The smartest man in pro football is the guy who’s walking away from the game while he can still walk at all. His name is Andrew Luck. The owner of Luck’s team, the Indianapolis Colts, implies Luck’s making a big mistake with his weekend announcement that he’s retiring at 29. The owner’s name is Jimmy Irsay.
I mention Irsay’s name for historic perspective, and leave it to people around here to attach it to his father, the accursed Robert. The younger Irsay says Luck is walking away from perhaps $500 million in future salary. He hopes Luck will come back. The smarter people in pro football say: Luck should not turn around.
We should attach some other names here, which go back to the original team associated with the Irsay family: the Baltimore Colts, and such players as John Unitas and John Mackey, and Tom Matte and Bruce Laird.
Unlike Andrew Luck, they stayed in the game too long. They looked at their bank accounts and figured they had to keep playing. Andrew Luck might walk away from $500 million, but he’s already made a reported $97 million playing football. He made this over six years. He’ll be all right.
As a rookie, Unitas made less than a thousand bucks a game. He made a low six-figure salary only at the tail end of his 17-year career. The other Colts of his era made five-figure salaries. Luck made about as much money per game as Unitas made in a lifetime.
But they had something in common. Luck says his body can’t take it anymore. He’s had torn ribs, a torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, at least one concussion, a torn labrium. Unitas, in the last years of his life, was starting to walk like Quasimodo, all bent over. If he lived much longer, he told friends, he expected to finish in a wheelchair. He’d been through broken ribs, a punctured lung, a torn Achilles tendon. Those were just the headline injuries. His throwing hand was so bent, he couldn’t grip a pen.
John Mackey, like so many other football veterans, had his brain scrambled by the game. Tom Matte’s been through dozens of surgeries. Bruce Laird, who’s spent long years fighting for retired players’ injury benefits, has miserable neck and shoulder problems. He’s got scars from players reaching through his face mask. He remembers tacklers yanking at his teeth.
That’s the way the game is played. Don’t lose any sleep worrying about Andrew Luck, who’s already made his $97 million. If he never finds work again, he’ll survive. And his body and brain will thank him.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).