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Fennelly: Andrew Luck’s retirement speaks to all of us

A young NFL star steps away from what he loved - and what did him in

TAMPA — Pro football still reels from the stunning decision by now former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who stepped away from the game he loves and end his cycle of pain.

Hey, I picked Luck for NFL MVP.

Yes, the Bucs might now be able to beat Indianapolis when it comes to town without Luck in early December. Throw in Cam Newton’s injuries and things are looking up. If Drew Brees can turn an ankle stepping on one of his kid’s roller skates …

Forget all that.

Saturday, when Luck stepped away, flushed out when the news broke during a preseason game he wasn’t playing in, then booed in his own stadium by moron fans who once loved him and who now feel robbed, I could only think of what it must have taken to drive this man away from what he loved before he even turns 30.

RELATED STORY: Luck’s retirement stuns Bucs coaches

The NFL should think about it too.

Luck threw 171 touchdowns in 86 games. Only Dan Marino and Aaron Rodgers — a Hall of Famer and a future Hall of Famer —threw more in the same span of games.

Now he is walking away, while he still can.

Luck’s departure has a bit of a Barry Sanders feel to it. Twenty years ago, Sanders, closing in on the NFL’s all-time rushing record, decided to leave the game to concentrate on being a full-time ghost.

This has that ghostly feel.

RELATED: Current, former NFL players react to Andrew Luck’s retirement

In 1966, Sandy Koufax stepped away from baseball at the height of his powers, done in by an arthritic elbow. People didn’t believe Koufax could retire, but he did, seemingly because he was obsessed with living a normal life, like being able to use his left arm after he was playing.

Like former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax retired in his prime. (AP Photo/Ray Howard) [ROBERT HOUSTON | ASSOCIATED PRESS]

This has that Koufax feel.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said. “It’s taken the joy out of this game.”

Football is a brutal game. I’ll be surprised if it’s around by the middle of this century. There is a shield for every player and most of them on it, dragged from the arena. We can talk about these players, casting them from our fantasy teams when they don’t produce, but they go through horrible things in the name of the game, be it for treasure or glory or simply love.

It takes a toll, and sometimes the toll is too great.

That’s what happened to Luck. Injuries piled up. He saw the light. He left with millions of dollars on the table but with his heart and soul intact.

All of this makes us marvel that much more at guys like Brees and Tom Brady, playing in their 40s. When they cut open those two, they’ll find circuit boards.

But football players, our athletic gods, are flesh and blood, and sometimes the blood gushes and the flesh weakens, followed by the heart and mind.

“Knowing his toughness, and his mental toughness, this does surprise me,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians, who coached Luck in Indianapolis and who had his own health issues drive him from the NFL at one point. “Something has got to be wrong somewhere because I know he loves the game so much. … To see it is very disheartening.”

He loved the game so much.

But not enough.

Luck has missed a season and a half of playing time because of injuries, including a calf and ankle problem that still hasn’t healed. He missed the entire 2017 season recovering from shoulder surgery. He came back last season and threw 39 touchdown passes, led the Colts back to the playoffs and was named NFL comeback player of the year.

Now he’s not coming back.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said. “It’s taken the joy out of this game.”

The NFL can’t afford to lose its young stars. They’re the show. They’re the reason people buy the tickets. But the game eats its own. Stars like Calvin Johnson and Patrick Willis stepped away in the name of their physical and mental health. And now Luck. The butcher’s bill was too high. It almost always is in the NFL.

Players across football reacted to Luck’s instant retirement. They spoke truth as they did.

Leonard Fournette (27) says he knows all too well why Andrew Luck chose to walk away from the game at such a young age. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File) [PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP]

Jacksonville Jaguars runner Leonard Fournette tweeted, “Y’all don’t know how much we put in for this sport,”

Like I said, truth.

Most of us never want to know the butcher’s bill, much less ever have to pay it. We don’t want to know about all those former players’ brains in jars at CTE research labs. We’re always on to the next game.

Stop and listen.

Stop and learn.

Andrew Luck isn’t on to the next game. One day, maybe enough players will step away and there won’t be games anymore. We’re not close to being there, not yet. There are hundreds who’ll still chase the dream and the money.

Luck’s departure probably won’t change that.

He stood as tall as he ever had on the football field as he stepped away from it, from what he loved. But enough was enough. The game did him in.

To see it is very disheartening.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.comor (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.