INDIANAPOLIS – Andrew Luck stepped to the podium Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium and rocked the NFL world.
The 29-year-old four-time Pro Bowl quarterback announced he will retire from professional football after eight years with the Indianapolis Colts.
It was a stunning turn of events in a lower leg injury saga that has drawn out for the past five months.
Luck said he felt “stuck” in a four-year cycle of injury and rehabilitation and he promised himself after playing through a torn labrum in 2016 he would not put himself in a similar position again.
With a calf strain that migrated into a high-ankle sprain and still caused the quarterback pain as he spoke with the media, Luck decided he’d had enough.
“It’s taken my joy of this game away,” he said.
The news was broken on Twitter by ESPN’s Adam Schefter during the fourth quarter of a 27-17 preseason loss against the Chicago Bears while Luck was standing on the sideline at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Word spread through the crowd as the game wound down, and Luck was booed as he walked off the turf for the final time as an active player.
He said the reaction hurt, and general manager Chris Ballard defended his quarterback vigorously in a joint post-game press conference with owner Jim Irsay and head coach Frank Reich.
“This young man has done a lot for Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Colts,” Ballard said with tears forming in his eyes.
The GM said he first became aware of Luck’s indecision on Monday as the team gathered to speak with doctors for the latest update.
He said the week was filled with a host of “emotional conversations,” and he supports the decision Luck ultimately arrived at.
Newly married and with his first child on the way, Luck decided to walk away rather than continue with the mental anguish the ongoing rehab was causing.
He expressed great support for Jacoby Brissett, who will take over as the starting quarterback, and a strong belief the future of the franchise is bright.
Brissett found out about the pending retirement during a brief conversation with Luck on Friday night, and Luck made it official with Irsay at some point prior to Saturday’s third preseason game.
Brisett started 15 games for Indianapolis after arriving in a trade from the New England Patriots just days prior to the start of the 2017 season. He went 4-11, completing 58.8 percent of his passes for 3,098 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Ballard called Brissett a “special guy” and “rare leader” who has the total respect and love of the locker room. But the general manager added, “We’re not going to ask Jacoby Brissett to be Andrew Luck.”
That’s a point Irsay later drove home when speaking about the unique ability of the 2012 No. 1 overall pick.
“There are seven billion people on the planet, and five or six can do what he can do,” Irsay said.
He then quickly added the franchise is hoping Brissett is the seventh person capable of playing at that level.
Luck’s career began under heavy pressure as the heir to Peyton Manning, the greatest player in the Colts’ history in Indianapolis.
But the quarterback said he never felt the strain of playing in the legend’s shadow.
He did feel plenty of other physical pain. The laundry list of injuries includes broken ribs, a lacerated kidney, a torn abdominal muscle and a right shoulder injury that cost him the entire 2017 season.
Luck initially injured the shoulder in 2015 during a Week 3 victory at Tennessee. He played just seven games that season, ending it with the lacerated kidney in the fourth quarter of a November win he completed against the Denver Broncos.
Luck then played all of the 2016 season with a torn labrum in the shoulder and promised himself he would never do that again.
He went to some “dark” places during the more than one-year rehab and felt those shadows creeping back in this summer.
Luck began thinking about retirement “a couple of weeks ago.” He was famously caught on video working out before last week’s preseason game against the Cleveland Browns and looked to be moving well to the untrained eye.
But he knew then the end was near.
“I had a sense that might be the last time I threw passes at Lucas Oil as a member of the Colts,” Luck said. “I told myself to make sure and enjoy it.”
Luck seemingly returned to full health last season and threw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns while leading Indianapolis to a 10-6 record and a wild-card playoff victory.
A 9-1 finish to the regular season and another strong draft this spring raised expectations entering this season. Some even predicted a Super Bowl berth for the Colts, their first since 2009.
Instead, the team now faces major questions at the game’s most important position.
Brissett has acted as the starting quarterback since the start of practice in April, but he’s attempted just 15 passes in limited preseason action. Brissett has completed 10 of those throws for 121 yards with one touchdown and no picks.
He and the other starters did not play against the Bears on Saturday.
The Colts will now move forward with Brissett under center.
Irsay admitted the franchise – and,indeed, the city – is suffering from a bit of a broken heart. But he vowed not to allow it to affect the regular season that begins Sept. 8 at the Los Angeles Chargers.
“We’re gonna be ready and show up in Los Angeles,” he said. “I can promise you that.”
Luck walks away with a 53-33 regular season record as a starter and a long, strange injury history.
This was expected to be his first drama-free offseason in years. Instead, he suffered a calf strain in March and participated in just two training camp practices before rehabbing behind closed doors.
Two weeks ago, Ballard said the injury had migrated into the ankle, but the team was confident Luck could return as early as the regular-season opener.
Instead, he stood before the media Saturday night and said goodbye.
Luck completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 23,671 yards with 171 touchdowns and 83 interceptions during his seven-year career.
Though Irsay held the door open for a possible return at some future date, the team clearly is moving forward without its long-time leader.
“Tonight we celebrate what he’s done for this city, this team and the game in general,” Reich said.
Luck said Indianapolis will continue to be his home, and he’ll support the team in any way possible.
But it’s clearly Brissett’s time to shine now.
Ballard rebuffed the only trade request he received for the backup quarterback in the offseason, and he must be extremely relieved now.
Irsay brought up other miracle stories like Tom Brady’s iconic ascension with the New England Patriots and Kurt Warner’s unlikely rise to stardom with the then St. Louis Rams.
Reich, himself, was a part of an unbelievable Super Bowl run with backup quarterback Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles just two years ago.
So, as the league recovers from the shocking news and the city sits in stunned silence, Ballard insisted he has assembled a good football team that can still make the franchise proud.
“Don’t write the end of the story yet,” he said. “The story’s not over. It’s just getting started.”