Players are retiring from the NFL early

A look at why some of the league’s biggest names got out before thirty 

Before the NFL season began, I wrote down my predictions for how this year’s playoffs would shake out. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the Tennessee Titans in the American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game. 

In fact, I didn’t have them in the playoffs at all. Instead, I had the Indianapolis Colts making their triumphant return to the conference’s title game after being absent for the past five seasons. 

That notion, and the Colts’ championship aspirations, evaporated after the surprise retirement of their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck. Luck’s retirement seemed so out of the blue. How could a guy who was leading a team with legitimate Super Bowl potential just up and quit? 

Andrew Luck’s retirement was tragic for the NFL and the Colts organization, but both life and the league move on. The 2019-20 season continued, and the Colts found themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Another team with playoff ambitions that were quickly mashed into expired expectations were the Carolina Panthers. 

On Jan. 14, 2020, Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his retirement. Just like that, two of the NFL’s perennial All-Pro players were out of the league. After watching 42 year old Tom Brady run the NFL with an iron fist for the last two decades, it’s surprising to see such talented and game-commanding players hang up their helmets without much prior notice or departing fanfare. Due to Luck and Kuechly’s status among the league’s elite, I believe a deeper look into what exactly led to their decisions to retire will speak volumes to the mindsets of other prolific NFL talents.

Firstly, let’s look at the events that led up to Andrew Luck’s shocking departure from the league. Prior to the 2018-19 season, Luck suffered a few injuries that are recurrent to the quarterback position. 

One persisting injury eventually graduated into structural damage to his labrum. 

In January of 2017, Luck required shoulder surgery. Rehabilitation and recovery kept him away from the game for an entire season. 

Luck finally suited up for the Colts again on Aug. 9, 2018 for a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks. After leading the Colts to the playoffs that season, as well as getting a Wild Card Weekend victory over the Houston Texans, Luck was injured again with a strain in his right calf. As the 2019-20 season was rapidly approaching, there was little update on Luck’s status. 

We were finally granted information to Luck’s situation when NFL insider Adam Schefter tweeted about Luck’s resignation. On Aug. 24, 2019, Andrew Luck retired from professional football due to the continuous and downright venomous cycle of injury, rehab and return. In the press conference to officially announce his retirement, Luck states that the ceaseless repetition of injuries sustained from playing the game he grew up loving had taken the joy out competing. 

The pertinent fear of acquiring life altering abnormalities following his playing career was enough for one of the greats to step away. Luck made a difficult choice that could very well have saved his own life. 

Only about five months later, Luke Kuechly sat down in front of a camera to make a similar arduous decision public in a video uploaded to YouTube by the Carolina Panthers. Kuechly, who played in every game this season, chose to step away after eight seasons in the league as a member of the Panthers. 

In a career that was showered with Defensive Player of the Year awards and Pro-Bowl recognition, the concussions that took him out of games and into the medical tent will permeate the lasting images. 

Although he did not explicitly state that the injuries he endured throughout his career were the catalysts for his retirement, he did say he believed he would not be able to continue the style of play he was both familiar and fond of. 

Rather than make significant changes to his game, Kuechly honorably chose to leave on a high note. While Andrew Luck received punishment from linebackers running at full speed trying to sack him, Kuechly was getting similar punishment from repeated blows to the head. In no way was either man’s decision cowardly, as they went against the tired narrative of playing through the pain. 

They chose to make a change for the betterment of their bodies, minds and futures. Both Andrew Luck and Luke Kuechly set an example for how to get out before any more damage can be done. I believe their decisions give us insight into the thoughts and feelings of other current NFL players. 

Obviously, information on brain trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has only made its way into the NFL’s periphery over the last few years, so it is almost comforting to know that the players who subject themselves to such bodily assault for the love of the game, the fans’ enjoyment and the league owners’ checkbooks are aware and cognizant to the danger they are putting themselves in.  

Up until this point, I’ve acted like Andrew Luck and Luke Kuechly were the first to ever retire from professional football before reaching the age of thirty. This, of course, is not the case. Before the eruption of coverage and speculation on the topic spawned by the likes of Andrew Luck, Luke Kuechly and Rob Gronkowski, two former Pro-Bowlers come to mind. First, you got former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. If I’m being honest, I don’t really remember ever watching him play. Yes, he did start at linebacker in Super Bowl 47, but I definitely wasn’t as astute while watching games as I am now. 

Especially on the defensive side of the ball. All I really remember of Willis is he finished second to Ray Rice (redacted) in the “NFL Blitz” video game cover vote. Useless trivia aside, Willis, like Kuechly, was a linebacker with several Pro-Bowl and All-Pro mentions to his name. Also like Kuechly, Willis was widely regarded as the best linebacker in the league during his tenure. 

Listen, I’m no saint, and I’m not pushing some agenda. I watch football every weekend, and too often do I not think about the almost barbaric brutality that is occurring before my eyes. I’m too focused on seeing if Dwayne Haskins developed at all in the last seven days. 

I believe Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch put it all into perspective in his last post-game interview.

After returning from retirement for a three game stint, Lynch had one thing to say to all the young players of the league who may not be thinking of their long-term future. Lynch said, “So, while y’all at it right now, take care y’all bodies, take care y’all chicken, ya feel me, take care y’all mentals.” 

Lynch doesn’t only speak for the men mentioned in this article, he speaks for all of us fans watching players take shots to the back of the head every Sunday. Please fellas, take care of y’all chicken.

~Matthew Morhiser, Staff Writer~

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