February 2nd, 2019 - Andrew Luck graces the Fox Theater stage, accepting his Comeback Player of the Year award among his peers. The moment feels surreal - months ago it seemed doubtful he’d ever take another snap. However, as he often does on the football field - Luck was able to make the impossible a reality.
Let’s take a look back - using some of my own injury history as perspective - to see how the star quarterback got to this point.
• Multiple Sprained AC Joints
• Abdomen Tear
• Lacerated Kidney
• Torn Labrum
No, this isn’t a massive shopping list. It’s simply all of Andrew Luck’s injuries since 2015. With more health concerns over the past 4 years than some people have in their entire life, the star quarterback has been bruised, beaten up, and straight up broken - persevering through it all. In order to stay on the right path Luck has had to stay positive, and it’s that “glass half-full” mentality that has allowed him to push through the tough times.
“Being injured and missing football is obviously no fun”, Luck stated during his NFL Honors acceptance speech. “But you do learn a lot about yourself in the process,” he continued. “The results have been the best possible thing, not only in my professional career but (also just) in my everyday life.”
Balancing the mental and physical aspects of an injury are always tricky. Missing over a year of your prime can completely wreck a player - even if they’re able to heal properly. Luck was able to turn that frustration into a positive, using it to his advantage once he became healthy. He made no excuses. He placed no blame. And he used the injuries not as an accident, but rather as an opportunity. It takes a special type of person to put things in that type of perspective.
Now that isn’t to say everything was all rainbows and sunshine. Luck is the ultimate competitor. He wants to be out on the field at all times and you can only imagine how hard it was to watch his team struggle in his absence.
”I was a sad, miserable human at times,” Luck stated back in an incredible 2018 Indianapolis Star feature. “I was not nice to myself, nor was I nice to anyone else. I was a miserable SOB to be around. I was nervous. I was scared.”
By far the biggest of Luck’s issues - and an issue I’ve also dealt with personally - was the infamous torn right labrum. Luck even said so himself when opening up about his 2016 snowboard accident.
“I’ve had a bunch of AC sprains, both left and right shoulder, and resolved (those) issue(s). But the labrum has been my issue, was my (main) issue, and what I got surgery on.”
Now the best way to describe the labrum (as a non-doctor with limited medical knowledge) is to imagine a golf ball on a tee. The ball is essentially the top of your arm bone, held in place by the tee (shoulder blade). Now in order for the ball to stay on the tee, you need the labrum. A ring of cartilage, if you take the labrum away (or tear it), the ball can fall off the tee extremely easily. Sometimes labral tears can be fixed using physiotherapy, but in the more serious cases (like Luck’s), surgery is needed.
My Own Experience
I remember the first time my shoulder popped pretty vividly. Throwing a bunch of passes in a summer flag football practice, I felt the twinge trying to cork a pass deep. Young and naive, I simply thought I’d thrown my arm out. A few days of rest would surely do the trick.
Over the course of the next few months, it would start to occur more and more often, to the point where I started to notice this wasn’t just casual soreness. As luck would have it that ended up being the least of my concerns, however, as I would go on to tear my meniscus that coming year, ultimately needing surgery to get it fixed. Put on the back burner as I healed my knee, the labrum didn’t get any better with rest, and as soon as I got back into sports it became an instant issue.
Eventually having to wrap my arm like a mummy as I continued to try and play high-level hockey, my shoulder deteriorated the longer time passed. Popping in and out hundreds of times over the course of a year and a half, the more it would pop the easier it would be to do so again. I stopped throwing completely - any motion backwards would lead to an instant pop. The low point probably came trying to do simple jumping jacks in gym class, where I couldn’t even complete a set without my shoulder coming out on me.
Finally able to get arthroscopic surgery and 7 anchors this past March, the process has been quite an interesting one. On the plus side, I’ve learned how to do close grip push-ups quite well, became good friends with my physiotherapist, and even made Orville Redenbacher jealous with all my popping. But the injury also took its toll, both physically and emotionally - like with Luck himself.
Despite what this long and unnecessary description of my life might lead you to believe, I’m not here for pity. Hundreds and thousands have people have gone through labral tears and arm issues just like mine. The grueling ordeal has, however, allowed me to appreciate those who have gone through similar situations, particularly those who make a living trying to use that shoulder to the best of their abilities. After all, I could hardly handle my situation. I can’t even fathom how a star quarterback throwing hundreds of passes a day was able to handle his.
It seems like every young quarterback looks up to Drew Brees as a role model. After seeing Brees’ comeback from a gruesome torn labrum back in 2005, there’s little reason to think that Andrew Luck is an exception.
“He saved my life 10 years ago”, the Saints QB remarked back in 2015. Brees, of course, is referring to his surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Andrews is widely known around NFL circles and has completed thousands of surgeries on professional athletes - including Brees in 2005.
Andrews himself has claimed he’s never seen anything quite like Brees’ ripped up shoulder. “It was the most remarkable comeback I’ve ever seen”, he stated. “All indications were that he had a career-ending injury.”
Now I’m not saying Luck’s injury was quite as major as Brees’. Drew ended up with 12 anchors thrown in his shoulder and a complete 360-degree tear. I’m no doctor and I don’t want to act as one. Luck’s rehab did take longer than Brees’, however, and there’s no reason to think the two situations are all that different.
Despite Luck and Brees’ remarkable comebacks, they are the exception - not the rule. Houston Texans WR Braxton Miller can prove that as well as anyone.
Once an electrifying signal-caller at Ohio State, Miller tore his labrum during a spring practice back in 2013, missing the entire season as a result. Little did he know at the time that it would be his last time playing QB.
Now there were plenty of reasons for Miller’s switch to WR the following year. Cardale Jones (OSU’s 3rd String) had just come off a historic National Championship win, and it was natural for the Buckeyes to want him back under center. However, Miller’s lingering labrum issue - despite surgery to try and fix it - was the final nail in the coffin.
Having problems with his shoulder to this day, Miller’s injury was sort of a blessing in disguise given how well the position switch went. The point, however, is that it stopped him from throwing permanently - and Luck could have very well gone down that same path.
First suffered in Week 3 of 2015, Luck extraordinarily played through his labrum tear for nearly two whole years (8 games missed in 2015 and 1 game missed in 2016 were for the lacerated kidney and concussion - not the labrum). Battling through the pain and sacked 56 times during those seasons, Luck still played darn good football, made even more remarkable by the struggling team surrounding him.
Thankfully getting surgery to permanently fix it in 2017, Luck rehabbed for the whole season trying to get back on the right track. The operation wasn’t a guaranteed success, however. After all, shoulder procedures are always tricky, and Luck playing risked further damage which didn’t exactly help. There’s a fine line between being tough and being dumb - and at points, Luck admitted he crossed that line - something not uncommon among elite competitors (*cough* Kevin Durant). He put himself in more danger then he necessarily needed to, and it was refreshing to see his humbling take on the matter.
“One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m quite impatient as a person,” Luck stated. “And it’s gotten me into places, looking back at the rehab, that maybe I shouldn’t have been in in the first place. So, I don’t want to repeat those, maybe missteps (again). I cannot skip steps. I very, very strongly believe in that. Some things just take time. If it sounds like I’m saying it’s my fault, I’m not going to argue with you on it. But I’m also not whipping myself across my back for anything that I’ve done.”
Luck’s long-anticipated return to football didn’t necessarily go as well as expected, even if the expectations were low. It was noticeable throughout the first few weeks of the season that his arm wasn’t fully back. The low point came in a Week 3 loss to the Eagles, a game in which Luck averaged a meager 4.1 yards per pass. Back-up Jacoby Brissett even took the final Hail Mary snap while the Stanford product sat from the bench - an entire fan base wondering if this was the end. But the Indy signal-caller hadn’t come all this way in his rehab to stop now.
Kobe Bryant may have summed it up perfectly following his devastating Achilles tear. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. No matter what the injury - unless it’s completely debilitating - I’m going to be the same player I’ve always been. I’ll figure it out. I’ll make some tweaks, some changes, but I’m still coming.”
Luck and the Colts organization might have read that same quote themselves, as they’ve used a near identical approach to Luck’s comeback journey. General Manager Chris Ballard fortified the O-Line, drafting studs like Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith to protect their prized asset. Meanwhile, Head Coach Frank Reich started to focus on getting the ball out of Luck’s hands much quicker, with a higher priority, using mesh and drag type concepts.
All of this - along with more arm strength returning to Luck’s shoulder - allowed for a miraculous second half to the season. Winning 9 of their last 10 games, Indianapolis found their groove, with Luck at the center of the remarkable win streak. Averaging 6.4 yards per attempt during the first half of the season, Luck increased that all the way up to an 8.1 after the Colts’ Week 9 bye. The tweaks made and the further time away from surgery did wonders, and it proved Luck can still hang with the best of them - even if he may never have full shoulder rotation again.
Ultimately, Andrew Luck is here to stay. He’s battled through the tough times and come out the other end - grabbing my complete and total respect in the process.