’t be judging Luck or anybody who went through what he went through and deciding to end their career.
Why? Easy, because we don’t understand. Very few of us know what it’s like to wake up at 5 a.m. on a Monday after just getting pummeled over and over again the day before. Your head hurts, your body aches and you’re probably not breaking out into a sprint on your way to the kitchen to make toast.
You’ve got to fight through it, though, because you’ve got a weightlifting session in a couple hours. Then a film session before getting some treatment in the training room.
Think you have a day off on Tuesday? Keep dreaming. Now you’ve got another workout, a treatment session and you start planning for the next game. You’re probably still sore, but you’ve got to keep going.
On Wednesday, you’ve got to install core schemes for the week and practice pressure situations. Thursday, you’ve got to go through your third-down package and practice more pressure moments during the game. Friday, you’re working on your red-zone schemes, your goal line packages and two-minute drills.
Finally, Saturday, you’re either traveling or staying at a hotel (even at home) and you just hope that you’re healed up and prepared for the next day.
Then you get hit repeatedly on Sunday and go through the same routine again. There’s a good chance that the injuries you suffer over the course of each week will continue to follow you as you progress through your career and even after you’ve decided to hang up your jersey.
CTE and other brain issues are a high possibility as well, so not only would you have visible physical problems, but also ones below the surface that you might not notice for years and could cause you even more damage than the ones you see in the mirror every day.
If that’s not enough, there’s also the mental issues that wear on you.
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said he can’t remember the Dallas Cowboys’ 1994 NFC Championship game, a huge moment in his career, thanks to a concussion he suffered during the game. That big achievement is gone forever for him.
Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said earlier this week that “football was bringing him down and I didn’t like it. And I was losing that joy in life,” and that after taking a hit to his quad in the Super Bowl, he decided that would be his last game.
After the game, Gronk said he was in tears in bed after winning the Super Bowl because of the pain. He also added that four weeks later, he had internal bleeding and had to have a liter — about a quart — of blood drained from his thigh.
Former NFL offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger said on Twitter that he couldn’t sleep during his final season due to his frequent back pain, but he kept playing because he said he didn’t want to let anybody down.
At one point, he said it was determined that he’d need spinal surgery, but he could still play as long as he could manage the symptoms, but after five or six epidural injections, he said he’d “constantly fantasize about that surgery.”
Ohrnberger also said during one game, he tore some ankle ligaments and he took a numbing injection to see if he could finish and he couldn’t. He said there were times after that where his right leg would become “momentarily paralyzed” when he was running or even walking.
At the end of his Twitter thread, he reflected on his career saying that he went to a Super Bowl, played in a playoff game, played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and achieved a dream.
However, on the flip side, he had operations on both shoulders, part of his clavicle bone removed, had a season-ending concussion, ruptured his MCL and went through that eventual back surgery.
Looking at that list and Luck’s injury list, it’s insane what football players (and other athletes) go through simply because they love the game.
And that’s what it is. A game. An exciting, fun, entertaining game. However, as great as football is, there’s a lot that we don’t see behind the scenes.
As talented as these guys are at their profession, they’re still human beings. They go through physical pain, mental anguish and emotional distress, all for the love of football. It’s an admirable pursuit, but it’s also sad because they’ll probably be suffering long after their careers are over, if they aren’t during them.
Luck decided to end his playing career far sooner than both he and the rest of us all expected and even though he seemed content with his decision, it was clear that it was still killing him inside to turn his back on the sport he enjoyed so much. It was painful watching him deliver those words and most of us have no idea what he was going through.
There might be a few of you out there that are still condemning Luck, and if you are, put yourself in his shoes. If you realized that you’ve lost your passion for the job you loved, and you knew that if you kept at it, you’d be miserable and it could affect not only you, but the people you care about, what would you do?
You’d probably end up making the same choice that Luck did, and you’d probably be a lot happier for it.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.