Sports fans sometimes look at professional athletes as if they're real-life superheroes -- indestructible beings, complete with superpowers.
Yet some of the most pathetic images I've seen in my lifetime are of my sports heroes who have stuck around in their given profession too long.
I can remember Willie Mays, in an unfamiliar Mets uniform during his final season in 1973, struggling to track down a fly ball. How could that be? He was gazelle-like -- perhaps the most complete baseball player who ever lived. Yet in 1973, he just looked ... old.
I can still see Joe Namath in his final few seasons, breaking down, stride by stride, as he struggled to drop back to throw on two mechanical knees. How could that be? Broadway Joe, even on bad knees early in his career, had a majestic drop-back and lightning fast release that befuddled defensive linemen. The late 49er coach Bill Walsh once equated watching Namath play quarterback to ballet. Yet, in his final three seasons, it was just painful to watch Joe play.
I shed tears in 1980, when Muhammad Ali came out of retirement to take a horrible beating from his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes. How could that be? Ali was the prototype of the 21st Century athlete -- bigger and quicker than most of his contemporaries. He won in a violent sport with grace and athleticism. Yet in his final few fights, Ali was a shell.
Andrew Luck is just 29 years old. And he decided he didn't want to be a guy who struggled to overcome injury year after year.
Luck was in constant pain, with his whole life in front of him. So the Indianapolis Colts quarterback opted to walk away from some $50 million dollars and retire from the game he loved so dearly.
In this social media, rapid information world we live in, Luck was robbed of his chance to make a prepared statement about his retirement. Instead, word spread throughout Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night -- before Luck was able to explain his decision.
As Luck walked off the field, he was booed by the so-called "fans." It was a shocking, disgusting display.
But Luck showed class and courage as he made a hastily-prepared announcement after the game.
"For the last four years or so, I've been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab," Luck said. "It's been unceasing, and unrelenting, both in season and in the off-season. I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It's taken my joy of this game away."
Some guys are fortunate enough to play their entire career without any major injury.
Luck was not so blessed. Over the past four years, Luck's body has been ravaged by injuries--a lacerated kidney, busted ribs, a concussion, a bum shoulder, and a stubborn leg problem that seemed to convince him that playing in the NFL wasn't worth it anymore.
"I'm in pain; I'm still in pain," Luck said Saturday night, per ESPN's Mike Wells. "It's been four years of this pain, rehab cycle. It's a myriad of issues -- calf strain, posterior ankle impingement, high ankle sprain. Part of my journey going forward will be figuring out how to feel better.''
We seem to be stunned when an athlete calls it quits while on top of their sport. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson all retired right around the age of 30. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski retired during the off-season at the age of 29. Almost all of these guys left the game because of injury -- some were serious, and some were minor and nagging.
Brown was the exception, but when he left the game in 1965 players were not instant millionaires. He figured he would make more money as an actor -- without putting his body at risk. Sanders was relatively healthy, but just got tired of the wear and tear -- and the ineffective Detroit Lions franchise he toiled for.
Gronk was one of the greatest tight ends of all time, but injuries had wrecked him. Like Luck, he decided he'd had enough.
People who understand what athletes go through -- 12 months out of the year -- to stay at the top of their game, can understand the frustration and setbacks that even the most minor injuries cause. For Luck, the injuries were debilitating.
Luck's peers stand by him as he enters life without football -- despite the boos from "fans" and outcries from Fantasy Football owners who counted on Andrew to put up big numbers this year.
Chief among these former athletes is Dallas Cowboys hall of famer Troy Aikman -- who, himself, called it a career somewhat early after a series of concussions. Aikman went to war with Fox Sports colleague Doug Gottlieb, who tweeted that Luck "retiring because rehabbing is 'too hard' is the most millennial thing ever."
"That's total bulls--- Doug. What qualifies you to decide how someone should live their life?" Aikman said. "So you're now the authority on what motivates Andrew Luck? And if his decisions don't fit into what you think is best for him then you rip him? Guess that keeps you employed on FS1. Nice."
Luck and Robert Griffin III were the most coveted players in the 2012 NFL draft. Both were thought to be all-time greats waiting to happen. But serious injuries have relegated RGIII to a backup role, and has now forced Luck into retirement.
Their greatness was unquestioned -- but they wore helmets and jerseys, not capes.
"We're looked at as superheroes, as not [being] human beings," Griffin said with regard to some of the backlash Luck has received following his decision to retire. "For him to have that human element and express it in his press conference after the game ... I thought that was really big."
Luck, Griffin, Namath, Ali, Mays, Gronkowski. All of them looked a little superhuman at times.
But they're flesh and blood -- just like you and I. And they have to make decisions that's best for them and their families.
I always admired Luck the football player. Today, I admire Luck the human being.
Because history tells us the most difficult word a professional athlete has to utter is ... "enough."
JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.