Andrew Luck’s retirement from the NFL sent shockwaves through the league on Saturday night as one of the elite players in the game abruptly called it a career two weeks before what should have been the start of one of his prime years in the league.
I’m not going to get into the timing of his decision and what it means because only an athlete knows when it’s time, but it is always stunning and sad when a great career gets cut short, and it’s kind of amazing it does not happen more often.
It is also kind of a reminder as to how lucky the Penguins were about eight years ago when Sidney Crosby’s career did not get completely derailed when he was going through physical hell.
I am decidedly pro player when it comes to their career. They play in billion dollar industries where they are the draw and the reason people buy tickets, TV packages, and buy merchandise. They have short careers, limited earning power, and when they do have the chance to get new contracts are usually extremely limited in what they can do and where they can go. I won’t begrudge a player for trying to get what they feel they deserve when they have the chance, especially when the alternative is an even richer person keeping that money for themselves.
I also do not begrudge them for deciding when enough is enough. That is why any outrage directed toward Luck’s timing or decision is silly and selfish from a fan and media perspective. He played through physical hell for seven years with the Colts (a team that never did anything to protect him) and compiled an injury list that included torn rib cartilage, a torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, a concussion, a torn labrum, and most recently some calf/ankle thing that completely kept him off the field throughout all of training camp and the preseason. All of that in just about six years.
Did the timing of his announcement suck for the Colts? Sure did, but given the way things were going it was unlikely he was going to play much this season anyway (he practiced maybe this in training camp and was barely throwing a football). Maybe the latest injury and the slow rehab was his breaking point and the sign that it was time to bail on a sport that was ruining his life. I can’t judge him for that, and neither, it seems, can anyone that is actually in the NFL or has played in the NFL.
He says he lost the enjoyment. It wasn’t fun. That he didn’t want the quality of his life to be measured simply by what he did on a football field. But all of that comes from the physical toll his body went through.
Adam, you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with the Pittsburgh Penguins and hockey.
Because think of how many times in the NHL great careers have been cut short because of injuries and what the Penguins’ own No. 1 pick and franchise player went through in his prime with his health.
You are probably lying to yourself if you say there was not some kind of concern about Sidney Crosby’s well-being and his career between the 2010 and 2013 seasons when he was limited to just 99 games (out of a potential 212) due to various head/neck related issues.
For a good portion of that time no one ever knew when (or if) he would return or what his career would look like when he did. Would he change the way he played? (He didn’t.) Would he be as effective? (He was ... just in a different way.) Would injuries be a constant concern? (I wouldn’t say constant, but every time he takes a hit to the head there is always an “oh my God” reaction to it.) What would all of this mean for the Penguins? (They would be fine, winning two more Stanley Cups.)
Even though everything worked out in the Penguins’ favor (we still don’t know what the long-term impact for Crosby will be personally after his career eventually does end) these were all legitimate questions and concerns. And for the Penguins’ sake, simply as it relates to winning and being a competitive team, they got lucky that Crosby’s career ended up going the way it did at such a pivotal time.
Think of how many great, Hall of Fame hockey careers have been ended or significantly altered by injuries at a young age.
Mario Lemieux retired the first time at age 31 because of his health and the state of the league. That’s one year younger than Sidney Crosby is now.
Pat LaFontaine was done at 32 and played more than 30 games in a season just two times after his 27th birthday, a career shortened by concussions.
Bobby Orr played 36 games after his 26th birthday after knee injuries
Eric Lindros played 120 games after his 29th birthday, mostly again because of head injuries.
Mike Bossy was done at the age of 30 after dealing with a back injury.
Pavel Bure was done at 31 and barely made an impact after his 29th birthday.
I guess the overall point here is professional football and hockey are brutal, physically draining, body destroying sports. We are only now just starting to learn the real long-term impacts on players and what it does to their quality of life both while they are playing and after they retire. Both sports are filled with players walking away or being forced in their prime (all of the aforementioned hockey players plus Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Rob Gronkowski, Andrew Luck, just to name a few in football) and that is probably only going to increase as the games evolve. The Penguins went through it once with their first legendary player, and were probably very fortunate it did not happen again with their latest one.
In the end, do not take these players for granted while you have the chance to watch them because you never know when their body or mind is just going to say ... “I’ve had enough.”
No one should blame them if that day comes.