THE DAY AFTER he retired, Andrew Luck reached into the shower in the bedroom at his Indianapolis condo and turned the knob. He stepped back and waited for the water to get hot. It was the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2019, and he was in a fog over what he had done. When Luck had told Indianapolis Colts executives that he was going to walk away from football, they didn't believe him. Couldn't fathom it. "When you going to turn it on?" they asked two weeks before the season began. "I'm not," Luck said. When he had told his teammates he hadn't been able to live the life he wanted to live, they said they understood. Didn't argue. They said they'd seen his pain and now sensed his relief. But his eyes dampened and his face reddened when he told them. He knew they wanted him for a shot at a Super Bowl, and he knew he wasn't going to deliver. He also knew, no matter how guilty he felt, that he wasn't going to change his mind.
When it came time to tell the rest of the world, Luck wrote it down. He sat at the counter in his kitchen and composed a retirement speech. He wrote longhand on a notepad and then typed parts and pieces into his laptop, polishing and rearranging as he went, titling it: ALUCK - FIRST DRAFT. It was strange to write. Usually, retirements are celebratory events at the end of storied careers. Nobody, not even Luck, would be celebrating this one. He used phrases like "I have a lot of clarity in this" and "it is the right decision for me." The cycle of getting hurt, rehabbing, getting hurt again, had brought him to this place, he said. A place where it was time to "remove himself from football."
The sports world was stunned. This was a generational quarterback. A quarterback on track for the Hall of Fame. A quarterback who'd just won the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. A rare quarterback who seemed born to do what he was doing. This was Andrew Luck.
How could he walk away?
He delivered his speech, with trembling conviction. And the next day, at home, he couldn't pick an emotion. They were all tangled together, relief mixed with mourning, guilt mixed with a profound unburdening, a dozen thoughts and feelings that he couldn't name or even really describe. He had no idea what came next, or how hard it would be to find out. All he knew was that he didn't have to pretend anymore. He stepped into the shower and stood under the water, and with the steam rising started to cry.
ALMOST THREE YEARS later, on a May morning in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck is holding a fishing rod and sliding into waders in a dirt parking lot a few miles from his house. He's 33 now. He just said goodbye to his wife, Nicole Pechanec, and dropped off their 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, at preschool. Another daughter, Penelope, is due in two months. After Luck retired from the Colts, he tried to find new outlets for his obsessions. He makes a perfect cappuccino, the whole beans purchased from a local shop where he always tips generously. Skiing fills his need for an outdoor physical act that requires total concentration, with speed and danger. Cycling provides the rush of skiing but in warm weather, and is easier on the joints. Rowing is something Nicole encouraged. And he loves fishing for all the usual reasons: the quiet and detachment, the hope and adrenaline, the fact that he can go alone or with friends.
He stands outside his black Audi sedan, fiddling with gear, and threads his line. A group of kids watches him from a distance. Luck is slimmer and more defined than he was in his playing days. His eyes are under a heavy brow, conveying little and absorbing everything. He is still famous around town, for the hope he once provided and the fading hope that he could still one day provide it again. He snakes through woods, down to a quiet river. There are some small rocks set up on a bank, where Lucy arranged them a few days ago when she came here with her daddy. That makes him smile. He steps into the water, cold and clear and perfect for bass, and lets out line in quick movements.
Time stretches out in front of him as it has stretched out in front of him since he threw a football better than almost anyone on the planet; strange and confusing, liberating and exhilarating, as he tries to understand how a game turned into an obligation and into a corruptive force.
"How do you fall out of love with something you loved?" he says.
He reels in his line and casts again and stares at the shimmering surface of the water.
"Elements of decisions of why I did it that I'm still processing," he says.
"I think ..."
He feels a tug.
"F--- yeah, dude!"
His line tightens.
He sets the hook.
"Dude! Hahaha. Dude, it's such a good feeling. Yes! Oh, it's such a good feeling."
The struggle lasts seconds before Luck pulls the bass from the water. He cradles it in his hands, which are gangly and huge, big enough to swallow laces or a fish. "Hey, buddy," he says, as he gently pries the hook from the fish's mouth and lets it loose. A silver flash disappears beneath the surface. He casts again, waiting for another tug on the line, over and over again, cast after cast, fish after fish, his best morning ever at this hole, until Lucy is due to be back from school, and it's time to go home.
"YOU KNOW WHY you're here, right?" Luck asks me in the kitchen of his house just north of Indianapolis on a quiet morning this past spring. It's the first in a series of days we'd spend together over five months this year, the first time he has spoken at length publicly since he retired.
"No," I say.
"Because you ski."
He's only half-joking. I had written him a letter in October 2019, months after he walked away. He replied that he wanted to talk to me, but only when he was ready. Might be two months or two years, he said. He researched me and learned that I extreme ski. So does he. He has maps of resorts framed around his house and says there are days when he actually has considered going to work on the ski patrol.
He pulls out a dozen eggs and some bacon while talking on the phone. It's amusing to watch him cook for Lucy, measured against what he could be doing today. If he had wanted to, Luck would be entering his 11th NFL season, probably with a contract worth double the $139 million deal he signed in 2016. Who knows, he might have a Super Bowl ring or two. He also might be single and angry, leaving himself to wonder if it was worth it.
This is his routine on most days, while Nicole works as a television producer. He holds a tiny cast-iron skillet, focusing on the egg he cracks. He watches it sizzle, the only noise in the room.
"Perfect size," he says.
His house is bright and spacious, nestled on a lake just north of Indianapolis. He designed it before he retired, deploying his Stanford architecture degree to create a place "built for a quarterback," he says. Its physical therapy room is now a guest room. A film room is now an office. The house is five minutes from the Colts facility. He drives past it almost daily. Only recently has he decorated the house with football stuff, and most of it from Stanford. There is only one item from his pro football days on display: a framed painting that he received for winning Comeback Player of the Year in 2018. In it, he is in full uniform, standing on a boat in a calm sea, no expression on his face, with a life preserver floating alongside him if he wants to jump.
MOST DAYS AT sunrise, with life still and coffee hot, Luck sits at one of the two desks in his study and writes down his thoughts, always in longhand on yellow legal pads. He read a self-help book that advocated journaling before the day begins in earnest, stream of consciousness stuff, and he says "it feels good to do something for yourself." Sometimes he journals about his daily tasks, sometimes it's deeper. The subtext is often football, and how a scripted life didn't fulfill the script. He rarely goes back and rereads them. He says he doesn't consider himself a strong writer. He journals to journal, not only helping him sort out his thoughts and clear his mind, but to feel closer to clarity.
"What story am I telling myself?" he says.
On a spring morning, as we sit near a garden and sip cappuccinos, he wants to arrive at a story he can live out. Conversations about his future usually turn into reexaminations of his past, of why he was initially drawn to a game that nearly ruined him.
"Well, shoot. I don't think I had a choice. Haha," he says.
He's not referring to his family somehow steering him into football, although his dad, Oliver, was an NFL quarterback for five years and was Andrew's hero. When you're expected to be not only a great quarterback but a transcendent one, when you come to love the addictive nirvana of fitting the ball into narrowing windows and also providing something to friends, helping their lives, when you are the consensus first overall draft pick two years running, and when you have leverage in every room you enter, he felt he had an obligation to see where it took him. Life moved at warp speed, from Stratford High School in Houston to Stanford and then the draft, with no time to consider or process.
"What I didn't allow myself to explore enough was how much I loved football," he says.
Did he love football? He says he did. But all of the attention made him squirm, made him want to break out of a "story that felt written," he says. There was a media narrative that he led a limitless life -- that he could have been an architect, or engineer, or scientist, if he wanted -- when his life was actually fiercely limited.
How much of your self-identity was tied to being a quarterback? I ask.
"A lot. A lot. A LOT. And I didn't realize that until after the fact," he says.
Luck has told himself a lot of stories over the years, trying to measure -- or discover -- the distance between his own narrative and his reality. He arrived in the NFL in 2012, with little idea that the greatest quarterbacks are often selfish and fragile, controlling and pouty, both the only adult in the room and a grown child. Peyton Manning had run the Colts building for 14 years, expanding the influence and impact of one player, and there was an expectation for Luck to do the same. He was 22. He had no idea how to run a professional football team. Early in his career, Luck chatted with left tackle Anthony Castanzo about the requirements of great quarterbacks. "You have to believe that you are God's gift to the world, or else doubt will start to come in," Castanzo said.
Luck's most natural version of himself was to be one of the guys, he says. But what worked at Stanford didn't work in the NFL. He felt too much pressure, and had to convince himself that he had "some level of control over the outcome" of a random game. So he became someone he didn't want to be -- or, specifically, he tapped into a part of his personality he didn't always relish. He ran offensive meetings. He was so involved in blocking and route-running techniques that players nicknamed him the assistant tight ends coach. When people visited his downtown condo and it was getting close to his 9:52 p.m. bedtime during the season, Luck would disappear to the bathroom, brush his teeth, strip to his boxers, tell the group good night -- and kill the lights. He simplified his life to extremes, using a flip phone. He and his agent and uncle, Will Wilson, turned down most endorsements until he felt that he had accomplished something in the league. Trying to control every variable extended to dinners out with teammates, where he'd order for everyone without being asked. "To play quarterback, you're not allowed to worry about anything except the task at hand," Luck says. "And that seeps into other areas of life. It's not the healthiest way to live."
Nicole witnessed it all, his longtime girlfriend who sometimes felt reduced to a silo in a siloed life. They had met at Stanford, after Luck got her number by pretending to have lost his cell phone and asking her to call it. She was independent and focused on her own aspirations, first earning her MBA at Indiana University and later working as a television producer. But Andrew simply decided her role and decided that she needed to be out of the spotlight. "I had no place," she says. Nicole got used to people acknowledging her only to ask for a photo of her boyfriend. "I didn't want to be a public figure, but that was part of the job," Luck says. "So why would I subject her to it? But we never had that conversation. I made the decision for her."
Those decisions, his survival mechanisms, his "design," as he calls it, worked, both professionally and culturally. He became one of the best quarterbacks in football. He delivered in critical moments, helping to rally the Colts from a 38-10 third-quarter deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs in his second year. In his third season, the Colts reached the AFC Championship Game. A Super Bowl seemed inevitable. "We were progressing," he says.
Then, on a third down in the second quarter of the third game of the 2015 season, Tennessee Titans defensive end Brian Orakpo hit Luck from behind, driving him into the ground. Luck hopped up, but he winced. Something was wrong.
"It hurts," Luck told his uncle that night. "But I think it'll be all right."
LUCK HAD NO practical choice but to be all right. He had torn his right labrum, but he had what he calls a "deep, deep, deep, deep, DEEP" code within himself to never cede to pain, and especially to not discuss it. "If you're playing scared in any way, shape or form, it does not work," he says.
Luck took that ethos to an extreme. During the 2016 offseason, after he missed nine games in 2015, with his labrum injury, a partial abdominal tear and a lacerated kidney from another hit, his shoulder simply wasn't working. He refused to level with anyone, leaving the team to believe that he was fully recovered. He had separated his AC (acromioclavicular) joint snowboarding in Colorado, flying back to Indianapolis that night for tests with the team. It didn't end up affecting the labrum but did further destabilize that entire region of his body. His new $139 million contract, making him the league's highest-paid player, provided security and increased pressure.
When training camp began, Luck's shoulder was a "subtle" rather than "obvious" injury, Wilson says. Muscles and joints that once worked smoothly now didn't. Luck's mind started to anticipate torment as he threw, and he wondered if it was his brain preemptively shutting down his body in those split seconds between spotting an open receiver and delivering the ball. Watching other quarterbacks throw sometimes made Luck cringe. The Colts' preseason opener that August against the Packers was cancelled due to poor field conditions, and Luck was secretly relieved to not have to throw in warmups. When the regular season arrived, he was on a pitch count during the week, practicing every other day, embarrassing him so much that he'd tell teammates, "I'm not throwing it as hard today."
A trainer named Willem Kramer started to visit Luck. They had met years earlier. Kramer's wife, Jill, had been the volleyball coach at West Virginia when Oliver Luck was the athletic director. Kramer viewed both his practice and the human body holistically, and he had operated a rehab center in his native the Netherlands called Veel Beter, where soccer players would heal and return to the pitch only when ready. He would massage Luck's shoulder, trying to get him to game day. It worked, barely. Passes that Luck was accustomed to making now fluttered, accompanied by a stabbing sensation in his shoulder.
He retreated even more inward. After the season ended, in January of 2017, Luck had labrum surgery at Stanford, by Dr. Marc Safran. The surgery was successful, but his shoulder was still weak -- and still causing him pain, leaving Luck to wonder if he had overdone it in rehab. Colts owner Jim Irsay told reporters in August that Luck's "progression could not be better," but when the season started, he still couldn't go. "His muscles weren't firing," Kramer says.
Luck blamed himself, feeling like a "failure for the first time in my life." Every daily act, from his posture as he sat, to how long he stood, became measured in terms of whether it helped or hurt his shoulder. "The relationship between pain and rational thought got all crossed," Luck says. All of the neuroses and habits that had helped him to become a great quarterback, or that he believed helped, conspired against him. "He couldn't shut it off," says Jack Doyle, a former Colts tight end and one of his best friends.
Midway through the 2017 season, Luck, Colts general manager Chris Ballard and team doctors went on a secret tour of a handful of surgeons. At one point, Luck threw gentle passes on the top floor of a parking garage, his shoulder flaring up and doctors and trainers trying to pinpoint what was wrong. All told him something different, and all wanted to cut into him. But Luck also visited Safran, who told him that what the shoulder needed most was what he wanted to hear least: time. Luck hadn't taken a snap all season. He had no idea what to do, scared when many teammates assumed he was in total control. "He was Andrew Luck," Doyle says. "He had it all figured out. He was the man. That's all anyone ever told him, and that's what he believed."
Luck asked Kramer to start visiting Indianapolis again for rehab. This time, though, Kramer said, "I'm not doing that. It's a waste of your time and a waste of my time."
That surprised Luck; he didn't hear no often. Kramer told him that he was under too much pressure in Indianapolis, and that he needed a new environment. "Just you, Nicole, and your shoulder."
He wanted him to go to Veel Beter. Or, specifically, he wanted Luck to want to go to Veel Beter, so that Luck felt agency over his own decisions, something he strangely felt bereft of, despite his stature both in the culture and within the Colts building. It was an odd feeling, not always logical, but so many choices in his life felt like false ones, obligations more than actual decisions, his life as a quarterback owned by so many entities, from the team to the city. "He just had a really hard time saying what he felt, what he wanted," Kramer says.
Kramer made clear to Luck that they would go to the Netherlands with one goal. It wasn't for Luck to throw again. It was for him to have a chance of a pain-free, functional shoulder -- for "an aspiration of a foundation," Luck says. He had to convince the team of his plans. Team doctors were polite but suspicious of Kramer, tolerating him only out of respect for the franchise quarterback. Irsay decided to loan Luck his plane to fly to Amsterdam. Luck arrived at the gym the next day, Nov. 2, at 8 a.m., with no idea what to expect.
THE FIRST DRILL was called Snow Angels. On his back, Luck had to lift 2.5-pound dumbbells an inch above the ground and motion his arms above his head. Luck tried -- and could do it with only his left arm. Luck glared at Kramer, so angry and dispirited that he couldn't process.
"I can't do this," Luck said later that day.
"You can," Kramer said.
"It is too tough."
"It's supposed to be tough. Was it painful?"
That's progress, Kramer said.
That night, Nicole asked Luck how he felt, that day and overall.
"I don't know," he said.
But Luck knew. He was in a silent hell, scared and panicking. And Nicole was losing patience, tired of years of Andrew putting emotional guardrails around her. "I didn't have a place to contribute because Andrew wouldn't communicate," she says. Nicole felt uniquely equipped to help. She had been a gymnast in her native Czech Republic, and her childhood was spent in various training facilities across America, sometimes for years. She became so prolific at Stanford that she invented her own move on the uneven bars, called the Pechancova. And before she was 21 years old, she had broken a shin, an ankle, her back, and torn up her knee, forcing her to consider life beyond gymnastics.
"I've been injured my whole life," she told him.
At first, Luck wasn't in the mood to hear it. He couldn't hear it. He wasn't sleeping well, he was in pain, he was fighting with Nicole, the team was halfway across the globe without him, and if he stopped to examine his life, the entire world he had constructed might start to unravel, perhaps revealing it to be fatally flawed all along. "I understood myself best as a quarterback," Luck says. "I felt no understanding of other parts of myself at all."
Nicole was prepared to leave him if nothing changed. Then one night, he broke. He cried, he cursed, he vented, he confessed, and most of all, he leveled with Nicole in a way she thought he was incapable of. "There were some things that when I looked in the mirror, I did not like about myself," he says. "I was self-absorbed, withdrawn, in pain, and feeling pressure."
After about a few weeks in Holland, Luck started to see a professional therapist. And Kramer started to serve not only as a trainer but as a couple's counselor of sorts, trying to teach Andrew and Nicole about communication and identity, both as individuals and as a unit. One day, Kramer asked Luck, "Aren't you more than a quarterback?"
"Huh?" Luck said.
"I mean, that's fine -- I guess. What you do on the field is amazing. But aren't you more than that?"
Luck thought so, but maybe not. It took weeks, but Luck was at the early stages of trying to shed his former self -- his quarterback self -- in favor of a person he didn't know yet. One night in the Netherlands before he returned to America, Luck took a few people out for pizza. He started to order for the table. "You're getting the Margherita" he told Kramer.
"No," Kramer said.
"You're getting it," Luck said.
"No, I'm not," Kramer said. "Why would you order for people?"
Everyone laughed, but Luck got the point.
LUCK NOW REFERS to those six weeks simply as "Holland," an experience as much as a place, a transformation so profound that, looking back, might have marked the beginning of the end of his NFL career. He returned to the Colts facility in late 2017 with a promise to himself that he would put his body and mind and wife-to-be first. But at the time, Luck also had a goal of returning to play. When he entered the Colts building, familiar urges started to kick in. The team and the press wanted to know his time frame for throwing. Luck told them that he would throw when he was ready. But Ballard says that Luck "cared so much about others, and not letting the team down" that he was in a dull panic.
"I need to throw," Luck told Kramer.
"If you're not ready, you're not ready."
"I need to throw."
"I need to."
"You matter," Kramer said. "And when you can't throw, you still matter."
LATER THAT SPRING, on April 18, Luck was in New York City, working out at a basketball court, holding a little red ball. He still hadn't thrown anything since the previous fall. Tom House, the renowned throwing specialist who had worked with Tom Brady and Drew Brees, had been brought in by Will Wilson to help Luck rebuild his fundamentals. House saw a young man in "survival mode." House has a Ph.D. in sports psychology, and the first task for clients of his company, first called 3DQB and now Mustard, is to fill out a survey to assess their physical and mental state. Before House's first meeting with Luck, the quarterback had completed only the physical portion. When House arrived at Andrew's Palo Alto home for their initial meeting, Nicole told him that Luck was in the bathroom finishing the psychological survey, unsure of how to answer, even unsure if he knew himself well enough to answer.
Over the next few months, House came to view Luck as the smartest athlete he'd ever worked with -- but felt that Luck had an emotional block. "All I had to do was fiddle with Andrew's mechanics," House says. "And then try to figure out what was going on mentally and emotionally." Luck was tough to penetrate, despite progress with Kramer and his therapist. If Luck didn't like one of House's drills, he wouldn't tell him. Something about it made him skittish. Luck would tell Kramer to tell House. Luck started retooling his mechanics slowly, not throwing anything. Luck would hold a 1-ounce hand towel and go through the throwing motion in front of a mirror, the towel flapping against his forearm.
After months, Kramer and House finally allowed Luck to throw something. In New York, Luck stood five yards away from a target on a wall. He set his feet, bouncing lightly, and raised the little red ball to his chest. Kramer stood back, recording it on his phone. Luck's arm slowly whipped back, then whipped forward. For the first time since 2015, Luck didn't wince.
"Oh my god," he said.
NEARLY FIVE MONTHS later in the 2018 season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Frank Reich called a play for Luck to throw a short pass. It was Reich's first game as the Colts' head coach, and he thought he had hit "the coaching lottery" with Luck. But the first time they met, Luck gave Reich glimpses of the worry and grief and despair from the previous few years. Reich had spent 14 seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup quarterback to superstars, and knew that Luck needed a best friend more than a new playbook. "It was natural for me to fall into that role as the guy who's always been the backup quarterback who was there to support the franchise guy," Reich says.
Against the Bengals, Luck ignored the short pass and decided to throw long to tight end Eric Ebron down the right sideline. Reich was nervous as he watched; Luck had been on a pitch count throughout training camp. In the stands, Nicole felt time slow as the ball rose and fell in a trajectory once routine and now uncertain. But it dropped into Ebron's arms for Luck's first touchdown pass since 2016, and after the game, Reich awarded Luck a game ball, to a standing ovation.
The Colts went 10-6 in 2018, winning a playoff game. Andrew and Nicole smiled at each other outside the locker room after a playoff exit against the Chiefs, relieved that he had accomplished his goal: He had returned to football, with a pain-free shoulder, had played at a high level and had felt strong. For the season, Luck threw 42 touchdown passes in the regular season and playoffs combined -- all while his left foot and ankle were bothering him, which began midway through the season. A few weeks after the playoff loss, at the Pro Bowl, Luck strained his ankle. Looking back, Luck wishes he had told the team, "I gave it all I had this year, but this is no more for me."
Instead, he told everyone that he'd be all right.
IT STARTED ALL over again: the anger, the feigned stoicism, the moodiness, the empty responses to Nicole, the confusion as doctors were unable to explain what was wrong, despite three MRIs. As the 2019 season neared, Luck was again away from the team, off in the training room. "All the scars from the past showed up," Ballard says. Luck felt himself drifting back not only to the "hamster wheel" of rehab, but to all of his worse impulses. He was a "spoiled child," Kramer says, sulking and scared, not only because of chronic pain but because of how he acted in chronic pain, a resentment less toward his body for failing to hold up and more toward himself. It wasn't just a matter of getting his foot to cooperate; it was that he knew what he was headed for if it did.
"It felt soooo familiar," Luck says.
Something had to give. One day during training camp, Luck confessed to his teammate Castanzo that he was once again asking himself: "Who am I?" This time, Luck's answers were different. He was not just a quarterback. In the offseason he and Nicole had married, and she was pregnant with Lucy. He had responsibilities and promises beyond himself and the Colts. He was coming close to saying out loud what he had disclosed only to Nicole and a few others: that he wasn't sure he wanted to do this anymore. Not could. Wanted. He had proved that he could play at a high level. He had received plenty of praise and criticism, enough to know that neither of those things matters. "It was admirable that he was able to see the bigger picture," Castanzo says. "For him to continue on in his life as a quarterback, he would have essentially expected it to be Andrew's World, and every relationship in his life would cater to Andrew's World, which is not the person he wanted to be."
One day during camp Luck called Nicole, who was on the road with a camera crew.
"I think I'm going to retire," he said.
OK, this is real now, Nicole thought. But she couldn't talk. "We are on air! Got to go!"
Nicole was willing to cater to Andrew, to do whatever it took for him to realize his goals as a quarterback. But he was done. Luck told his family and close friends. Wilson advised him to sleep on it. When they spoke two days later, Luck was resolute. Ballard tried to appeal to Luck's competitive fire, but it was gone. Reich implored him to not rush a big decision, but Luck didn't think it had been rushed. When Wilson met with Ballard to finalize the paperwork, both men cried. Luck savored his final days in pro football. He played catch with Doyle on the field before his next-to-last preseason game, putting his arm around him as they entered the tunnel. That weekend, Luck threw a birthday party for Nicole at a downtown Indianapolis restaurant called Bluebeard. He got chatty and told almost everyone in attendance, hoping they could keep a secret for a few days.
A week later on Saturday night in a preseason game against the Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium, Luck was on the sideline in street clothes. The secret plan was to announce his retirement the next afternoon. In the fourth quarter, Luck felt the mood in the building shift. The crowd was still lingering. There was a strange fervor. Cameras had turned toward him. Colts media relations executive Matt Conti came over holding his phone, with word that ESPN's Adam Schefter had broken the news.
"Well, it's out," Luck told Doyle and Castanzo.
Some of the crowd booed Luck -- in the only city where he'd acclimated as a professional, where he'd lived downtown and had a view of Monument Circle, where he was part of the people, where he had started a book club to improve literacy, where he played trivia on Wednesdays and ate at restaurants trendy and obscure. As Luck approached the tunnel, the crush got louder and more personal. In the locker room players were staring at texts with stunning news about a man feet away. Luck explained himself, fighting back tears. Conti was in a nearby room, trying to get Luck a copy of his speech, hoping that a printer that never seemed to work would come through. It did. He walked Luck to the podium with the papers.
Glad I didn't leave it until the morning, Luck thought.
NEWS OF LUCK'S retirement rocked the football world and beyond. But inside his condo, it was eerie and quiet. He seemed lighter, free of angst -- and fidgety. He decided to start building Lucy's crib. He scurried around opening drawers, looking for a screwdriver, until he finally asked Nicole where she kept it. He later powered up his flip phone for the first time that day. Hundreds of texts lit it up. He wanted to reply to each one, but he could see only a few at a time on the tiny, outdated screen. So he wrote down each number. Some numbers, he knew. Others, he needed help. Replying to texts took months, as he traveled to Europe, as he learned to surf, as he grew his hair long and switched to a keto diet and started to be recognized as "the un-quarterback," he says, until he finally broke down and bought an iPhone.
He became a father when Lucy was born in November at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. He tried to avoid watching football during the 2019 season, but he would send Colts players texts before and after games -- sometimes during them. The season ended, and a few months later, the world was at a standstill from a deadly virus. Andrew and Nicole and Lucy were holed up in a guest space above their garage while the construction on the house was in its final stages, with nowhere to go.
"The floodgates opened," Nicole says.
They'd talk in the kitchen, or on walks, or on the patio. Luck would ask hyper-philosophical questions and pose theories, picking words that cut to his core and essence. Quarterback was one. Why had he become a quarterback, and why had he been so drawn to its freedoms and constraints, and why did he derive so much of his self-worth from it, from providing to the guys, from being available to the team? Availability was another one, because the available guys are the ones he wanted to play with and he considered himself to be one but maybe wasn't, and so why -- why was it such a source of pride, and was it because he simply wasn't tough enough? Toughness. What did it mean to be tough? Was his retirement exemplar of a lack of toughness, or was it actually courage few could imagine?
Lots of words led to few conclusions. One day, as Luck was processing out loud again, Nicole thought about how much easier it was to handle a newborn.
"Andrew," she said. "How can someone talk about themselves so much?"
They both laughed.
LUCK HAD STARTED to tell himself a series of stories. Of being a quarterback. Of being a husband and father. Of the injury cycle providing the gift of awareness. Of having made a decision. He told himself stories of a former football player whose story made sense -- "Grieving what you know best," he says -- often until those stories made sense. But none of them netted out in resolution or assurance that he hoped would erase this feeling he lived with and had no choice but to try to talk out, this "insane conflict" of giving his life to becoming one of the best in the world at his craft and wondering what's left when it's over. Therapy helped Luck to arrive at the "clarity that I don't need more clarity," he says, language that felt both sufficient and inadequate because it failed to yield what he most wanted to know: Which choices are the right ones? And are they right forever? And if they fade, or if their edges recede, like an iceberg, were they wrong even if they still feel right? "I doubt I will ever find the answers," he says. "All of them. Or any answers."
One day, while walking with Lucy in their neighborhood, Luck saw kids playing football. They knew who he was, and he knew that they knew. They asked him to throw. Luck threw a tiny ball to tiny targets. It rushed back to him, the motions and rhythms, but most of all, the purity of providing, of making people's day, just by delivering something into their hands. "I always had fun throwing," he says. And so he threw to those kids until it started raining, and Lucy was getting soaked, and it was time to go home.
Two years into retirement, Luck was happy to be a stay-at-home dad. But he also wanted a career, something to fill football's void, to define himself as something other than the quarterback who walked away. He considered going back to school, or buying a stake in an MLS team, or starting a venture capital firm in the Bay Area, or joining the ski patrol. He could be choosy, with financial blessings beyond belief that he didn't take for granted. But he also knew that whatever he did, it had to mean something. Once you're a quarterback, America never sees you as anything else, almost like a president. Luck spent the winter of 2021 in Summit County, Colorado, where his family had a house. He skied Arapahoe Basin almost daily, chatting up strangers on the chair lift, anonymous behind a helmet and goggles. Luck met some ski patrollers, one of whom was also an assistant football coach at Summit High School and asked if he would want to talk to the players sometime.
Sure, Luck said. In late August, he showed up.
THE SMELL HIT him first. Of the locker room, sweat and old metal. Of pads and jerseys, plastic and foam and grass-stained mesh. Awful but familiar, triggering memories of how impressionable he had been as a teenager. He threw to receivers, firing his first pass into the dirt. He spoke to the team for five or so minutes, then asked for questions.
"What's your biggest regret from your NFL career?" a kid asked.
Luck cursed in his mind, having hoped for a softball. "Good question!" he said, and he decided to tell a group of kids what he had never said publicly:
"I regret the timing of when I retired."
He felt he had let people down, for which he had to learn how to forgive himself. What mattered to him most about football, what he wanted the kids to learn, was the "uber accountability." He knew that his own ideas of accountability and of football were more complicated than the romantic version that he had shared. And yet on the drive home that afternoon, Luck couldn't stop smiling at the thought of those romantic notions. Of sitting in meetings and geeking out for 45 minutes on one play. Of tough moments, when he was hurting or reckless with the ball. Of dumb stuff, like being whacked by pool noodles in practice to reduce fumbles. In the fall of 2021, he watched football more often, and sometimes called David Shaw, Stanford's coach at the time, to discuss pass protections. He said he understood what football "did give me. What it demanded. What it took in a sense. What I allowed it to take."
On a Saturday morning in Indianapolis last autumn, he was at Lucy's soccer practice on fields next to the Colts facility. Over a blue fence, the Colts were holding a walk-through. Luck could hear and see glimpses of his old job, and what hit him felt truer than some of the stories he'd tell himself, and didn't feel like a story at all. He was still a quarterback. "I don't think that will ever go away," he says.
He wanted back in the game. This time, to coach.
Luck worried and deliberated, reevaluated and reconsidered, wondering if this was what he wanted, if it could make him feel as alive as playing once did, or if it was merely what sounded best. He wanted a graduate degree if he were to coach and maybe teach high school history, and the idea of grad school felt like a big deal. It was a declaration of a career. It would be Andrew Luck's first big public step since retirement, bringing attention he had worked hard to avoid.
By last December, Luck had decided that if he were to go back to school, it had to be in the fall of 2022. Nicole was pregnant with Penelope. Stanford's first day was a few months after she would be born, giving them a little bit of breathing room between her arrival and class. Luck decided to apply. It was different from 2008. He was Andrew Luck, Cardinal legend, one of the inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame class of 2022, but this time nobody was in his living room, promising to make his dreams come true. He had to provide letters of recommendation. He wrote an essay about the Summit High School experience. And he sent his application off.
An email arrived in February. He stared at his inbox, nervous in way he hadn't felt since football. He knew he would get in, but he couldn't bring himself to read it. The absurdity of it all made him laugh. Finally, he opened it. Congratulations! On behalf of your colleagues in the Stanford Graduate School of Education ...
One morning shortly after, Luck was hanging out with T.Y. Hilton, one of his favorite receivers from the Colts. Luck told Hilton how much he loved and missed the game, and that he was thinking about coaching and teaching in high school. "I'm going back to school."
It made perfect sense, Hilton thought. Luck wanted that audience again, a huddle again, wanted to share expertise, wanted to order people around, wanted to be Andrew Luck again -- which was loving football, yes, but also loving something else that football provided and few other aspects of life can.
JUST NOT AS quarterback, not for the Colts nor anywhere in the NFL, no matter how much the team hopes he will somehow change his mind and pick up where he left off in 2019, saving the organization, city and maybe himself. After he retired, Luck occasionally dropped by the facility, tutoring Ballard's son, Cole, who's a high school quarterback, and hanging out with Reich. For a while, Luck and Reich tiptoed around football. Then, suddenly, Luck couldn't stop discussing key plays from Colts games and offering advice. Reich wondered, Is he telling me, subliminally, that he wants to play again?
At one point, Reich was driving when "Message in a Bottle" played on the radio. It's a sign! Reich thought. He pulled over and sent Luck a long text, beginning it with, "I'm sending out an SOS."
"I appreciate the message in the bottle," Luck replied. But the answer was no. "There are things I miss," he says. "But there are things that, one, I'm not willing to give up about my life now, and two, that I don't want to put myself through again."
The day after Luck retired, Ballard addressed the organization. After almost two decades of Manning and Luck, he said, "We're going to understand how the rest of the league lives."
It has been a bracing reality. Reich was fired midway through this season, after he cycled through five starting passers since Luck retired, winning a majority of his games but lacking the kind of quarterback who once orchestrated fourth-quarter comebacks of 17 points against Jacksonville in 2016, 13 points against the Titans in 2015, 18 points against the Texans; who sent Peyton Manning home in the playoffs in 2014; who flipped a game-winning, walk-off touchdown pass against Detroit in 2012; who in the playoff comeback against the Chiefs in 2014 told Hilton on the sideline to spontaneously switch to a different receiver position and "run your motherf---ing ass off" to the post and it led to the decisive touchdown; who is still idolized and imitated by kids; who sometimes had to dig himself out of his own hole but always delivered a clinical reassurance that the Colts had a chance.
Earlier this year, Reich sifted through old video, looking for one of Luck's plays to show the team how to execute. He found the clip he wanted -- and then kept watching, mesmerized by his old quarterback, how fluid and precise, throw after throw, how so many lives could have been different by virtue of the powers and possibilities of this young man with the ball in his hands ...
What a shame, Reich thought, that we didn't get to see what could have been.
THERE'S UNCERTAIN HOPE in the air at 6:45 a.m. in early September, Luck's last full day in Indianapolis. He is in his backyard, overlooking the lake. The family's stuff is mostly packed up for Palo Alto. It's quiet and calm. The sky is orange layered on pink, mirroring off the water. Luck sits in a hoodie and shorts, with gray specks in his once-famous beard, holding a double espresso.
"Life has been lived here," he says, looking at the lake. "Not perfect life. But life."
A new life is approaching fast, and Luck is by turns antsy and ready. The stakes feel high. He's uprooting the entire family to a smaller house, new preschool and routines, with an infant, all for a new career he hopes is the right one. He's less declarative about it than he was earlier this year. "I want to coach and, or, teach in some capacity in my life," he says, leaving wiggle room. The remnants of his old life -- of hype, of cameras, of people assuming he has it all figured out, of expectations, from both himself and a public that might see him as someone who walks away from things after he spent most of his life sprinting toward them -- make him feel nervous and claustrophobic.
He knows he can't coach on name alone. He wants to tour around and discuss the craft with high school coaches. He wants to be in a healthy enough state of mind that he doesn't dump his baggage on his players, like coaches sometimes did to him. He wants to know how he'll handle the inevitable moment when his quarterback rises from a big hit favoring his shoulder and tries to tough it out. Luck's friends tell him that he will be a great coach, but he knows there's no guarantee.
"If I were to coach, what would I bring? Well, certainly an experience that's semi-unique on the scale of football experiences."
He catches himself.
"I shouldn't say semi-unique. Completely unique."
THE EXISTENTIAL STRESS is real stress a few weeks later at Stanford, as Luck exits his philosophy of education class, exhausted and overwhelmed. It's the second week of school. We enter a café. He stands in front of a coffee machine, and I ask him about his day.
"It's really, uh -- you want anything?"
He fixes himself an espresso, his second of the morning. He looks like a college student -- flannel shirt, backpack, beat-up Stanford hat, which happens to be from his undergrad days -- and is fretting like one, worried about the course load, all of which is more complicated with a young family. He already dropped a class after feeling too close to the line of "losing touch" with Nicole and the kids, a boundary that after Holland he promised himself and the family he'd never cross, a reminder that his quarterback self, the guy who could so easily and ruthlessly exclude everything in life except the task at hand, is still in there. The photo on his Stanford ID is still the one he took at age 18, during his first days on campus. Little about the experience is familiar, except when he drops by the football offices. As a freshman and now, Luck came to campus wanting to be something. Back then, the choice was clear -- and felt less like a choice than it does now.
"I'm choosing to be here 100 percent," he says. "And get as much out as I want to put in."
Only now he doesn't have absolute clarity about what that something might be, which is both terrifying and fun, depending on the day. He knows he is retracing the steps he took as a young man, hoping that this time he might take a different path somewhere along the road, even as he swears he isn't trying to go back in time.
He sits at a table at an outdoor café on campus as students hustle to class, and takes an hour to try to sort it out, starting broad and philosophical, like he does in his journals.
"Why would I want to go to school?" he asks.
He talks about growth and knowledge. He confesses to feeling like an "old f---ing curmudgeon" figuring out how to register for classes online. He tells me about a group of 17 other students in his program he's meeting with -- all in their late 20s and mid-30s -- all of whom wanted a career change and have landed here too. Some know who Luck is, some don't.
"It's been really cool," he says.
They don't tend to ask him about football or coaching. They don't seem to think he has it all figured out, and they're not disappointed in him for walking away. It's not about what he was with them.
"I need to live this before the story's written," he says.
He looks at his phone. Time to pick up Lucy from school. He walks to his bike, the only one at the rack with a toddler's seat, and fiddles with the lock. He straps on his helmet, hops on and cycles up campus, weaving around students walking to class, gaining speed before rounding a corner, and once again, Andrew Luck is gone.