Early retirements are not uncommon in the NFL. In 1999, Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders retired following his age-30 season, just a year removed from a 2000-yard rushing campaign. In 2015, five-time all-pro linebacker Patrick Willis called it a career at age 31. A year later, Calvin Johnson stepped away from the game after a sixth consecutive 1000-yard receiving season. This March, all-time great tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement at age 29, albeit after several months of speculation.
None of those decisions rival what Andrew Luck did on Saturday. Willis was escaping a sinking ship, leaving a 49ers team that had just forced out immensely successful head coach Jim Harbaugh in favor of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Gronkowski appeared to have lost a step in his final season, which culminated in a third championship for the legendary tight end. Both Sanders and Johnson were victims of a Lions franchise that was headed nowhere, the latter making it clear that the lack of team success wasn't worth the beating his body was sustaining. Some were surprising, some weren't, but none of them brought the level of shock that Luck did last week.
A 29-year old quarterback, consensus MVP contender, and former phenom seemingly in the prime of his career stepping away from the game of football is unprecedented. When Calvin Johnson retired, it didn't feel like his best days were still ahead of him; in fact, it would've been all but impossible to replicate his level of play from a few years earlier. There was no doubt that Rob Gronkowski's most dominant days were behind him before he retired, even at age 29. While Barry Sanders likely had plenty left in the tank, he placed second on the all-time rushing list when he called it a career. For Luck, it felt like the best was just getting started; like the prophecy was finally being fulfilled seven years after he joined the Colts with Hall of Fame expectations. After being smacked around, beat up, and buried by Ryan Grigson's ineptitude as a general manager, Luck finally found himself in the situation that would unlock his world-class abilities and give him the opportunity to take the Colts as far as his arm possibly could. Then, on a Saturday night, two weeks away from the start of the regular season, all of that went away in an instant.
That a 29-year old athlete would step away from a sport after years of taking hits and battling injuries doesn't sound incredibly shocking in itself - it's exactly what Rob Gronkowski did months earlier. Instead, it's the feeling of incompleteness that keeps the jaws of many football fans like myself still on the floor days later. From the perspective of a football fan, it feels like the story of Andrew Luck, football player, wasn't supposed to end here. The story had the perfect arch: immediate success followed by failure and career-threatening injury, only for Luck to rise again. Chris Ballard was brought in, rebuilt a broken roster, and hired the right coach only after his first choice pulled out at the last-minute. After Luck proved to himself and everyone else that he was over the shoulder injury that temporarily derailed his career, the former prodigy finally had a path to the NFL's peak. The story was finally approaching the pinnacle and got cut off just ahead of it, by the protagonist himself.
We expect stories of this magnitude to end as we imagine. How could we not, after seeing Peyton Manning walk away from football on top, or watching Nick Foles win a franchise its first Super Bowl after spending the year as a backup? Andrew Luck, hailed not long ago as the next great quarterback who would build upon Peyton Manning's championship pedigree in Indianapolis, chose not to finish the story like we all expected, and it's why I don't blame Colts fans for being emotional in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. They expected differently. But, as I'm sure everyone did, they got a chance to listen to Luck explain his perspective in his own words later that night and recognized just how deliberate this decision was.
There is little doubt that the night of Andrew Luck's retirement will go down as one of the most shocking nights in the history of the NFL. For fans invested in this game, it truly was a 'where were you' moment. The cold facts of the matter might be more believable to the next generation - oft-injured quarterback decides he's had enough of getting hit - but the story of that night can't be told without the story of Luck's career, one that will forever feel like it didn't have the right ending.