Sunday, August 25, 2019

Andrew Luck and Moral Courage

In professional sports, almost no one gets to retire on their own terms. Even for these exceptional athletes, the harsh realities of professional sports forces players to leave their games far earlier than anyone would want to. To be good enough to retire on your own accord is a great luxury afforded to very few.

Andrew Luck is one of those few lucky athletes. His powers and potential seemed limitless from the moment he stepped foot on a college football field, let alone in Indianapolis. Because of that, it seemed like his decision to retire would come long in the future, with rings on his fingers and with a gold jacket waiting for him one state over. But it came, shockingly, when he was still at the height of his powers, as a Super Bowl contender and one of the best quarterbacks in football.

Football is a grueling game. Getting physically ready to play becomes a task in of itself, and Andrew Luck's injury history is proof positive of that.

It's this cycle of pain and rehab, pain and rehab that never ceased which broke Andrew Luck's infectious love for football. He is a player who congratulated opposing defensive linemen who sacked with a big smile on his face, and almost never showed frustration. His happy go-lucky nature almost seemed misplaced in the cold, sometimes heartless NFL of today. But that happiness and childlike joy hid the real pain he went through; the pain of having to do the same thing over and over, while never getting a different result.

He was also, in another word, wordly. Football was his anything, but not his everything. He told Zak Keefer of the Athletic last year after the blowout loss to Kansas City in the playoffs that "if my worth as a human was going to be tied into how I did- the result of a performance in a football game- then I was going to have, pardon my French, a really s***ty life."

Luck might be one of the few football players who has ever earned the right to say that. Too often we see athletes as machines, robots, assets, pieces on a chess board in the game that has become so much a part of our collective self-worth, our identity and our sense of belonging. But human beings, with feelings, ambitions and complex emotions, are far more than that. Luck seemed keenly aware of it, even though he would never show it. He could proudly exclaim to the world he still owned a flip phone and people would not knock him for it because he's Andrew Luck.

So many people in life work their rear ends off to do what they love for a living, and so few get to do it. That love makes it easy to go through the ups and downs of the work of the job itself. Luck started to feel that football, specifically the grueling grind it takes physically and mentally just to play, was becoming work, which obfuscated the love of the game. He is certainly not the only one who feels this way in professional sports right now, but so many of them do not have the luxury of being a player who can dictate their own terms and say confidently, though still somewhat shaken, that this life isn't everything.

Very few professional athletes are wired like Andrew Luck, but so many go through those same experiences as he did. Too many never get the chance to say what he said, not just because of the money involved, but because these games were their entire life from practically birth until now. Giving it up means shifting to a world without control, which these players have given everything to acquire. As physically draining as these sports can be, the mental grind of just getting to the games  can be even more grueling. And it is this affect that causes players to go through not just the physical labor of professional sports, but the emotional labor too.

For Andrew Luck to retire now with seemingly so much more to give is shocking, but also comforting. He recognized something that so many of his peers may never will, and so many wish they could. While the life of a professional athlete is one so many of us lay people would give everything for, there is something so wonderful about living life on your own terms. By the time a professional athlete reaches the pinnacle, they are often not in control anymore, becoming slaves to the game they love because they have nothing else to fall back on. Andrew Luck proved to the world that even at the very top of the top of the pyramid of professional sports, there is another way forward.

Perhaps Luck's decision offers a path forward for other athletes in a similar position, even though they are far less wealthy. Professional sports are not the be all and end all of life, even though for so many it feels like it. Short term pain for long term gain for many means playing through injuries and giving everything just to get another game check, but thanks to Andrew Luck, it may now mean that while giving up the game you love can be gut-wrenching, the other side of the mountain that is life can be more fulfilling even while doing so.

Mark Twain said that "it is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and yet moral courage so rare." Physical courage is a professional sports hallmark, yet moral courage, the courage of one's convictions, isn't. Andrew Luck showed moral courage to stand up for himself, against the whims of the professional sports machine and all that goaded him back into it, to live life on his terms, not someone else's.

His fellow professionals see that intrinsically, applauding publicly while silently nodding, many wishing they could do the same thing.

And on't we all wish we can do what he did, go out on our own terms to live life as we wish we could, confident in our own sense of self to do so?

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