INDIANAPOLIS – It’s 9:12 p.m. EDT on a summer Saturday night, and a modest crowd is only somewhat watching the action at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a trivial preseason game between the Bears and Colts with no starters from either team playing and not a lot to write home about. For those still glued to the third-quarter action, Bears pass rusher James Vaughters has just blazed around Colts tight end Ross Travis and left tackle Le’Raven Clark, hitting quarterback Phillip Walker from behind. The football squirts free, and Bears linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe alertly scoops it up, racing 22 yards to the end zone.
It’s a who’s who of exhibition football in the NFL. The Bears have taken a 20-17 lead, and there’s a noticeable roar from the hordes of Chicago fans who have come to watch all this.
The 38-word tweet
It’s 9:28 p.m. on this same summer Saturday, and ESPN reporter Adam Schefter has just dropped the bomb that has rocked the football world. It’s a 38-word Tweet.
“Filed to ESPN: Andrew Luck has informed the Colts he is retiring from the NFL, per source. There will be a press conference Sunday to make it official, but Luck is mentally worn down, and now checking out.”
A reporter in the second row of the Lucas Oil Stadium press box breaks an otherwise bored silence.
Down the way, another reporter continues the game of telephone.
“Are you guys seeing this? Andrew Luck is retiring.”
The Tweet vetting is quick. This is not a fake Schefter account. It is the right handle and has the blue check mark. The wording is strong. No wiggle room. Luck isn’t considering retiring, per Schefter. He is retiring.
Is it possible Schefter’s account has been hijacked? Is his daughter zinging him with a cruel practical joke?
Andrew Luck? Retiring? Still 23 days shy of his 30th birthday?
It’s an absolutely mind-blowing premise, made only more surreal because Luck is right down below on the Colts sideline. The top of his balding head is visible. He’s wearing shorts and a Colts T-shirt and casually talking with tight end Jack Doyle and offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo. Just like he would do on any summer Saturday night like this.
It’s 10:03 p.m. and the scoreboard clock shows all zeros. Game over. Bears 27, Colts 17. Luck slaps receiver Krishawn Hogan on the shoulder pads and begins making his way onto the field, to the customary postgame powwow at midfield. But he’s quickly given a stop sign by a Colts staffer and detoured toward the Colts tunnel. He’s walking at first, then speed-walking. And suddenly he’s engulfed by photographers and TV cameramen documenting this historic yet insanely odd moment. At least one fan has thrown his blue No. 12 jersey out of the stands. Luck reaches the south end zone, angles into the tunnel and there’s an audible chorus of boos coming at him. It’s hardly deafening, the jilted release of maybe a few hundred fans who have gotten the word. Still, it’s enough to cut into Luck.
The shock of his teammates
It’s 10:26 p.m. and Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky has turned down an interview request at his locker. He shakes his head a couple of times. He shrugs. Like the rest of the NFL, Trubisky is floored.
“I honestly just don’t know what to say,” he admits.
He wonders if Chicago reporters can race down the hallway to the emergency news conference that Luck is now holding. Trubisky wants someone to duck in and come back and help him understand Luck’s decision. He’s not alone.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was in the same 2012 draft class as Luck (who was the No.1 pick), is trying to process the news too. He admits the rumor started circulating around the Bears sideline during the game. Right around halftime.
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel is equally stunned, equally curious. Just a few hours earlier, he was talking with Luck during pregame. Just catching up as brothers in the quarterback fraternity always do. They were talking about each other’s families. Everything seemed normal.
“No indications at all,” Daniel says, “that he was going to drop this bomb in the middle of the third preseason game.”
And then 9:28 happened.
Says Daniel: “I look up in the third quarter and there are all these people with cellphones in hand and you really don’t know what exactly is going on. And then I heard them boo him walking out. I love Andrew as a person first and foremost. So, listen, I respect his decision. I don’t know why he made it or what his reasons were. But it takes a strong human being to stand up and do what he believes is right for him.”
It’s all so confounding on the surface. Luck is 29. He’s coming off a Pro Bowl 2018 season in which he was named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year. He threw for 4,593 yards. He tossed 39 touchdown passes. He led the Colts to wins in nine of their final 10 regular-season games. He beat the Texans on the road in the wild-card round of the playoffs. He was back at the steering wheel for a Colts team that was harboring legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara keeps prefacing every thought he has on the Luck news with the same disclaimer.
If this is true … If this is true …
“Everyone is in disbelief,” Amukamara says. “This was all so sudden. … I’ve just never seen anything like that.”
Daniel wonders out loud about the burnout Luck might have been feeling, the physical pain he might have been enduring after serious shoulder surgery in 2017 and significant calf and ankle injuries that had derailed him this offseason.
“Listen,” Daniel says. “There’s a lot of stress put on quarterbacks in the National Football League. ... We play a sport for a living. Football is not everything in his life. It really isn’t. We try our best to put our best on tape. But at the end of the day, it’s about health, it’s about way of life.”
Luck embraces the call to retire
It’s 10:36 p.m. and Luck is in that room down the hall from the Bears locker room delivering the explanations Trubisky wanted to hear. This landmark news conference wasn’t supposed to be happening. But Luck also isn’t squirming that his major life news leaked early.
He’s smiling at first. He’s joking around. He seems to be at peace with his thought process.
His coach, Frank Reich, is seated against a cinder block wall to his left. His general manager, Chris Ballard, is over there as well. Colts owner Jim Irsay too.
Luck is thanking a longer list of people. Coaches. Teammates. Family. Friends.
And now he’s making everything perfectly clear. The game of football has been a torture chamber to him physically. In his NFL career alone, he has fought back from torn cartilage in his ribs; a lacerated kidney; abdominal issues; a torn labrum in his right shoulder; his current calf and ankle injuries.
This, Luck says, is 100% at the root of his decision. The physical pain and mental energy spent to fight through all that has been suffocating. He references a pain of injury-pain-rehab.
“It’s been unceasing and unrelenting,” he says. "I felt stuck in it and the only way I see out of it is to no longer play football. It has taken my joy of this game away.”
In 2016, when Luck was fighting through some of his worst physical agony, doing everything he could to play through it and stay on the field, he realized it wasn’t ideal.
“I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road,” he says. “And I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I would choose me in a sense.”
So he’s choosing his well-being over football. He’s doing so, he promises, “with clarity.” He explains that the retirement option showed up on his radar a week and a half ago, maybe two weeks ago. He just has felt so damn exhausted.
“For me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football,” he says.
His journey off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium took him through a shower of knee-jerk anger and disappointment from fans. Those boos.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the reaction,” he says. “It hurt. I’ll be honest. It hurt.”
Andrew Luck was walking away. Retiring from the NFL. On his own terms. For his own reasons. With a decision to remove himself from the physical agony and mental exhaustion that has had its claws in him for most of the past half-decade.
“Honestly,” Luck says, “it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it’s the right decision for me.”