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Stages of Grief: A fan’s perspective on Andrew Luck’s surprising retirement

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Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

If the last 14 hours for me have felt anything like the last four years for Andrew Luck, I get it. The optimistic voice inside of each of us grows tired and weak after prolonged periods of use.

For Indianapolis Colts fans, Andrew Luck’s health has been an ongoing topic of discussion for the last three to four seasons. He has missed time on the field due to a variety of ailments and has reportedly played through considerable pain out of a desire to not let his teammates and fans down. When he underwent shoulder surgery after the 2016 NFL season, fans latched quickly onto the confidence in Jim Irsay’s press conference discussing the procedure.

Fans were likely thinking, “poor Andrew has been brutalized early in his career and taken some nasty shots. If this is what it takes to help him get healthy and back to 100 percent, we’re on board.”

When his recovery took longer than anticipated and he was lost for the entire season, fans lost confidence in the organization. The optimistic voice in fans’ heads started to get tired. One was left to wonder, “will he ever be the same again? Will he ever play?”

The fear of losing Luck for another season or that his shoulder injury would end his career lasted all the way through the summer and much of training camp in 2018. When information leaked that he was throwing, only not regulation NFL footballs, it did little to rekindle the optimistic voice in fans. Still, they latched onto it and wanted to believe it would all work out.

The 2018 season was a revelation. What a relief! Luck quickly found his rhythm and helped lead the Colts on an unlikely run from 1-5 to a playoff berth. He even torched the Houston Texans secondary, with the help of trusty target T.Y. Hilton, to advance to the divisional round against a hot Chiefs squad.

While Luck and the Colts fell in Kansas City, the fire behind the optimistic voice in fans’ heads started to shine a little brighter. “Hey, we’re onto something here. This team is really talented and getting better. Imagine year two, with Luck another season removed from his shoulder surgery. Plus, this will be his first healthy off-season of work in over three years.”

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Colts franchise announced that they would be holding Luck out of spring training activities and Mini Camp due to a nagging calf strain. This, of course, was all precautionary. As training camp arrived and Luck took the field, fans anticipated getting a sneak peek into a bright future. After only two practices, Luck was pulled inside to work on his own with Tom House and the training staff due to an apparent setback in his recovery from the calf strain.

What followed was perhaps the most confusing set of explanations and public statements as has been made about a marquee player’s injury that I have ever witnessed. The team stated that the calf issue had somehow become a high ankle sprain. That diagnosis was also cast aside as the pain in Luck’s lower leg was at the front of his ankle and not the back. The team’s owner publicly suggested it was an injury former Colts tackle Ryan Diem played through. General Manager Chris Ballard quickly put together a press conference to correct that assertion.

Fans were thinking, “How in the world is it possible that an NFL franchise with nearly unlimited resources can’t properly diagnose an orthopedic issue in over four months?” Let’s face it, there are reasonable medical explanations for why doctor’s struggled to locate the root cause of Luck’s pain. Still, that optimistic flame was starting to flicker.

Look, I didn’t have any idea that Andrew Luck would retire before the start of the 2019 season. But, if I’m being honest with myself, there was a part of me (behind the defensive optimism) that worried that something resembling this could happen. I was mentally exhausted and running on fumes trying to make everything seem alright.

Then the world got the news last night.


DENIAL

Sitting among friends for my first fantasy football draft of the season, my mind was on the game that I had to miss. As may not come as a total surprise, I’m pretty serious about seeing the game live and don’t like it when I have to miss one — even a preseason game. Still, the live draft process is a good time.

In the middle of the first of two drafts, news broke that Lamar Miller suffered a serious injury in Houston’s preseason game. While the human side of everyone in attendance felt bad for Miller, the competitive, silly side turned to heckling the person who drafted Miller in an earlier round.

From there, it was a running joke to consider the possibility of other picks suffering serious injuries. There was banter back and forth about keeping an eye on the preseason games for any breaking news.

Later in the evening, after the second draft had gotten underway, one of the members of our group announced breaking news that Luck had retired. Everyone laughed and thought he was being ridiculous. Only, he was serious. He said, “no seriously, Adam Schefter is reporting it.”

As people rushed to bring up the latest updates on their smartphones, there was still a legitimate thought that this couldn’t possibly be serious. Surely someone hacked Schefter’s account.

How odd that this would break right in the middle of a preseason game.

The group desperately poked fun at another person who drafted only Andrew Luck at quarterback in the first draft. No one wanted to seriously think about. Everyone was in denial.


ANGER

Boy, was it easy to move on to anger.

How could Andrew Luck do this? What, is he some kind of coward? How could he be so weak as to not push through the healing and recovery process?

This is going to set the franchise back, likely for years. Legitimate franchise quarterbacks are difficult to come by. The Colts have been incredibly fortunate to get the top overall draft pick the year Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck were entering the NFL. Other teams haven’t been so lucky.

Ask every other team in the AFC South what much of the last 20 years have been like. They will likely tell you how exhausting it has been to face a team that has a vastly superior player under center. The feelings behind regularly beating that team were more based in hope than optimism. In Indianapolis, it had been the opposite.

Ask the vast majority of NFL franchises around the league. Ask the AFC East what it is like to face Tom Brady every year. Ask the AFC North how difficult it has been to beat Ben Roethlisberger. Ask the NFC West how much fun it has been to play against Russell Wilson or the NFC North how they have enjoyed playing Aaron Rodgers every year. Ask the NFC South how much better they would feel if they had Drew Brees.

Now, here the Colts have one of those marquee, top tier franchise quarterbacks. They have a roster with an incredible projection and arguably the brightest future of any franchise in the league. And then this?

Talk about taking the wind out of your sails. This is devastating. This hurts. How could he?

Wait... how could Ryan Grigson? My word was he inept at building a reasonably talented offensive line in front of Andrew Luck. Luck was the most hit, sacked quarterback in the NFL for much of his first four seasons in the league.

Grigson failed to make a meaningful investment in the offensive line and left Luck to take a beating. It shortened his career. Grigson is to blame.


BARGAINING

My spin on the bargaining phase has to do with passing on blame and justifying the situation. As my anger turned to Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson for allowing Andrew Luck to get hit so much early in his career, I understood Andrew’s perspective.

What did we honestly expect? The young man has suffered internal injuries, breaks, ruptures, tears, and had to play through pain caused by events we watched with our own eyes.

It isn’t Andrew Luck’s fault that he finds himself here, it is an inept front office. It is a first-time General Manager who was clearly out of his element. It was the guy who reportedly made every effort to squash the past, to make work an uncomfortable place for players and staff, and to outsmart the room on draft day only to have those blunders set the franchise behind.

It was a broken offensive scheme that required Luck to hold onto the ball for too long. It was a lot of things.

When I got home after our fantasy football draft, my wife was waiting at home. As I collapsed onto the couch, we started talking about what had happened. Before I could start venting my anger about the situation, she shared her perspective with me.

She thought it took a lot of guts to make that decision. She thinks that no matter how passionately fans might get into support their team, football is just a game. She thinks that if this is what Andrew Luck needs to do to be happy and to live a full life with his young family, it is what he should do. She explained that she thought Colts fans looked horrible by booing him as he left the field on Saturday night. She found that embarrassing as a fan and for the city.

In many ways, she is right. I’m still angry about the situation. I am not surprised at all that fans would boo and it doesn’t really make me feel embarrassed. As I said to her, “what did you expect? What do you think he should have realistically expected?” She acknowledged that it wasn’t that big of a surprise but she still feels like its a sad reflection on the human side of being fans — that our selfish desire to see the team win games takes precedent over the mental or physical health of what is supposed to be our most beloved player.

It’s amazing how fast people will turn on someone they care about.


DEPRESSION

I would say this is where I will spend much of my time over the next days/weeks. I had such high hopes for the team and this will make it so difficult to realize that potential. I had visions of Andrew Luck leading the Colts back to the Super Bowl and bringing home multiple Lombardi trophies as General Manager Chris Ballard gradually built a Hall of Fame resume.

This was to be a bright era of Colts football. This was Manning era 2.0, with a more balanced team and an even more encouraging locker room culture.

All of that feels gone now. It’s hard to form a new vision.


ACCEPTANCE

While I’m not sure that I’m completely here. There are some things I’m ready to accept.

I’m ready to accept that the future for the Colts is going to look a lot different. I’m willing to give Jacoby Brissett a chance with the first team and I’m cautiously encouraged by what we have seen out of Chad Kelly. I’m also willing to recognize that the franchise will not necessarily be defined by a quarterback — at least not for awhile. It will be balance, talent at numerous positions, and coaching that will keep the team competitive.

As Chris Ballard always said, the Colts are about more than one player. It takes everyone in the locker room and at the team facility to make this work and to get where the franchise wants to go. Will it be a lot harder without Luck or Manning? You better believe it. But Ballard has earned my confidence and the team is in the healthiest financial position in the league.

Don’t put it past them to figure it out.

Also, this is going to be something new. There’s some excitement surrounding that. We will go from favorites to underdogs once again. There’s something fun about overachieving.

Do I believe the Colts are still likely Super Bowl contenders? No. I don’t. Do I think that this team could be much better than anyone gives them credit for after Luck’s announcement — including myself? Yeah. I do.

We are about to find out what this team is really made of. A new era is about to begin. It’s time to get back to work. In a way, times like these are what being a fan is all about.