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Stronger than ever: Andrew Luck and the misguided perception of toughness in football

August 24th, Lucas Oil Stadium - Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck fights back tears as he announces his shocking decision to retire from the NFL. The franchise passer looks defeated, tired, and ready to take on a new chapter of his life. He’s realized that he simply needs a fresh start.

By taking a look back through his turbulent career, we can see that the decision was not only necessary, but also makes Luck as strong as ever.

Organizational Failure

To say Andrew Luck has been through hell and back for this Colts team would honestly be an understatement. The QB has put his body on the line for 86 games over the past 7 years, racking up an injury history so long it looks like a grocery list. During the Chuck Pagano / Ryan Grigson regime, Luck stuck by a horrendously run organization, sacrificing himself every single week for a team that made no effort to protect him. Under Grigson, Luck was the most pressured and hit QB in the entire league - suffering a debilitating shoulder injury in the process.

Yet Luck didn’t complain. He didn’t pout, demand a trade, or attack his teammates. The passer was his competitive and respectful self, doing the best he could for a franchise that had taken advantage of his absurd talent and natural kindness. Every single time he was knocked down throughout his 6 seasons of play, he would get right back up, congratulate the defender who put a lick on him, and do it all over again. He often experienced that process over time, as Luck went on to lead the league in total knockdowns (hits + sacks) for 3 straight seasons.

Try staying that positive when everything around you is in shambles for nearly a decade. That sounds pretty physically - and mentally - tough to me.

Injury History

Let me be clear: No person who plays a professional football game with a lacerated kidney should EVER be called soft. Andrew Luck quite literally pissed blood before trotting himself out on the field - and internet trolls still dare to call him weak.

And that kidney injury is just a small glimpse into the star QB’s health woes.

In 7 years, Luck tore cartilage in 2 ribs, tore his abdomen, suffered a lacerated kidney, had at least 1 documented concussion (definitely more), tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder, and most recently had a mysterious calf / ankle issue. It’s not hyperbole to say the QB was either playing, practicing, training, or rehabbing for 2555 straight days (yeah, I did the math) - squeezing in time to help the Indianapolis community in the process.

It was that infamous torn labrum in particular that caused Luck so much struggling, and it’s something I’ve personally dealt with as well. A casual observer doesn’t realize just how serious of an injury it is, especially for a player who’s entire game revolves around a healthy arm. And yet, with his competitive spirit, Luck played most of the 2016 season with basically half a shoulder - before being shut down for the entire 2017 year as a direct result. Playing those games wasn’t a smart move for Luck at all, as it undoubtedly made the surgery and subsequent rehab much harder. But he sure was “tough” for doing so, which is something internet trolls seem to conveniently forget now that he’s retired.

Ultimately, Luck’s labrum injury would’ve been a death sentence for most QB’s. It speaks to him as a person, competitor, and teammate to battle through something as traumatizing and severe as that - even just for a season. Because I can guarantee that if anyone else tried walking a mile in Luck’s shoes, they would last about 20 yards before tripping on their own laces and admitting defeat.

Defining Toughness

Toughness is such a vague term. To try to sum it up best, though, Oxford describes it as “the state of being strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough handling.” That kind of toughness is important and valuable, and it’s the definition seemingly always used when describing football players.

However, toughness isn’t just physical - it’s mental too. And mental toughness isn’t just that cliche “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” crap. It’s being confident in who you are and being happy with the decisions you make. Oxford also covers this way of perceiving the word, describing it as “the ability to deal with hardship or to cope in difficult situations.

Throughout Luck’s NFL career, it’s obvious that he’s aced that first definition of the word. He’s dealt with extreme physical and emotional pain, trudging through the hardships that have been laid out for him. But many will try to come at Luck’s toughness because of that second part - the mental side. Ignorant people think that the only way to prove that you’re mentally tough is to play through pain (which he did for 7 seasons by the way).

Sticking with what you’re doing isn’t the only way to cope with difficult situations though (as the definition states above). On August 24th, by announcing his retirement, Luck chose to cope differently. He chose to cope in a way which will allow him to spend more time with his family, travel the world, and get rid of the constant pain surrounding his life. See, being mentally healthy doesn’t mean being mentally “soft”. It quite literally means the opposite.

So by the very definition of the word, Luck didn’t quit. He didn’t give up. He simply survived.

And in the end, he’s tougher for it.