Feinstein: Luck Loved Football, But He Didn't Need It

It wasn't easy, John Feinstein says, but Andrew Luck made the right choice

John Feinstein
August 28, 2019 - 5:55 pm
Andrew Luck Colts Retirement

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Years ago, when I taught a journalism class at Duke University, I would start my first class of the semester with a question: “What’s the definition of objective reporting?”

I’d get various answers—all of them wrong, because it was a trick question.
There’s no such thing as objective reporting. Anyone in the news business who claims to be objective is lying—to you and, very possibly, to themselves.
We all have biases. In many cases, they’re simple: you root for an event you’re covering to be over quickly so you can make a deadline. That’s why, on the night of college basketball’s national championship game, regardless of who is playing, I root for one thing: no overtime. The game ends close to midnight as is; an extra 20 minutes to play overtime is a deadline-writer’s nightmare.
Other times, you simply root for the story: I vividly remember an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game ten years ago between Pittsburgh and Xavier when I did everything but join the Pitt cheerleaders as the game played out. I had talked the day before to Pitt coach Jamie Dixon about the death three years earlier of his sister, Maggie. She had been 28. She had died on April 6th—which in 2009 was the date the national championship game would be played. Pitt was the top seed in the East and it wasn’t out of the question that they would play that night.
Dixon talked poignantly about how that might feel and about his relationship with his younger sister. “We’d talk late at night, sometimes when we were both on recruiting trips,” he said. “It wasn’t just brother to sister, it was coach to coach.”
It was one of those columns that wrote itself and, all I needed to do if Pitt won that night, was write a couple of paragraphs about the game. If Pitt lost, I’d be back on square one and a column I thought was really good, would never see the light of day.
Xavier led most of the night and I was almost in physical pain—nothing against the Musketeers or Coach Sean Miller. I was rooting like hell for myself.
Pitt won. I never broke the “no cheering in the press box” rule—except inside my brain.
Often, though, the bias we feel is personal.
Two years ago, I researched and then wrote a book called, “Quarterback,” which—cleverly enough—was about playing quarterback in the NFL. I worked closely with five players—four active, one retired: Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Doug Williams.
When Flacco’s Baltimore Ravens lost a playoff berth in the final seconds of the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, my heart broke for Flacco. That wasn’t about rooting for the story—I’m lucky that my books rarely depend on outcomes nearly as much as they depend on the access my subjects are willing to give me.
In 1986, when I was researching, “A Season on the Brink,” I felt awful when Indiana was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Cleveland State. I still remember Jackie MacMullan, then of the Boston Globe, saying to me, “I’m so sorry. You’ve put in so much time and effort and it all just went up in smoke.”
I felt awful for Indiana’s players, who I’d grown to like very much. But I honestly wasn’t upset about the book. I thought the access Bob Knight had given me was going to make for a great book—one that would sell well—regardless of how Indiana’s season ended.
As it turned out, I was right. I felt pretty much the same way about, “Quarterback.” I felt badly that evening for Flacco, not for myself.
During that offseason, as I was in the writing process, Alex Smith was traded from Kansas City to Washington. I had lunch with Smith soon after he arrived in Washington and was completely honest with him about how I felt about the trade.
“Alex, I hope you throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns every week,” I said. “I also hope you go 0-16 and it’s the defense’s fault.”
Smith smiled. “I forgot,” he said. “You aren’t a fan of Dan Snyder’s, are you?”
That was putting it mildly. Snyder is about as mean-spirited as anyone I’ve ever met in sports.
Washington was 6-3 last November when, playing against the Houston Texans, Smith suffered the most horrific on-field injury I had seen since the night in 1985 when Joe Theismann broke his leg. (Ironically, I was watching that game with Bob Knight). As soon as I saw the play, I walked out of the room, not wanting to see a replay (CBS, to its credit, only showed one) and feeling almost physically ill. I would have felt badly for anyone on a play like that, but because it was someone I knew and liked, I was sick to my stomach. I didn’t watch the rest of the game. For once, I wasn’t pulling against Washington. I simply didn’t care who won the game.
Smith has gone through hell since that afternoon: surgeries, infections, having to wear a giant contraption on his leg for months. He still wants to play again—unlikely as that sounds. Theismann never played again after his injury. He was 36 when it happened; Smith was 34.
Which brings me to Luck, who walked away from football—and about $60 million in salary over the next three years—this past Saturday.
Luck’s decision surprised me: I knew he was dealing with lingering calf and ankle injuries and wasn’t going to be ready to start the season. But it didn’t shock me.
Luck didn’t play a single down in 2017, the season I worked with him on “Quarterback.” When we first talked in May, he was still recovering from shoulder surgery five months earlier, but was confident he’d be ready to go when training camp opened in July.
It’s worth noting—especially in light of what happened last weekend—that Luck played the entire 2016 season in pain. Doctors had told him he might be able to avoid surgery with vigorous rehab and Luck played through a lot of pain that fall.
“When it got to the point where I couldn’t pull open a door or push through a revolving door without pain, I knew it was time to get the surgery,” he said. “It was affecting my life, not just football. And I didn’t want to go through another season feeling as if I wasn’t 100 percent.”
So, he had the surgery in January of 2017 and was told he’d be ready for training camp.
Only he wasn’t. Nor was he ready for opening day. He stood on the sidelines and watched helplessly as the Colts, quarterbacked by Scott Tolzien, lost 46-9 to the Rams.
“Standing there was an awful feeling,” Luck told me later. “I felt guilty, as if I was letting my teammates down. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but it FELT like my fault. It was an absolutely miserable feeling.”
It went downhill from there. Luck returned to practice in early October and there was hope he might play the second half of the season. Nope. His shoulder began to ache again and, on November 2, the team put him on injured reserve, ending his season before it ever began. Luck fled to Europe to get away from the blinding media attention; the questions he couldn’t answer and to try and find some light, somewhere in the dark tunnel he was in.
He was frustrated, angry, depressed.
“It actually got worse before it got better,” he said, months later. “I finally had to deal with the fact that I might never play again. Once I accepted that possibility and knew I could live with it, I started to get better.”
He came back and led a team that had won four games in his absence to 11 wins, a first-round playoff victory and was named Comeback Player of the Year. He had put body and soul into coming back and it had paid off…finally.
But then, this summer came yet another injury—this one to an ankle and a calf—and it lingered to the point where it was apparent he wasn’t going to start the season and there was doubt about when he might play again. Or if he would play again.
I have no doubt that the thought of going through another season standing on the sidelines feeling helpless drove Luck’s decision to walk away—walk away, by the way, from about $60 million in future salary.
As he put it, the injuries had taken the joy out of football from him. Football had become an endless cycle of pain; rehab; frustration and guilt. Luck could almost certainly deal with the pain and the rehab. It was the frustration and the guilt that made his mind up for him.
Because I like and respect him so much, I feel terrible that Luck has had to end his career a few weeks before turning 30. But I also feel good for him—that he could make the decision and know that there’s plenty of life left for him after football. Luck loved football as much as anyone, but he never NEEDED football.
He’s too smart and too well-rounded to think he can’t go on without football. Regardless of what he decides to do next, Luck will do it well and be happy doing it.
The old saying goes that great athletes die twice—once when they have to give up their sport, or more accurately when their sport gives up on them. Luck is an exception to that rule. For him, giving up his sport wasn’t easy, but he knew it wouldn’t kill him.
Good for him.
John Feinstein’s new young adult book, “Benchwarmers,”—the story of two young soccer players—a boy and a girl—dealing with a sexist coach—was published this week. “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important position in Professional Sports,” came out in paperback this week as did his book, ‘Prodigy,’ the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com