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Keith Strudler: Walking Away While You Can (Walk)

The biggest story of this NFL pre-season isn’t about any athlete that playing right now. In fact, it’s not even about someone who will play during the season. It’s about Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old now former quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, who announced his sudden and unexpected retirement Saturday evening in something of a makeshift press conference.

Luck’s retirement came after seven years in the league, four of those that ended in an invitation from the Pro-Bowl. He also took the Colts to the AFC Championship in his third season, which most fans assumed would be the first of many. Such was not the case, as the Stanford bred replacement for Peyton Manning spent more time with doctors and trainers than coaches since then. He’s had a sprained shoulder, a lacerated kidney, a frayed labrum, eventual shoulder surgery, and most recently an ankle injury that kept him out of this pre-season. He’s likely also suffered at least one concussion, but who’s counting. That’s made Luck’s career as painful as it is frustrating, to him and Colts fans that expected championships.

But after what Luck said was about two weeks of soul searching, he decided he nor his increasingly damaged body could take it any longer. He had grown tired of the ongoing pattern of, as he put it, “pain, injury, rehab, pain, injury, rehab.” So instead of fighting to stay on the field another year, he’d walk away from it on his own two feet while he still can. That all happened Saturday day night, right after a Colts pre-season game, and admittedly a day before he hoped because the story had leaked. All of this two weeks before the actual season would begin.

Fans have reacted as, well, as you’d expect fans to react. A group booed during Saturday’s game when the news broke, something that’s probably gotten undo coverage. Most seem to understand why he’s leaving, although a whole lot aren’t particularly happy with the timing – especially since they now go from hoping for a Super Bowl berth to backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, which 538 succinctly described as “rarely above average.” Most of Luck’s contemporaries have been more supportive, congratulatory even, complimenting both Luck’s courage in knowing when to say when and his grace in his final interview.

Of course, Luck will leave the game with financial security, having earned nearly $100 million in salary alone over his career. He’s leaving another 58 million more to have finished this contract, plus the who knows how much more he would have gotten on his next deal, one that could have pushed him towards the upper stratosphere of athletes in sports history. But, compared to how most NFL athletes exit the game – both physically and fiscally broke – Luck certainly has one less thing to worry about. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t have a considerable career in either sports broadcasting or management, not unlike his father Oliver Luck who’s current the commissioner of the XFL. So don’t cry too much for Andrew Luck.

Of course, the larger issue, at least for anyone who’s involved with the business side of tackle football, is what does Andrew Luck’s retirement mean for game itself. Is this sign of bigger problems or a singular case of bad physiology? The answer, perhaps, is both, and neither.

Andrew Luck isn’t the first athlete to walk away from the game with tread left on the tires. Barry Sanders did it. The great Jim Brown did. So to some extent, Luck’s retirement shouldn’t seem such a shock, even if the timing is. And also note that Luck is leaving the game because of pain and injuries, not concussions and CTE, which is far more an existential crisis to the game.

On the other hand, what Luck’s retirement did reinforce is that athletes are far more cognizant of the sacrifice of the sport, and perhaps may be increasingly willing to walk away while they can still walk – especially if they can afford to do so. It was once assumed that any athlete would have to be dragged off the field before they’d retire. Luck’s announcement may change that calculus.

But in the end, what matters the most isn’t Andrew Luck’s retirement, or what this means for the NFL, but instead the fact that each of the last five years, the number of kids playing high school football has decreased. That is an unsustainable trend for a sport that’s built like a religion. So I wouldn’t worry about whether or not a 29-year-old quarterback decides to call it quits. It’s the thousands of 16 year olds that do the same that’s far more problematic. In fact that, not Andrew Luck, is likely the most important story of this NFL preseason.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.