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Luck’s retirement highlights darkest side of the NFL

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NFL: Preseason-Chicago Bears at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Luck was one of the few true enigmas in the game of football.

An almost perfect curation of a franchise quarterback, one that had equal parts athleticism, brains and integrity, and who waltzed his way through life’s obstacles with few issues. As he dominated the Pac-10 and Pac-12 with a 82-22 touchdown/interception ratio and nearly 9,500 passing yards in three seasons, he breezed through school with a 3.48 GPA at Stanford in architectural design.

His hard work and overwhelming success led to him being the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, pitting him with his greatest challenge yet — serving as the successor to future first ballot Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. But just as he cruised through his college days, Luck wasted no time earning his Pro stripes. Three years into his career, Colts were on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth, carried almost alone on the back of the young gunslinger.

Dominating on the gridiron, Luck still found time to use his platform for the better of the community. Dubbed the “coolest nerd in America” by Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, Luck spent countless time helping the city of Indianapolis and leaving his impact on its inhabitants — even starting his own book club, creating a “team of readers of all levels” to encourage and promote educational enhancement.

Simply put, Andrew Luck is one of the rare NFL players — let alone human beings — that had a thorough understanding of life in all aspects. In a league where click-bait topics on performance-enhancing substances and abuse dominate the headlines, and videos of athletes flaunting their jewelry and cars garner hundreds of thousands of likes on Instagram, Luck went through life with his handy flip phone, a comfortable shirt and a cold craft beer. He has such a strong sense of all the values in life, which is why his departure from the horseshoe and the National Football League is so disheartening.

So how did the NFL manage to let one of its greatest role models slip out of their hands at the age of 29, and how did the always-pleasant Luck find such sorrow in the game that once brought him so much joy?

“Injury, pain, rehab. Injury, pain, rehab. Injury, pain, rehab over four years, [that cycle] had taken its toll,” head coach Frank Reich told the media Monday afternoon. “It had essentially sucked the passion, the joy, the fun out of football.”

Luck’s list of injuries and montage of brutal hits have been sifting through Twitter feeds these last few days, but they never had the same emotional effect years prior that they do now. Fans would chuckle and opponents would be perplexed when an audio clip surfaced of Luck congratulating a defensive lineman for burying him into the ground.

“In all the years I’ve played football I have never heard anything like it,” Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan told Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal. “Nothing even close.”

Now those clips serve as the stepping stones that brought us all to this unfortunate ending.

As the compliments rolled on, so did the hits — 375 in just four years to be exact. Then came the not-as-serious injuries, and then the serious injuries. Missed games turned into a missed season, which left the Colts at a perplexing fork in the road. With the functionality of Luck’s shoulder unknown and a 4-12 finish in the first season of the Chris Ballard regime, the state of Indiana was reeling, with questions leading up to the 2018 campaign.

But in one brief season, all those worries seemed to have vanished. Indianapolis was back playing playoff football thanks to a fully healthy return from Luck, along with a new and innovative head coach, and a rejuvenated offensive line. The blueprint was laid out, the foundation was set. The sky seemed to be the limit for this budding dynasty, which is why this turn of events is so shocking. This was supposed to be the year the Colts took another step forward, with possibly their best shot at reaching the Super Bowl in Luck’s tenure.

Even aside from the team, Luck seemed to be in his happiest mindset yet. In Saturday’s press conference, Reich and Ballard both discussed that they thought their quarterback was heading into an off-season feeling healthy and ready to make the next leap in his ascending career, which left them stunned when things took a sharp turn south.

Luck’s final setback was far too strong to overcome, but moreso mentally rather than physically. After his calf and ankle problems kept him out of all but three practices since the off-season programs began, the bitter memories of injuries past brought him back into a state of pain and sadness. The cycle that Reich mentioned Monday was creeping back in, which led Luck to the “toughest decision of [his] life.”

As he so abruptly put, the game of football didn’t bring him the joy it did when he went through the off-season without worry over his long-term health. A newlywed this past off-season, now expecting his first child, his values still remain the same — with happiness and quality of life still at the top. The only change is that football, which gave him all the joy in the world through this stage of his life, no longer provided that warm outlook on life.

In the end, Andrew Luck never needed the NFL, but the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts surely needed him. Now, amid what might be the most shocking retirement of a marquee player in league history, we’ll forever contemplate what could’ve been accomplished in the Luck era.