Andrew Luck makes long-awaited return to Indianapolis: ‘It’s my turn to give back’

The last time we saw him in this type of setting — cameras on, microphones hot — Andrew Luck had tape on his ankle and tears in his eyes. He was broken. We were stunned.

This time, almost five years removed, he wore a navy sportscoat and trendy glasses, belting out that hyuk-hyuk-hyuk laugh of his. He admitted how excited he was pulling into the Colts’ facility Friday afternoon, thinking back to where he used to park before practice. He bragged how proud he was that both of his daughters were born in Indianapolis, a city he still loves and feels connected to.

“This place is dope in May,” Luck said. “Nothing compares to the Indy 500.”

He admitted that he had to YouTube some of his old highlights before Friday’s 12th annual ChuckStrong gala in case anyone asked him about that magical 2012 season and what the Colts were able to accomplish — an unexpected playoff berth — while their first-year coach, Chuck Pagano, was stricken with leukemia in the hospital.

This felt like a long time coming, not solely for the city and the franchise that for years felt the reverberations from his stunning retirement, but for the quarterback himself.

The Colts spent the better part of five years trying — and mostly failing — to move on. So did he.

“For me to move forward in my life the way I want to,” Luck said that night, fighting back tears, “it didn’t involve football.”

Back in August 2019, he was battered and beaten-down. He once told me the game — and all the pressure and pain that had come his way — had left him “a sad miserable SOB.” So he walked away and entered the unknown, leaving so many questions unanswered and what-ifs lingering. He was 29 years old, clueless as to what the next phase of life would look like.

He’d joke with himself in the months that followed: “I can’t be retired at 30. That ain’t right.”

No, none of it felt right. And so much of it never made sense.

Finally, in front of the cameras in Indianapolis, he addressed it.

“Football gave me a lot,” Luck said. “Most importantly … the relationships and the experiences with people that I love, like Chuck. I think part of me feels — and I don’t mean this in a cheesy way — but part of me feels like it’s my turn to give back into this game. And this is what feels right at this moment.”

It took time, years to reconcile the way his football career ended, so abruptly, so unexpectedly, 14 days before he was supposed to start his eighth NFL season. “Tormented” is the word he used to describe his emotions back then.

He spilled his soul in a stunning news conference after a preseason game, his voice shaky, his fade red with emotion. Then he disappeared.

He went to Spain and learned to surf. He spent weeks skiing in Colorado. He became a stay-at-home dad. He cooked. He texted his old teammates on game days. He read a mountain of books.

All the while, he pondered what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

What that life looks like now: classes at Stanford, where he’s working on his master’s in education, and fall afternoons on the football field at Palo Alto High School, where he’s a volunteer quarterbacks coach. More than that, he’s a middle-aged dad to two daughters (Lucy is 4, Penelope is 20 months) who’s come to peace with the way his first career ended.

“I am a part of the fabric of the sports story in this city,” Luck admitted. “I certainly feel like Indianapolis is a massive part of the fabric of who I am, and where life has gone.

“I certainly feel the love from this city, and I hope people know it’s reciprocal.”

As he moved through the stages of his retirement, he said, the further he got from football, the more he wanted it back in his life.

“It’s just got to be different,” he decided.

The itch to play again never really entered his mind.

“I think when I retired, that part of it was put to bed, in a very simple, direct (way),” Luck said.

Thus, coaching. And reconnecting with the franchise he for so long seemed distant from — despite the fact that he and his family lived a few minutes from the team’s practice facility.

That Luck laid low early in retirement wasn’t an accident. He never yearned for attention, never really understood it. He wasn’t about to seek it out after his playing days were over.

“I do think we live in — and I think about this often — a world where it’s very easy to create your own visibility, in a sense,” he said. “And that’s just never been me. I don’t think that’s my personality. I’m OK with that. And I’m certainly not searching for attention in that way.”

Which is why this night was notable, with Luck choosing to speak to a handful of reporters before helping Pagano continue his fight against cancer (to date, the ChuckStrong gala has raised $14 million for cancer research). This wasn’t something that was going to happen in 2020 or 2021 or even 2022. Luck wasn’t ready.

Yes, he watches his old team, even though most of his old teammates are retired. He’s a fan of Christian McCaffrey (the Stanford connection) and Jonathan Taylor. He swung by a 49ers game this season, then stopped by the Amazon Prime TV set afterward, amazingly, dressed as Capt. Andrew Luck. He loves taking his daughters to Stanford games.

Anytime Penelope sees a football helmet, she says “Daddy.” That brings a smile to his face. “You’re right,” he’ll tell her.

The ride was riveting, the end gutting, his legacy complicated. Luck has come to acknowledge that, and furthermore, to accept it.

On Friday night, he looked and sounded like a man grateful for what he was a part of, and for the role football played in his life — even if his story never followed the script. Particularly the ending.

“We were not perfect,” he said. “I know I was not perfect. All of us wished we’d had multiple Super Bowls and done things and sort of vanquished some of those enemies that we didn’t quite ever get to.

“But I could probably speak for all the other guys, and I know I could speak for myself: it wasn’t perfect, but we tried our best. We tried our hardest, and I hope we gave folks something to cheer about and something to be proud of.”

(Photo: James Boyd / The Athletic)

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