I'm Ready For Some Football... Despite My Better Judgement
It’s that time of year again. The time of year which men, women, children, and bookies peer through the oppressively hot and dull summer haze towards the promised land of fall. It’s nearly football season once again. And I get less and less excited for it with each passing year.
I’ve been trying to work out my feelings on paper about football for over a year. As of Saturday, August 25th, I’d compiled roughly 3,500 words on the subject, detailing how I think the NFL is everything that’s wrong with sports and might only be eclipsed by its feeder system, the NCAA. I wrote about being at peace with walking away from football, but not my favorite teams, the Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. I pined for a future where I could just cleanly break free and be rid of the (self-imposed) guilt I have watching unpaid college kids put their futures in harm’s way. The guilt I have about rooting for a pro team that brought on a man so irresponsible as a head coach, someone died under his care. Atlanta tried to pass that move off as a way to somehow better the team.
My bloated opus concluded that I desperately wanted to break free of the emotional attachments I’ve had with the game since childhood, and that I could rationally see what modern football truly is: a food processor, specially designed to squeeze every last ounce of profit out of the minds and bodies of those gifted enough to play it. I was ready to roll this story out on Saturday. Then I got a text. And then I got several texts. I threw open the browser on my phone and went to ESPN, which had crashed briefly after countless people like me tried to click on the same story. Andrew Luck, one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL was retiring after the end of a preseason game he wasn’t even playing in.
I’m still racking my brain to think of a more shocking announcement in 21st-century sports. A 29-year-old stud, coming back from serious injury to have an incredible season (he won comeback player of the year in 2018) was quitting football, just like that. He’d had enough. Mental fatigue was cited as the cause for retirement in the story, not injury. I switched over to the game and watched as the camera lingered on Luck, far more than it did on the remainder of the Bears-Colts preseason game he watched from the sidelines. Luck looked calm, as he always does. He was talking and laughing with his teammates, actively taking in the game. Doing all the things you’d expect the leader of a team to do. I think that moment, it struck me that the entire football world knew what had been announced, except for the two teams playing the game. Even the fans at Lucas Oil Stadium (home of Luck’s Colts) knew. When the game ended, many of them booed the man as he walked into the tunnel one last time.
Now, I’m not a Colts fan who just watched the next five years of their team’s future go up in smoke, but that wasn’t my reaction to the news. My first reaction was, “Good for him.” I was genuinely happy that he was getting out of the game while he still had his mental health and at least some of his physical health. And as I watched Luck’s press conference after the game, an event that was happening about 18 hours earlier than Luck had expected, I found a man who looked like he knew it was good for him. He was emotional, having to stop several times to compose himself during the nearly 25-minute goodbye, but he wasn’t distraught.
You could tell he would miss football, a game he’d devoted his life to. But he knew he would be alright without it. Faced with another potential long-term injury, Luck was able to look with clarity (a word he used several times) at what he had and what he might stand to lose if he kept playing. And he made a rational, fair decision that the cons outweighed any pros that prolonging his career might bring. He laid the decision out for the press, told his wife he loved her and walked out of the presser. It was remarkable. Of all things, I found myself feeling jealous.
My Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are playing the best amateur football team in the world on Thursday. I will be watching, likely at a bar with some friends, as Clemson mashes them into a navy and gold paste. I’ll likely watch someone be taken off the field for concussion protocol or for a potentially major injury and I’ll swallow my dismay with the rest of my beer. Then I’ll order another.
And I do this so I can yell “To Hell With Georgia” and feel pride in a college I never attended. In a couple of weeks, I know I’ll do the same when the Falcons are on, unable to turn away as they inevitably blow yet another 4th quarter lead. I know that I shouldn’t continue to watch, I know that all of the things I spent weeks compiling in order to lay them out to you in this piece like a courtroom closing argument are valid and are bad and will continue to make me feel bad for watching. But I won’t stop. I can hardly catch my high horse anymore when it comes to football, let alone ride it. I’m the opposite of Andrew Luck, a man who knew when football had nothing more to give him.
I’m going to have to be dragged away from this game kicking and screaming, far after my time with the game should have been up. It honestly scares me, what it might take to completely sever my love for football. I hope it doesn’t take someone else leaving the game ‘on their shield’. I hope one day, I too can wake up with the clarity that Andrew Luck did on Saturday and be able to say no more. I think my Sunday's would be better for it.