Two and a half years after he stunned the football world, Andrew Luck strolled into a coffee shop on the northside of Indianapolis and asked if it was cool if we sat outside. He said his daughter, Lucy, had picked up a cold at school and passed it on to him. His voice was scratchy, his nose running.
Sure, I told him, figuring at first this might be some sort of cover – he probably wanted the most discreet table in the place, as far away from the front door as possible. I’ll be honest: During our 90-minute chat, I saw a few heads turn. Is that Andrew Luck? they had to be wondering. Is that really him?
Yeah, it was. And yeah, he still lives in Indianapolis, just a few minutes from the Colts’ practice facility, where the franchise he’d once been the face of is still trying to move past his untimely exit. Luck’s decision in August 2019 was one of the most shocking in sports history.
The night he walked away from the NFL – which doubled as the craziest night of my career – my longtime colleague Stephen Holder turned to me after the news conference and said, “That might be the last we ever see of him.”
I thought about it for a second.
“You could be right,” I told him.
Thirty-two months into Luck’s retirement, that prophecy rang true: Luck had essentially become a ghost. You never saw him at games. Never saw him at the team facility. He turned down every interview request lobbed his way; believe me, there were plenty. Even his former teammates and coaches stayed quiet on the matter, offering only vague updates when asked.
Why? Because that’s how Luck preferred it.
In a lot of ways, it felt like he wanted to disappear.
I’d hear whispers from friends and colleagues from time to time. Someone saw him at the airport! The grocery! Out to dinner!
But all the while, it was hard not to wonder: Would we ever hear from him again?
And did we need to?
The end was so sudden, so jarring, but like anything else in the NFL, life carried on. The Colts found a new quarterback. Then another. Then another. Luck’s name would surface in the news every few months – he was hanging with a high school football team in Colorado, he was with Robert Griffin III at the College Football Playoff championship game, the Washington Commanders wanted to trade for him, even though he was still very much retired – but the stories would soon fade, furthering the mystery of what he was actually doing… and if we’d ever find out.
The day we met for coffee, I could not get this thought out of my head: He’s just 32 years old. This guy’s supposed to be in the prime of his career.
That specter still hangs over the Colts, the what-if, the what-could-have-been. Indy hasn’t won a playoff game since Luck walked out, and there’s no doubt in my mind that reality eats at owner Jim Irsay. His team has done an admirable job of moving on, refusing to crater, staying competitive. But Irsay is not in this to be competitive. The man wants Super Bowls.
He might have another if Luck were still playing.
“It’s hard to understand the enormity of what happens when Andrew walks away from us at 29 years old,” Irsay said this spring. The man’s been in this league 50 years. Never has he seen a franchise quarterback so young retire 15 days before the season opener.
The question I asked myself over and over that night – Aug. 24, 2019 – is still one that pops into my head every once in a while.
How in the world did we get here?
The idea was first pitched to me about five months ago: a narrative podcast series that would try and sort out the answer.
Initially, I resisted. No need to go back. Hell, I lived most of it. I covered the games. I cringed at the hits he took. I sat in those news conferences. At one point, during his three-year shoulder saga, I had a file on my computer that was everything you could ever want to know about labrum surgery. It was 65,000 words long.
Digging that back up was the last thing I wanted to do.
But the more I thought about it, the more I was reminded of how fascinating his story is and how incomplete it still feels. So much of the NFL calendar can feel monotonous, especially from my seat, covering a team on a day-to-day basis: training camp, the season, the playoffs, injuries, trades, signings, the draft, rinse, repeat.
So many great, messy stories get lost in the midst of that. Stories that are flooded with coverage for a few days, dissected and debated ad nauseam, then barely ever examined again.
This felt like one of those stories, one that deserved another look, and more importantly, another lens.
Luck’s exit – the when, the why, the how – stirred the conversation on what we should expect of pro athletes, and more importantly, what we should not. To me, his story was never as much a football one as it was a human one, and that’s why it always felt so fascinating. It felt like a Rorschach test for prodigies who could – gasp – actually find happiness away from the arena in which their gifts set them apart.
In the end, what do they owe themselves?
What do they owe us?
His career always seemed to speak to that duality. He was the No. 1 draft pick who was averse to attention, the franchise QB who wanted to take every last hit, the nerdy bookworm whose personality ran counter to so many stereotypes we have of the position.
The notion that he did not love the game was belied by the fact that he spent three years willing himself onto the field so his team’s season would not collapse, wrecked throwing shoulder and torn rib cartilage and lacerated kidney be damned.
What does his story tell us? What does his exit tell us?
“That a football life cannot be scripted,” NFL veteran Peter King told me.
Maybe that’s the lesson in all of this. Think of what franchises can learn from Luck’s story, or what to do – and more importantly, what not to do – with a star young quarterback, and how nothing in pro sports is guaranteed, even one of the safest bets in NFL history.
Honestly, I thought I knew Luck’s story.
I was wrong.
I’ll never forget our interview with David Shaw, Luck’s coach at Stanford and a close confidant to this day. I asked him: Did the Colts build around him the right way?
Shaw was silent for three long seconds.
“That’s the most loaded question I’ve ever been asked,” he finally said.
Then he gave his answer – and it sounded like one he’d been wanting to get off his chest for some time. It was the most insight I’ve ever heard into how Luck truly felt about the Colts’ personnel moves early in his career. Publicly, he never said a negative word. But I’ve always wondered what he thought privately.
I did not know RGIII – who edged Luck out for the Heisman Trophy in 2011 – was actually being recruited by Jim Harbaugh to Stanford after Luck had signed with the Cardinal. Imagine those two on the same college roster.
I did not know that D’Qwell Jackson, one of the Colts’ defensive leaders, went up to Luck at one point and pleaded with his QB to voice his opinions more strongly to management.
And while I knew 2016 and 2017 were dark years for Luck, I do not think I ever truly grasped how dark they really were. His shoulder was shot, his confidence gone, and Luck’s throwing coach, Tom House, opened up on how bleak it was.
“He couldn’t even roll a football 20 yards,” House told me. “It was an all or nothing thing.”
We spoke to more than two dozen teammates, coaches, league executives, friends, rivals and those around college football and the NFL.
As for Luck himself?
He asked that our conversation that day over coffee remain off the record – which it will.
As for the podcast, he considered it. He really did. He hasn’t spoken publicly since walking away, save for a quick interview with ESPN at the national championship game in early January.
But he ultimately decided to decline.
Still, the voices in this series shared story after story that I’d never heard, peeling back the curtain on one of the most fascinating NFL careers in recent memory.
We wanted to tell the Andrew Luck story that has never been told, and we wanted to answer this question: How does the greatest quarterback prospect since John Elway end up walking away from the game before he’s 30 years old?
Have a listen and find out.
(Illustration by Adam Parata)