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When Luck Runs Out: The History Of Star Athletes Calling It Quits In Their Prime




Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 12, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 12, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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On Saturday night, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck sent shockwaves through the sports world when the news broke that he would be retiring in advance of this season, which officially gets underway next Thursday.

Word spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before the entire sports world was scratching its head, wondering why a 29-year-old athlete in the prime of his career and one of the best players in the game at his position would decide to hang up his cleats after just seven years in the NFL. Colts fans, for their part, did not react to the news well when it broke in the fourth quarter of the team’s preseason game against the Chicago Bears, and actually booed Luck off the field following its conclusion.

When Indy drafted Luck first overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, he was supposed to be the future of the franchise. A rare combination of physical specimen, freak athlete, and high-IQ football nerd, Luck seemed like just the thing the Colts needed to fill the massive hole left by the departure of the last QB the Colts took with a first overall pick, a guy by the name of Peyton Manning. The Colts hoped that drafting the young Stanford product would solidify the team’s future at football’s most important position. And for a few years it did. The Colts went on to win 11 games in Luck’s rookie year, more than any other first overall QB pick had ever won his rookie season, and even made the AFC Championship game in 2014.

But then, Luck caught the injury bug and spent the next three seasons bouncing around from the active roster to the injury report. He missed half of 2015 and all of 2017 but returned to play in 2018, leading his team to a wildcard playoff spot and winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. But in his retirement press conference, Luck pointed to a loss of love for the game due to the constant injury-recovery cycle as the driving force behind his decision to retire at age 29.

Luck is far from the first pro athlete to surprise fans with an early retirement. Earlier this year, New England Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement at age 29 after just nine seasons, also pointing to a loss of love for the game due to constant injury as a big reason why. Detroit Lions star running back Barry Sanders retired at age 31 just 1500 yards away from breaking what was then the all-time rushing record held by Walter Payton. Legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden hung up his pads at age 31 after winning six Stanley Cups so he could write a book and take the bar exam.

Following Luck’s retirement, we look back in history at other professional athletes who have retired in their prime and the reasons why they decided to call it quits earlier than people expected.

Guests:

A Martinez, host of KPCC’s “Take Two”; he tweets @AMartinezLA

Katie Baker, staff writer for The Ringer, an online publication that is part of the SB Nation network and covers sports and pop culture, and author of the article “Andrew Luck and the Afterburn of Early Retirement”; she tweets @katiebakes