I’ve watched hundreds of video snippets from press conferences involving the National Football League. Ninety percent of them are boring and predictable, sacked for a loss by tired sports cliches, obligatory responses and polished coach-speak.
And then I watched the impromptu press conference by now former Indianapolis Colts’ superstar quarterback Andrew Luck after their preseason game against the Chicago Bears on Aug. 24.
I almost instinctively clicked off my TV when he began talking. Almost.
“My folks, who aren’t here tonight ... mom, dad ...” Luck said, pausing for several seconds to contain his emotions. “Thank you.”
I couldn’t turn it off or fast forward it. Instead, I marveled at it.
“Fitting that I’m in my retirement press conference in an athletic shirt,” Luck told shocked NFL fans. “I know I look pretty ratty up here after games. So sorry, mom, I can’t have a better appearance right now.”
Luck didn’t speak like so many other NFL players behind a press conference podium. He spoke like a man much older than his years. He turns 30 in two weeks. He’s younger than both of my kids.
“It’s sad but I have a lot of clarity in this,” Luck said regarding his premature retirement.
Not surprisingly to me, too many NFL fans lacked such clarity in their critical response to his news. Colts fans in particular acted as if they lost a kidney or a family member, not merely their favorite quarterback on their favorite team.
Some fans (short for fanatics) at that exhibition game booed Luck as he walked off the field.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I heard the reaction,” Luck told media. “It hurt, I’ll be honest.”
His hurts, both physically and emotionally, are what most captivated me, and likely most other viewers. You didn’t have to be an NFL fan to feel compassion for him, despite the fact he’s been a pampered, privileged millionaire since he was drafted by the Colts in 2012. (And a pampered, privileged football player since his college days.)
That night, as he paused to contain himself more than once, Luck was just as human and vulnerable as the rest of us. He was real. And we felt it. Or we should have felt it. Without calling a play or sharing a huddle, Luck tossed us quite a few life lessons. Did you catch any of them?
“I’m in pain,” he told the world with watery eyes. “I’m still in pain.”
These words resonated with people. Pain resonates with people. It’s an equal opportunity affliction that cuts us all like a rusty knife regardless of age, race, gender or income status. We felt his pain on a human level, not on a fan level. Or at least we should have.
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Critics blasted Luck for publicly whining about his pain while millions of Americans, and millions of NFL fans, struggle through chronic pain at their own jobs. And those people get paid a pittance compared to Luck, who signed a $140 million contract extension in 2016.
Yes, it’s an unfathomable amount of money for any professional athlete. But keep in mind that superstar NFL players get such ridiculous contracts because they’re also entertainers. They perform for us. We pay for their performance. They deserve what they earn. End of debate, I say.
If tens of thousands of people are lining up to pay serious cash to watch you at work, let me know.
“There are times last year I’d have to pinch myself. Am I allowed to have this much fun on a football field?” Luck asked referring to his stellar season last year.
Luck knows how fortunate his life has been as a professional football player and a global entertainer. In his speech, an audible called after that game, Luck thanked player after player and coach after coach, some of whom he thanked in person before the press conference.
“I learned so much from y’all,” Luck said.
He seemed to thank everyone except for you and me. Yet we somehow felt noticed nonetheless. Especially Indiana residents.
“My wife and I are so proud when people ask where we’re from,” Luck said. “We say Indianapolis. It’s our home. A big thank you to this city. It’ll always hold a special place in my heart.”
Luck, who attended high school in Texas and college in California, is now a proud, unapologetic Hoosier.
“It’s been an honor of a lifetime to represent the horseshoe and the city of Indianapolis, both on and off the field,” he said.
The game of football made him a superstar athlete and a very wealthy man. The game of football forced him retire due to injury after injury, rehab after rehab, setback after setback. He accepted the collision sport’s inherent rewards and its inherent risks.
“This is the hardest decision of my life,” he said without sounding melodramatic.
Now it’s time for us to accept his unexpected decision and his unexpected lessons.
Humility. Gratitude. Vulnerability. Raw emotion. And, for men, a masculinity that embodies the best of our gender.
“For me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it didn’t involve football,” Luck said.
Despite all my references, this column also isn’t about football.