Joy & Pain
High profile retirements a cause for concern for NFL
Shock. That’s the only way to describe it.
As football fans around the country were settled in on Saturday to watch the kickoff of the 2019 college football season and the third week of the NFL’s preseason, news broke that Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck, just 29 and coming off of a Pro Bowl season in which he won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award, was retiring.
The 2012 first overall draft pick was ending his professional football after eight seasons due to debilitating injuries, including torn rib cartilage, a lacerated kidney, at least one concussion, a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that forced him to miss the entire 2017 season, and a mystery calf/ankle injury that hobbled his preparation for the coming season.
Luck planned to announce his retirement on Sunday, but when news broke during the Colts exhibition against the Chicago Bears, he was forced to affirm he was stepping away.
“I’m in pain, I’m still in pain,” Luck said. “It’s been four years of this pain, rehab cycle. It’s a myriad of issues — calf strain, posterior ankle impingement, high ankle sprain. Part of my journey going forward will be figuring out how to feel better.”
The QB said he felt he was trapped in a never-ending cycle.
“I felt stuck in it,” he said. “The only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.”
Three days later, former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski described how injuries led to his retirement from the NFL in March.
“I want to be clear to my fans, I needed to recover,” Gronkowski said. “I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it. I was losing that joy in life.”
Combined, Luck and Gronkowski’s words caused a lot of consternation for the league. After several years of rising concern about concussions, long-term brain damage, and the possible connection between football-related head injuries and CTE and ALS, the NFL has made strides to make the game safer through rule changes and improved helmet design.
After two years of declining ratings, NFL viewership improved 5 percent last season, as roughly 15.8 million people tuned in to watch professional football.
With these two high-profile players leaving the game, fans have been forced to again look at the high rate of injury in the game and its affect on players’ long-term health.
Gronkowski described a play from the last Super Bowl when a defender hit him in the thigh while trying to make a tackle. It wasn’t a violent play, in fact, the tackle looked like any other made in a game. But “Gronk” said he immediately knew his quadriceps muscle was impacted, and the reality set in after the game. That night, he said, he couldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes, doctors drained a liter of blood from his leg, and the pain wouldn’t allow him to get a full night’s sleep for months after his last game.
A recipient of multiple hits, he said worry over eventual brain damage was a major reason for his retirement. He revealed that the had a buildup of fluid – as much as a “centimeter of liquid” in his head at points during his nine-year career.
“That’s why I took the action and got away from the game,” Gronkowski said. “I would not lie, I was walking around, my mood swings were totally up and down. I was aware of what was going with my body and my mind, and that’s why I had to walk away.”
Luck and Gronkowski were NFL superstars. Based on current deals and quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady playing into their forties, Colts owner Jim Irsay believes Luck walked away from as much as $450 million in future salary.
But, for the player, nearly half a billion dollars wasn’t worth the risk.
Luck has has made more than $97.1 million in total salary in seven NFL seasons, according to Spotrac, a sports data company. That’s a helluva nest egg, but what does it mean for players who don’t make nearly as much or are as protected by the rules of the game as a franchise quarterback?
NFL contracts are not guaranteed and are often incentive laden. If a player is hampered with an injury and can’t take the field, they can’t reach their full earning potential.
If two of the biggest stars in the game are willing to walk away, fearing for their future, what does that mean for the role players on teams who make the league minimum of $480,000 or just a bit more? What does it mean for youngsters who are interested in the game and the willingness of parents to allow and encourage their children to take the gridiron?
The NFL is celebrating its centennial this year, and while it will showcase the fun, drama, and success it has enjoyed over the last 100 years, the absence of players like Luck and Gronkowski, will surely force many to question what lies ahead for the nation’s most popular professional sport.