On Saturday night, Aug. 24, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck walked onto the field for a preseason game amid the roaring cheers of adoring fans. He was their hero.
After the game he walked off the field to a chorus of boos and insults. He walked in as a lion and left as a goat.
Oh, how fickle fame can be.
The news of Luck’s pending retirement from football at age 29 had been leaked to the crowd. They were unforgiving.
Indianapolis never deserved the Colts, let alone Luck. The team should have stayed in Baltimore with the legacy of heroes such as Johnny Unitas and Gino Marchetti – but I am aging myself. Let’s just say the Indy fans are an ungrateful bunch.
Their team had the first pick in the NFL’s 2012 draft and used it to land Luck as savior of the franchise following the departure of Peyton Manning. The former Stanford star played six seasons for the Colts (he missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury), winning 53 games and losing 33 as the starting quarterback and leaving just about everything he had on the field.
Plagued by injuries, Luck wanted to get on with his life and try to live pain-free while pursuing other dreams. He won’t live pain-free. Those injuries linger. At the Super Bowl a few years ago all the living Super Bowl MVPs were introduced. They stood proud and unbowed but they all looked broken to some degree. A few looked like they might have arrived by ambulance.
Football is a rough business.
There are those – particularly the many morons who host sports talk shows on radio – who accused Luck of being a quitter, even of being “soft.” Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired last year at 30, offered his own perspective.
“I can tell you,” Gronk said, “you’re still taking massive hits. The wreckage that you’ve absorbed from the hits is just second to none. No one really understands what it is unless you play football. So, no, anyone in the NFL is not soft.”
Among Luck’s injuries while laboring for the Colts: a severely strained shoulder, a lacerated kidney, a partially torn abdominal muscle, a calf strain, and torn cartilage in his ribs.
Often, he needed pain-numbing injections before leading the Colts into battle and giving the demanding fans their weekly fix of pigskin mayhem.
The mayhem is taking its toll on the sport in more ways than one. The number of students playing high school football last year decreased by 31,000, putting overall participation at its lowest level since 1999-2000.
With concern about injuries, particularly concussions, on the rise participation in high school football has seen a steady decline for the past five years.
Participation in high school sports of all kinds, in fact, declined by 43,395 students between 2018 and 2019 – from 7,980,886 to 7,937,491.
The problem of injuries, head injuries in particular, is one that must be addressed at every level of sport. But the decline in participation is a trend I find troubling. Clichéd as it might seem, I believe that sports, especially team sports, teach young people many important lessons, including how to work with others toward a common goal and how to enjoy the camaraderie of teammates.
I played football in both high school and college – not with distinction, I should say, but with enthusiasm. I would not trade the experience, although I saw friends left limping for life and, worse, some who dropped out of school and most likely lost their chance for a college education after suffering concussions.
After one of our seasons, a terrific running back from Beaumont, Texas, who had a series of head injuries that year would suddenly fall asleep and sleep through almost every class. He did not return to school after the winter break.
Luck got out while he could still enjoy life, and good for him. There will be plenty of accolades coming his way in recognition of a spectacular career. He will be cheered again but the lasting pain he’ll endure from his years as a football player will always include the boos he heard on his final night as a Colt.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org