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How Andrew Luck’s retirement highlights football’s ‘brutal’ nature

NFL quarterback Andrew Luck has announced his resignation at age 29. Plagued by injuries, the Indianapolis Colts player called it quits just two weeks before the new season begins. Sportswriter John Feinstein, author of the book “Quarterback,” which profiled Luck and four other NFL quarterbacks, joins John Yang to discuss the physical and mental toll of the nation’s most-watched sport.

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  • John Yang:

    The physical and mental toll of the nation's most watched sport is being highlighted by the surprise retirement of the NFL's Andrew Luck.

    The 29-year-old quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts called it quits just two weeks before the season begins.

  • Andrew Luck:

    For the last four years I have been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury — injury, pain, rehab.

    And it's been unceasing and relenting — unrelenting, both in season, both in — and off-season. And I have felt stuck in it. And the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It's taken my joy of this game away.

  • John Yang:

    In seven years in the league, the former first-round draft choice has had a lacerated kidney, injured ribs, at least one concussion, torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder and, most recently, a calf and ankle injury.

    Sportswriter John Feinstein profiled Luck for his book "Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports." The paperback edition of that book comes out tomorrow.

    John, thanks joining us.

  • John Feinstein:

    My pleasure, John.

  • John Yang:

    You spent a lot of time with Andrew Luck.

    Did you sense or did you see any of the toll of that cycle he talked about of pain — injury, pain, recovery?

  • John Feinstein:

    Very much so. And more probably in a mental, an emotional sense than a physical sense.

    Every football player understands that it hurts to play the game. It's a brutal game. Even those who aren't injured are hurt by the end of the season because of the pounding they take.

    But when he missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury that you mentioned, it tore him up emotionally. He felt like he had failed his teammates because he couldn't be on the field. The quarterbacks who tried to replace him were shadows of him. They went 4-12 that year without him. And he felt guilty. He was depressed.

    He finally went away to Europe to get away from everything, all the constant pressure being, when are you coming back, when are you coming back, and rehabbed over there for two months.

    And he talked about understanding the finite nature of playing football.

    And the difference to me between Andrew Luck and 99 percent of the athletes I have ever known is he loved his sport, loved it since he was a kid, but he doesn't need it. He's so bright and so talented in other areas, that he can go on with his life without sort of reaching out and trying to hold on to football forever.

  • John Yang:

    You used the word brutal when you talked about the sport.

    He got booed as he left the field Saturday night. What would you say to those fans who booed him, knowing that the — when the story broke that he was retiring?

  • John Feinstein:

    First of all, I would say, shame on you, because Andrew Luck gave literally heart and soul and body to that franchise for seven years and helped keep them a playoff team. They were a playoff team four of the six years that he was healthy. That's number one.

    But, number two, I would say, you don't understand. You don't know. I don't think, unless you play football at the highest level, you can understand what every football player goes through.

    I spent an entire season watching games from the sideline. And, John, I'm telling you, if you watched the routine play, you would say, how did anybody get up from the collisions that take place? These are big, strong, fast men colliding with each other play after play.

    Several commentators who didn't play football publicly criticized Luck after the retirement. And I would say — and two of them are friends of mine. And I would say to them, you can't understand because you were basketball players. It doesn't hurt to play basketball unless you miss a lot of shots.

    But football hurts. And Andrew Luck, with all the injuries that he's been through, finally got to a point where, as he said, the joy was gone for him, and all he could think about was this recurring cycle of injury, rehab, injury, rehab, feeling like he was letting his teammates down.

    So, I under — I think I understand completely why he felt the way he did. And most of those people, I suspect, did not.

  • John Yang:

    We're also hearing more and more about retired players, about this — their health problems.

    Is there a sense that more players, current players, are weighing this balance of their careers and their long-term well-being?

  • John Feinstein:

    I don't think there's any doubt about it.

    I mean, first of all, CTE scares people, as it should. And we are finding out more and more that players who have concussions during the course of their careers will probably have CTE when they get older. And we have seen — with more and more players donating their brains when they passed away, we're finding that many of them have CTE in them.

    But there's also the factor of that you do get so beat up. And because the players are making more money now, they don't necessarily have to hang on and let their bodies get beat up.

    The other thing that's really significant, I think, with all these scares, is that the number of players playing high school football has gone down significantly in the last few years. And I think what's changed is, when I was a kid, my mom didn't want me to play football.

    Now I think dads and moms aren't very eager to see their sons play football. They say, play another sport.

  • John Yang:

    John Feinstein.

    The book is "Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports," the paperback edition out tomorrow.

  • John Feinstein:

    Thank you, John.

  • John Yang:

    John, thanks so much.

  • John Feinstein:

    My pleasure.

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