INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – He didn’t know it at the time – Jan. 29, 2017 – but Chris Ballard was talking about this exact, franchise-shaking, city-shocking moment.
He was the new general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, a team coming off consecutive 8-8, non-playoff seasons and inheriting a roster that was lacking in so many areas, save one: quarterback. Andrew Luck was a nice piece around which to build.
“Let me say this, because Andrew is a great player, but it will never be about one guy,’’ Ballard said, his voice as stern as his conviction. “It will never be about one guy. It’s about all 53 men in that locker room.
“It will never be about one person. It will always be about the team.’’
We’re about to find out. The city of Indianapolis and the entire NFL is about to find out the quality of life after Andrew Luck.
In an emotional 22-minute press conference, Luck said enough was enough. After seven seasons – six when you consider he missed 2017 while rehabbing from surgery on his right shoulder – the heart and soul of the Colts and a city announced his retirement.
“This is not an easy decision,’’ Luck said. “Honestly it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is he right decision for me.’’
For the last four years, he has dealt with one injury after another: a concussion, a lacerated kidney, injuries of varying degrees of severity to his right shoulder, right elbow, right thumb, left ankle and ribs. A strained left calf and ankle issue limited him to three training camp practices and relegated him, once again, to grueling, exhaustive, extensive rehab.
Make no mistake, Luck was the personification of a beaten man Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium. He frequently paused to compose himself and fight back tears. His pregnant wife, Nicole, sat nearby, dabbing tears from her cheeks.
“Sorry,’’ Luck said once, twice, maybe three times.
Then he offered the to-the-core reason an ultra-competitive, elite athlete walked away at age 29. Remember, Luck’s under contract through 2021 and due approximately $64 million. And according to owner Jim Irsay, there was so much more to come in terms of financial security.
“Look, he’s leaving 450-500 million dollars on the table, potentially. A half a billion dollars,’’ Irsay said of the possible magnitude of Luck’s next contract.
That had zero impact in a decision Luck has been contemplating for the last “week and a half.’’
“I have been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab,’’ Luck said. “And it’s been unceasing and unrelenting, both in-season and offseason. I felt stuck in it and the only way I see out is to no longer play football.’’
While he was leading the Colts to wins in nine of their final 10 games last season to secure a wild-card playoff spot, Luck continually mentioned he was having the best time of his life. He was relatively healthy. The Colts were back.
The spate of injuries, he said, have “taken my joy of this game away. I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. Taken the joy out of this game, and after 2016 when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again.
“I find myself in a similar situation and the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I’ve been in.
“I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road.’’
As a result, so have the Colts.
Ballard, Reich and their personnel staff have constructed a formidable roster, one that blends the young with a nice mixture of veterans. We’d argue it’s the best top-to-bottom roster since the 2009 group reached the Super Bowl.
But now, it’s missing the most important piece.
While Luck has dealt with his calf/ankle issue away from his teammates, the No. 1 offense has been in the hands of Jacoby Brissett. That began in mid-April. Now, it extends for the foreseeable future.
“Excited for the future of the Colts,’’ Luck said, “in large part because of Jacoby.’’
Here’s where we remind you the Colts were 53-33 in the regular season with Luck under center. They’re 10-16 with someone else. In the four seasons Luck has had his health, the Colts are 11-5, 11-5, 11-5 and 10-6, and have reached the playoffs each time.
A team that was one of the offseason favorites to contend for the Super Bowl suddenly is blanketed with uncertainty.
Yet, Ballard was resolute on an otherwise dark evening.
“Absolutely, and I’m excited,’’ he insisted. “Teams win. Teams win. That’s what makes this game great. Teams win.
“Don’t write the end of the story, yet. Don’t write the end of the story, yet. Story’s just starting, man. Not the end of the story, yet. Everybody’s gonna write the end of the story, but I’ll telling ya, the story’s not over yet.’’
But it certainly will follow a different storyline.
Ballard acquired Brissett in a September 2017 trade with New England when it became apparent Luck’s surgically-repaired right shoulder wasn’t progressing as expected. After Scott Tolzien’s forgettable performance in the ’17 opener against the Los Angeles Rams, the Colts inserted Brissett into the starting lineup. He had been on the roster for less than two weeks.
Over the next 15 games, Brissett led Indy to a 4-11 record while basically learning on the fly.
At least now, he’s in his second year in Reich’s offense and has had control of it for the last four months.
It’s Ballard’s challenge to deal with the human side of someone so close to him retiring at such a young age, but also make certain the franchise is as prepared as possible for what’s to come.
“You all know me,’’ he said. “I connect. I do. With all of our players, I care about them.’’
Luck’s decision, he added, is “a hard thing. It’s been a tough week. It has. But saying that, yeah, we are moving forward. That’s what we do.
“And I think I’ve talked about this a lot. Obstacles happen. They just do. And every time, and Lord knows they’ve happened a few times since I’ve been here, but I’ll say this every time we’ve faced one: we’ve overcome it.
“That’s what we’ll do again. That’s our jobs.’’
Luck’s job had been at the forefront of all things Colts, until he decided he no longer was up for it.
He mentioned the thought of retirement crept into his mind about a week and a half ago, and didn’t wane as the pain in his lower leg persisted. Luck worked out on the Lucas Oil Stadium field prior to the Aug. 17 game with Cleveland, and that thought – retirement – was more intense.
“I had a good idea that it might be my last time throwing at Lucas Oil as a current member of the Colts,’’ Luck said. “And I made sure to go out there and enjoy it.’’
Luck plans on remaining in Indy.
“It’s our home,’’ he said. “A big thank you to this city it’ll always hold a special place in my heart.’’
In the end, it was his heart – and his traumatized body – that told Andrew Luck it was time.
“I didn’t wake up this morning and (decide),’’ he said. “A week and a half to two weeks. It’s been a little bit fast and furious and the lack of progress on my ankle. I’m in pain. I’m still in pain.
“I’ve been in this cycle. It’s been four years of this injury-pain cycle. For me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it didn’t involve football.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.