Aug. 4, Colts camp, Westfield, Ind — I ask Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck: “Opening day’s five weeks from today. Any doubt you’ll play?”
“No,” Luck says. “No doubt. I certainly believe I will.”
Aug. 19, owner Jim Irsay’s office, Colts headquarters, Indianapolis — Luck has asked to meet with Irsay, GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich.
Luck says: “I’m tired, and I’m in pain. I’m gonna retire.”
Luck shocked the world Saturday night by retiring. Well, Adam Schefter shocked the world at 9:28 p.m. ET Saturday when he tweeted the news that Luck was retiring. It was such a surprise that one of Luck’s best friends, Matt Hasselbeck, told me Sunday, “I thought Adam Schefter got hacked. I was sitting there watching the college game Saturday night and saw it. It stopped me in my tracks. Stunned. I was in Indy on Friday, and I got no sense of this.”
Luck’s two statements, 15 days apart, say that this was a bolt out of the blue—either that or that he wasn’t being straight with me. Those two statements sound incongruous. How could such a great quarterback, coming off his best pro season at just 29 years old, make what appeared to be such an impulsive decision? Though I did not speak with Luck this weekend, I don’t think it was impulsive, I do think he was being straight with me, and I understand how Luck’s world could totally flip in two weeks. I think it began flipping a few days after we spoke.
The same day Luck told me there was no doubt he’d play in the opener, Reich told me Luck’s latest injury, to his left calf, was “like child’s play” compared to his return after all his shoulder issues. But in the days after Luck talked to me in training camp, he felt more pain in rehab. Further examination revealed a more extensive and slightly mysterious injury stretching from the calf to his ankle. There would be no quick fix. More rehab, and a good chance he’d either have to play hobbled, and in significant pain, if he played at the start of the season. And if he didn’t play to start the season, he’d be a question mark hovering over the franchise, as he’d been in 2015 (shoulder injury, fractured ribs, kidney laceration), 2016 (played through shoulder pain all year), 2017 (missed the year after labrum surgery) and the off-season and training camp of 2018 (shoulder soreness). Then four months of feeling good and playing great. Then, when he ramped up workouts for 2019, last March, this calf/ankle thing appeared and just wouldn’t go away.
Put it this way: For about 42 of the last 47 months, dating back to the original shoulder injury in September 2015, football meant pain to Andrew Luck. Not joy. Pain. As Luck described Saturday night: “It’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and off-season … Taken the joy out of the game. And after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I will not go down that path again.”
Which led Luck to Irsay’s office last Monday. The meeting last a little more than two hours. Ballard and Reich soon realized this was not I think I’m going to retire. This was, It’s over.
There was a time in Monday’s meeting when options were suggested. One of them: Take his time healing the right way without hurrying, and go on IR with a return designation, meaning he could return for the last two months of the season if he got healthy. That seemed to make the most sense—he’d have nine weeks from now to see if the calf/ankle could be fixed, and the Colts would have been more than happy to take the risk of paying $21.25 million for Luck to try to play in 2019, with backup Jacoby Brissett taking some or all the snaps this season. But whatever alternatives got suggested, Luck, one of the smartest players in any sport, seemed immovable.
“My mind’s made up,” he said.
One other clue on the timeline: Luck said he didn’t imagine retiring till two weeks ago. But once he started thinking about it, one source said, it made more and more sense to him. He was tired. He felt like if it wasn’t one thing, it’d be another.
Reich and Ballard both spent time between Tuesday and Friday feeling out Luck about whether he’d reconsider—he never wavered—and then making sure Luck was sure he wanted to do it now. He did. Neither Reich nor Ballard would disclose the contents of their conversations with Luck. But late in the week, Reich said, he and Luck had a longer meeting in the coach’s office, an emotional meeting.
“It’s like we were saying goodbye,” Reich said from his office Sunday afternoon. “I knew, knew in my heart, he wasn’t going to change his mind. He seemed to have great clarity and peace.”
I’ve been trying to put in perspective where this ranks in terms of stunning NFL retirements. I can compare it to three others: running back Jim Brown, who quit at 30 after winning the 1965 NFL MVP; running back Barry Sanders, who retired at 31 in 1999; and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who left the Lions at 30 after nine NFL seasons. I think the Luck retirement is the biggest shocker of them all.
Brown made $60,000 in his last year with the Browns; three years later, he was paid $125,000 to star in a Hollywood film. He might have had two or three top years left as a back, and in Hollywood, he was a marquee name immediately. Sanders, too, could have been great for two or three more years, probably, but they don’t give guarantees on 31-year-old running backs. Johnson was at the top of his game too, a physical marvel. But he didn’t have the public cache of a quarterback, and he never played on a great team.
Luck, when healthy, was a top-five quarterback. With quarterbacks routinely playing till their late thirties (and older) now, it’s conceivable that Luck, who has made $103 million in his seven-plus NFL seasons, could have played 10 more years and made more than $300 million in the process. I doubt Spielberg’s paying Matt Damon money to Luck to make a movie—and I highly, highly doubt Luck would be interested in that life anyway. He’d love to hide from the spotlight, not embrace it. Plus: This is a quarterback, a highly rated one, coming off a season in which he had the third-best WAR (wins above replacement) of any quarterback in football, per PFF. Only Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees had a higher WAR than Luck—who the analytics site said was worth three wins more than his replacement to the Colts in 2018.
Add to that the surprise of a quarterback exiting by his own decision in mid-prime. “I was floored,” said Ballard, on his reaction when Luck told them last Monday. “Taken aback. Shocked.”
That plus the fact that Luck was over the moon working with Reich, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady. In camp, Luck told me: “Last year was about as much fun as I could have playing football.”
There are players in the NFL—Brady and Brees come to mind—who will play till someone tears the uniform off them. Luck never gave the impression that he’d be a player who’d play that long, but he also never gave the impression he’d play as a broken-down guy. I’ll never forget interviewing him at the 2012 combine in Indianapolis, and asking him about his off-field habits. At Stanford, he didn’t have cable-TV for most of his time on campus, and he rode a bike through campus like every other student, and he had a passion for reading. “Now don’t go making me into a nerd!” he told me that night.
“School’s important,” Luck said that night, “but football’s always been more important. The more I play, the more I love it. I’ve gotten to the point where, the more you learn about the game, the less you know. I want to learn more about it all the time.”
That same weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs, who were in the market for a quarterback, spent one of their allotted 15-minute interview periods with Luck. Coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli wanted to know what he liked to do away from football.
“Read,” Luck said.
“What’s your favorite book?” Pioli said.
“ ’Papillon,’ “ said Luck. That’s the 1969 book about imprisonment of a Frenchman wrongly convicted of murder. “I like historical fiction.” And architecture too. In a bus on the way to his first NFL game, at Soldier Field in Chicago, he told then-QB coach Clyde Christensen stories about the architectural marvels of Chicago.
The nerd was a pretty good player right away. He went 33-15 in his first three regular seasons, leading the post-Manning Colts to the playoffs in all three seasons—and to the AFC title game in year three. When Manning came back for his emotional return to Indy in 2013, Luck outdueled him 39-33. Playing with the bum shoulder, he beat Aaron Rodgers head to head in 2016. Healthy again after two straight shoulder-ravaged seasons, Luck and the Colts went 9-1 down the stretch to make the playoffs last year.
When I met with Luck three weeks ago, he was happy. No sign of the travails ahead. He raved about his favorite book this year: “Today We Die a Little!” a history tome about Czech Olympic runner Emil Zatopek. Luck married a women of Czech descent, and he was eager to drink in the culture and history—and Zatopek’s story sang to him because it’s about a guy who won the first Marathon he entered, at the 1952 Olympics.
Luck was honest about his injury, I thought. “At times I do worry about it,” he said. “It can be frustrating … Maybe I’m not improving as fast as I want and missing things is no fun. It eats at you.” But his tone was so upbeat that day I left thinking he’d probably be ready, albeit maybe with some pain, for the Sept. 8 opener at the Chargers.
“My heart and soul go out to Andrew,” Reich told me Sunday. “I love him like crazy. He is an incredible generational player. This hurts, and it hurts deep. But at the same time, I can be equally excited about our season and for our team, and for Jacoby. Those emotions don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I can make those statements without being disrespectful to Andrew. And one of the thing I love about Andrew is he understands that.
“We actually had that conversation. I told Andrew before all this was decided, ‘You know, when I’m talking to the media, I’m gonna tell them, ‘Hey, if Andrew’s not there, we gotta go.’ So it was like, If you’re not there, we’re going with Jacoby, and we’re going forward.
“Andrew said, ‘Isn’t that what’s great about the game?’ “
Next man up.
Now for the rest of the story. It’s impossible to know for sure that Luck won’t play again. The Colts, by allowing him to keep the $24 million in bonuses they could legally have recouped (per ESPN), surely have laid out the welcome mat should he change his mind. But I know Ballard. He will protect the Colts first and last. There is no question that, at the end of this year, he’ll either try to extend Brissett if he plays well or he’ll enter the 2020 draft looking for a long-term passer. The Colts are well-positioned in 2020, with three picks in the first two rounds, including the extra second-rounder from Washington obtained in a draft-day trade this year. Reich said he’s sure he’s going to be asked about Luck’s future when he meets the press this week. “What I think I’m going to say,” Reich told me, “is, ‘Can we just honor Andrew’s decision to retire? Let’s respect his decision.’ I can tell you he’s not thinking he’s going to come back.”
There was a kerfuffle Saturday night over Luck getting booed when he walked off the field after the game. Schefter’s tweet bounced around the sports world—and inside Lucas Oil Stadium—34 minutes before the game ended, and so the sparse crowd that remained at the end of the 27-17 loss to Chicago rained down some boos on Luck as he walked off the field for the last time. “That hurt,” Luck admitted. I don’t think it’s a big deal, because any fan staying to the end of a preseason game would be a passionate fan, and would be ticked off that the star quarterback wasn’t going to be on the team anymore. I asked the biggest Colts fan I know, Angie Six from Fishers, Ind., to sum up how she was feeling about the tornado that was Luck’s stunning retirement.
“I’m okay,” Six wrote in an email, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of big feelings about it.
“I couldn’t have been more shocked. My first thought? It’s a joke. Sitting by myself at home, I watched Andrew’s press conference. I was surprised to find myself crying. To see his anguish on full display, and to hear the vulnerability in describing his feelings toward Jacoby Brissett, moved me to tears. I’m sad for the potential that was so close to tangible greatness, but never rewarded with a championship.
“I’m bitter and grateful for a person who let me down a little bit, but lifted up my community a lot. Scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, some of my fellow Hoosiers are feeling more bitter than grateful. Mostly the sentiment is gratitude—for getting us over the Manning-sized hole in our hearts, for giving us some incredible football moments, for caring for sick children, for asking us to maybe pick up a book every once in a while. Personally, I’ll look back on this chapter in the Colts’ history with mixed emotions. But even as I waffle between feelings, I’m sure of two things: I have the utmost respect for Andrew Luck as a human being. And no matter how this season unfolds, we’ll be okay.”
Luck, who kept a very small circle about his decision, told Brissett on Friday that he was quitting. Brissett, I hear, was upset because he’s grown close to Luck, even though the decision meant the young quarterback would have his chance to pilot a playoff team with lots of young talent. But of all the things I heard in the Luck press conference, what he said about Brissett—the backup acquired in trade from New England two years ago—was the most real.
Brissett got to Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend 2017. Two weeks later, he was the Colts’ starter for the rest of the year, starting an inglorious 15 games, winning four … and engendering envy from the franchise guy he barely knew.
Luck opened a vein Saturday night about Brissett. “Coming back into the building early last year, I was very jealous of this fun, happy dude that was in my spot as the quarterback on this team. I obviously did not have any confidence in myself either. I could not have been more wrong—in so many ways. A lifelong friend, he means so, so much to me. He’s a big part of me, and a big part of me having one of the more rewarding years of my life last year. Cannot wait to support him and see him lead this team.”
Luck’s buddy Hasselbeck was struck by that too. “I got texts from QBs around the league, saying they got choked up about the relationship between Andrew and Jacoby,” Hasselbeck said. “That was beautiful.”
Brissett was a 59-percent passer in that lost season of 2017, a hold-the-fort guy learning the offense on the fly. Now he’s had a full year, without pressure, to learn under Reich and Sirianni (and from Luck, of course), and the pressure is ratcheted up. The Colts went 10-6 last year, and, aside from the quarterback position, seem to be markedly better across the board. Ballard has drafted well, and this draft class could yield four starters by the beginning of October.
And Indy’s first five Sundays are rough: at the Chargers, at Tennessee, Atlanta, Oakland, at Kansas City. The worst thing for Luck is the best thing for Brissett. Because Luck practiced only three times full-speed this spring and summer, Brissett has taken virtually all of the snaps with the Colts’ first-team offense. So when they begin prep for the Chargers next weekend, Brissett will be in a spot that he’s used to: with the first unit. Still, he’s got to play markedly better than he did in 2017.
“The outside world thinks we’re crumbling,” Ballard said. “But we’re pretty solid inside the building. Don’t worry about us. And don’t write the end of our story yet.”
There’s something else to note here. What do you think the remainder of the Colts players are thinking this morning as they report for the final week of preseason practice? (And I will not be surprised if Reich points this out early and often.) Andrew’s gone, and everyone’s throwing dirt on us. We’re really good. Jacoby’s really good. Let’s stick it to everyone calling us a 6-10 team.
It sounds corny, and it sounds trite. Does that stuff really work? I guarantee you that’s what a good chunk of the 2019 Colts will be thinking entering the strangest season they’ve had in a long time.
A few years ago, Luck started the Andrew Luck Book Club, with a desire to encourage people to read, to share books he loved and to feature authors he admired. On his book-club podcast, he once highlighted a book called “When Breath Becomes Air,” a posthumous memoir of a Stanford neurosurgeon whose wife, Lucy Kalanithi, finished the book after his death. Luck, from Stanford, loved the book’s hopeful message despite Paul Kalanithi’s tragic end. He had Lucy Kalanithi—a big Stanford football fan—on his podcast. She told me from California on Sunday that being interviewed by Luck was the most nervous she was for any media promotion after “When Breath Becomes Air” was published. “Honestly,” she said, “it’s not clear to me whether the New York Times review or Andrew’s review for the ‘Andrew Luck Book Club’ mattered more to me.”
“Paul and I really liked him, because he was a brilliant quarterback and such a moral person,” Lucy Kalanithi said. “What a hard decision [retiring] must have been for him.”
Then Lucy said: “I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
You’re not alone.
Bill Belichick will look back one day (for all I know, he already has) and think how incredible Super Bowl 53 was for his team, and for his already historic reputation. The Rams averaged an NFC-best 33 points during the regular season. The Rams scored three points in the Super Bowl. Great for the Patriots, to be sure—one of the best defensive efforts on a big stage in NFL history. But really bad for the Rams too. And now, dissecting that day and what it means for L.A.’s future, it’s hard for the Rams to not look back with some regret.
That’s what brought me to Rams camp one morning this summer. Logic said they might have a what if? Super Bowl hangover. In the head coach’s office, I didn’t see one.
“Best I’ve ever felt going into a season,” coach Sean McVay said, odd considering this was his shortest off-season of 12 as a professional coach, seeing the Rams had played into February. Odd, too, because McVay’s offense was downright lousy in the 13-3 Super Bowl loss. But the McVay I encountered was classic McVay, not chastened McVay. He spent time this off-season decompressing in a big way, getting engaged, and going to Cannes and Italy’s Amalfi Coast. “I slept better,” he said. “I was able to kinda just unplug. I think that created a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm.”
McVay’s always been good at being honest with himself and his team. You might hear the relentless Vermeil-like optimism, but he is good at self-scouting the bad stuff too. And when McVay looks back at the three-point nightmare of the Super Bowl, he knows that to ensure his team plays deep into January consistently he needs to continue to emphasize—in play-calling and player-molding—who the Rams are. And that’s an aggressive, attacking, fast team—not a conservative one parrying with a respected foe.
I had heard McVay be critical of himself for his approach to the Super Bowl, pointing to the Rams’ sixth play as a metaphorical reason. It’s an innocent-enough play, an incompletion in the left flat from a pressured Jared Goff to Robert Woods. And no one play cost the Rams here. But the sixth play is an interesting one. It’s easy to see, looking back, how the Rams could have and should have tried to expose the Patriots’ quarters coverage—four defensive backs fanned across the field in coverage, between eight and 19 yards off the ball at the snap—using the speed of Brandin Cooks and the deep accuracy of Goff as weapons.
But the weird thing about this play, and about the Rams’ effort in the Super Bowl, is how uncharacteristic it was. L.A. had taken shots all season. And 10 minutes into a scoreless game against the Patriots, the Rams could have taken a shot and sprung to a 7-0 lead. On first and 10 from the Pats’ 49-yard line, McVay had three receivers from a triple-bunch formation tight to the formation to the right; Cooks was split left, alone on the left side. Cooks split the area between cornerback Stephon Gilmore and the near safety, Devin McCourty. Goff had 3.75 seconds from the snap of the ball to release it before Patriot pressure got to him. At about 3.1 seconds, Cooks was past McCourty and had a couple of steps on Gilmore, and he began to streak to the post. Goff didn’t pull the trigger. At 3.75 seconds, pressured, Goff threw it away, short left, to avoid the sack.
McVay’s the kind of coach who’s not going to be critical of his players publicly. And you get the feeling that, though he wishes Goff had laid the ball way out there for Cooks to run for, McVay is more angry with himself for being so buried in the minutiae of planning for the big test versus Belichick, he didn’t stress enough with Goff to attack, attack, attack.
“We got to a certain play that did have answers versus quarters coverage,” McVay said, pointing to the sixth Rams play, “but I think the biggest thing that you look at is, are you putting your players in a position to really understand and own the intent of what we’re trying to get done? And that’s where I feel like I fell short because whatever we’ve asked of our guys … What could I have done leading up to that game to have a better contingency plan and better communication specific to the ownership that we want to be able to have from coaches and players … Where I felt like I didn’t do nearly a good enough job is putting us in a position to really have an answer based on whatever they activate coverage-wise.”
In other words: Because the Patriots had been almost exclusively a single-high-safety defense for the season, and because here they were with two safeties deep, in a rare four-across cover scheme, it was up to McVay to not only call the right play (which he did) but then to emphasize to Goff exactly what he was seeing, and what deep shot might be there to be made. And he didn’t stress that enough either in preparation for the game or in the coach-to-QB communication as he called the play.
McVay’s lesson learned for 2019, both for him and his quarterback: “Let’s make sure that you’re just so not just driven by what you see on the tape that when it does end up being something different, you’re really not as ready as you expect to be, specific to putting your players in a position to be ready.”
Not to mention what that one play would have done to the psyche of the game. “I think it [could have] changed New England’s approach,” McVay said. “One of the things that I thought both Bill and [defensive coordinator Brian] Flores did an outstanding job of is, they’re gonna continue to play these coverages or these certain defensive structures until we made ‘em pay. We were never really able to do that. If you end up making a play like that early on in the game, then maybe it changes the narrative.
“These kinds of things come up in every single game. It’s one thing to train guys for capability. It’s another thing to train them for capacity. Capability, guys can follow directions if you give specific orders. But capacity is the ability to give them contingency plans and the tools to be able to solve the problems even if it’s maybe something that you haven’t gone in and really practiced throughout the course of the week.
“That’s where I feel like I fell short for my team.”
McVay and Goff watched the Super Bowl—in its entirety and then specific plays like the sixth. “If you’re going to say it’s a learning opportunity, you can’t run away from it,” McVay said.
Goff is 24. McVay is 33. Imagine what the Rams have accomplished in two seasons together, rebuilding on the fly with the youngest coach and one of the youngest quarterbacks in football: They’ve won 26 games; only New England (29) has won more. They’ve scored 1,004 regular-season points, the most in football over those two years. They played very well defensively and lousy offensively in the Super Bowl. It’d be a surprise if the clunker stuck with a young team.
“The cool thing about both Jared and myself,” McVay said, “is we’re growing together. I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience even coordinating or calling plays before I got to be a head coach. He’s got a refreshing security in himself. He starts a handful of games as a rookie but our growth and maturation together … I think what we’re both gaining a real appreciation for is the experience. There’s no doubt in my mind the next time that he sees something similar [to the sixth play in the Super Bowl], he’s gonna make that play.”
Carli Lloyd, 37, is a two-time FIFA women’s world player of the year and a two-time World Cup champion with the U.S. women’s national team. She went to Eagles camp in Philadelphia—near her south Jersey home—to watch a joint practice with the Ravens and Eagles. While there, she was invited to kick with the Ravens special teams, aiming for the narrow goal posts NFL kickers practice with during the week and off-season. With regular holder Sam Koch taking the snap and holding, Lloyd booted a 55-yard field goal cleanly through. I spoke with her the next day.
FMIA: How did this come about?
Lloyd: “I love the Eagles. I’ve been an Eagles fan my whole life. I had an off-day and I figured I’d come out. Randy Brown, the former mayor of a town near me in New Jersey, is a [assistant special-teams] coach with the Ravens, has been bugging me for years to go to a practice. I brought my boots. I could kick all day long. I could kick field goals all day long. I absolutely love it. There’s a lot the same with kicking a soccer ball and kicking a football. I love kicking long balls in soccer, and it carries over the football. The technique is the same, and I think I’m very accurate. So I started at 25, and they kept moving me back. I hit one short, I think. There were a couple with the wind that went wide. I got to 55, and that was it. One take. It was good. I had no idea anyone was videotaping it or putting it on cell-phone video. I tried from 57, but it was wide; distance was good. I would have kept going—my competitive nature. But I felt like I was holding them up out there.”
FMIA: What was the reaction, and did teams reach out?
Lloyd: “When we got in the car, it was unbelievable. The texts, the videos, everything going viral. I had no idea. It was insane. It still is insane. I could not believe the attention on social media. I just had a conversation with Randy, actually. The coaches and his GM, they all saw the video. They were like, What is she doing next week? I’m laughing about it, but the more I think about it, this has the chance to be sort of a pioneering moment for women.”
FMIA: Do you think a woman could be a successful kicker in the NFL? There’d be a lot of pressure.
Lloyd: “I know that I could actually probably do it. Put on the helmet, strap on the pads, go for it. The mindset I have, I think with practice, I know I have to work on my steps and my technique, but I think I could do it and do it well. It could be a huge pivotal moment. There is no reason why a woman could not do this. And I actually invite the pressure. I love the pressure. When I have to nail something—shooting hoops, ax-throwing, kicking a field goal—that is the moment I live for and want. It comes down to the mind, training the mind. It’s worth having some conversations about it. With practice and someone showing me, I know I can do it. I have one of the most accurate shots in our game. Big thing would be getting used to the big boys out there. But nothing scares me. You hold yourself back if you’re afraid. What’s the worst that can happen? I don’t make the team? Let’s just say I did try. Maybe I change the landscape a lot.”
FMIA: What do you an 8-year-old girl somewhere in America would think, watching you try out for an NFL team?
Lloyd: “Oh, that would be massive. Pretty massive. If I was a little girl watching and I saw an NFL kicker that was a female, that would be cool.”
“For the last four years, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab; injury, pain, rehab. It’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and off-season. I felt stuck in it. The only way out is to no longer play football.”
—Andrew Luck, announcing his retirement Saturday night at the age of 29.
“I hope he becomes president of the United States.”
—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, on Luck.
“If I play the way I did today, it’s going to be a long year.”
—Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, after his three-of-13 performance Saturday in a preseason debacle against Arizona.
“You can ask me all you want about why I like him. I think it’s time to start asking the people that didn’t like him what they think, quite frankly.”
—Giants coach Pat Shurmur, on the draft choice everyone seemed to hate in April, quarterback Daniel Jones, on Thursday, after Jones had a strong outing against Cincinnati. Jones is 25-of-30 this pre-season, with a gaudy 12.3-yards-per-attempt and a rating of 140.1.
“They did their research on that pick. That was a great pick. Josh is very talented, very athletic. It’s freaky, man … I call him LeBron James.”
—Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack on rookie pass-rusher Josh Allen, to The Athletic.
“Luke was an amazing young man. It’s such a tragedy. It’s so hard to understand. But I know I will—and anyone who ever knew him will—be inspired by the life he lived.”
—Dallas coach Jason Garrett on the death of Luke Laufenberg, a Texas-El Paso tight end and son former Cowboys quarterback and longtime Dallas media personality Babe Laufenberg. Luke died of cancer last week.
Bobby Wagner • Seattle inside linebacker • Photographed in Renton, Wash.
On being one of four NFL players out of 1,700 rated players this year to get a near-perfect 99 rating in the “Madden” video game:
“Huge honor. A blessing. Growing up as a kid, I played ‘Madden.’ I always created myself. I made myself a 99. So it’s pretty cool they did it for me.
“I view the inside linebacker position as the quarterback of the defense, a very important role on the football field. If you look at the great defenses, they always had a really good inside linebacker. It’s good to see the league, and the outside world, finally seeing that about an extremely important part of the defense. It’s getting a little respect now. We have an amazing group of guys playing the inside linebacker position. The more young guys come in and elevate the game, the more the position will get its just due.”
Since Aug. 1, 2017:
• The Ravens are 12-0 in preseason games. The Falcons are 0-12 in preseason games.
• The Ravens are 19-14, including postseason. The Falcons are 18-16, including postseason.
Just another reason to pay zero attention to preseason results.
Now that we know Le’Veon Bell will not play in the preseason for the New York Jets, we know, assuming he will play on opening day against Buffalo, it’s going to be 601 days between his last game with the Steelers and his first game with the Jets.
That is a longer time out of football games than the terms of three of our 45 United States presidents: William Henry Harrison (31 days), James A. Garfield (199 days) and Zachary Taylor (492 days).
Saturday was not a football day. It was a Don Banks day.
With about 100 of those who were closest to him in attendance at the EMC Club behind home plate at Fenway Park—boy, would Don have been pleased to be feted for eternity in Fenway—friends and family spent 100 minutes paying tribute to Don. He died in his sleep Aug. 4; the coroner thinks it very likely was a heart issue that killed Don in the Courtyard Marriott in Canton.
His widow, Alissa, wrote a lovely ode in the program for the service for Don. His son, Matt, 28, spoke an eloquent eulogy for Don. His brother Doug, a minister, gave a lovely tribute and prayers to his younger sibling. His best friend, John Romano, the Tampa columnist and college classmate from South Florida, was emotional and spot-on with his tribute for Don. His very good friend, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times (Don used to call Sam his “road wife”), was touchingly hilarious, concentrating on Don’s Caliendo-like imitations, from Denny Green to John McClain. Don’s father-in-law, and his nephew, and pal Andrew Perloff, and I spoke. His buddy Mike Reiss spoke, and, in an incredibly thoughtful gesture, had “Snap Judgments” pens made. The Red Sox’s Gordon Edes—former scribe—did us a huge favor and put a tribute to Don on the center field video board.
Here is the cover of the program for the service:
It was heartening to see the show of support, with people coming from the deep south, from Los Angeles, from Germany, from Las Vegas (his new sports editor, Bill Bradley, flew in, in a major class move the family will never forget), from New York and points south and west, to show their affection for Don. I originally found his death incredibly cruel—he’d been working a new job he loved, as the NFL writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, for three days—but in the three weeks that have passed since his death, I’ve mellowed a bit, thanks in part to my friend Dan Pompei. Dan is a man of faith, and his point when Don died was that he was back on top of his game, and left the earth on top, and he died a very happy man. And maybe that’s all any of us should hope for out of life—to die fulfilled, doing what we love.
Don’s 21-year-old son, Micah, a student at George Washington, put it best for the living in the days before the memorial:
“Remember the Boston Globe baseball writer who died last spring, Nick Cafardo? I was hanging out with my dad when that happened. Nick died on the job one day, covering the Red Sox. I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, that’s the way to go, doing what you love.’ That seems sort of fitting now—my dad, doing what he loved in Canton, Ohio.”
Out of the mouths of sons …
What’s your best habit, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky?
“Waking up early and doing something. Most days I am up by about 5 a.m. and right away when I wake up, I accomplish something. Most days it’s time in my Bible or devotional, some days it’s working out, some days it’s writing down a goal for the day and spending time thinking about that. I never wake up and just sit around. It’s grab a cup of coffee and get going. Getting up and going kind of sets my tempo or rhythm for the day and focuses my mind on the day.”
And your worst habit?
“I never close cabinet doors or drawers. It drives my wife insane. I don’t know why or when or how it started exactly but I have my assumptions. We have triplet boys who are now 7. When they were younger, our life was pure insanity, and 20 minutes of quiet or peace was like gold. When they would go down to nap or sleep, I would make sure I did nothing, absolutely nothing, to wake them. And if that meant never shutting a draw or door that may make noise, I wouldn’t do it. That has now carried over when it no longer matters. But it drives my wife mad.”
The mail flowed to firstname.lastname@example.org on the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck. Some of it, followed by a couple of thoughts from me.
• This Colt fan understands. From Brett Dills: “I have been a Colts fan since they moved here in 1984. Last night was the biggest gut punch I have felt about this team in 35 years. Not out of a sense of betrayal by Andrew Luck or the Colts organization, but because this was a season that appeared to have so much promise and a real chance to go to the Super Bowl. But I fully support his decision to retire He put his body on the line week after week for this organization. Clearly the pain in his body is causing him mental anguish … I purchased a three-game ticket package earlier this week, optimistic of Luck’s return from this injury. If I am being honest, I would have taken a more ‘wait and see’ approach had this been announced sooner. But I plan on going to these games and supporting the 53 men who will represent our city. I have faith in Chris Ballard to find a way forward.”
• A young boy says thanks. From David Ray Lewis: “As a freshman, at a new high school, away from my hometown, I struggled. I struggled making friends, I struggled finding myself. I found football. I found this new hotshot Andrew Luck. I studied Andrew, and what made him so good. Football became my passion afterwards. It became my source of weekly relief from many things. I hope it becomes my career. Andrew Luck helped a scared high schooler find himself. The news broke me but I’m happy that he is now finding himself. I wish him nothing but the best and hope he realizes how much of an impact he had on so many people.”
• ‘The ultimate me move.’ From Rob Goulet: “This was the ultimate ME move in the history of TEAM sports. Shocking coming from a Pro Bowl QB and leader, who holds the livelihoods of so many others in his hands. Why wait until week three of the preseason? If his heart hasn’t been in it for a while (listening to his comments, this has weighed on him for years now), he should’ve left his team in a better situation.”
• Adam questions Adam. From Adam Leonard: “I’m not struggling with my reaction to Andrew Luck’s decision to retire; I watched the entire press conference and have no doubt that he did the right thing. No, what I struggle with is Adam Schefter releasing the information while Luck was still on the sideline, thus precipitating the circumstances which resulted in the booing that Luck had to endure as his last on-field memory of his time in Indianapolis. I get that this was a HUGE story, biggest of 2019. I just can’t help but thinking that Schefter could have waited until he was in the locker room before breaking the news and had he done so, Luck would have been spared that ignominy.”
• A historically significant event. From James Killian III: “I’m quite certain that years from now this will be pointed to as a touchstone in the NFL’s history. Players getting smarter about giving away their future when they have money to shut it down. Every player doesn’t have that kind of money, but I do believe you’ll see more people doing that.”
Thanks to the dozens who wrote about Luck’s retirement on Sunday. So many interesting points of view. Three thoughts:
• Schefter cannot hold that story. He just can’t. If he found out about it in this dog-eat-dog competitive world of NFL scoopism, he can’t be sure Ian Rapoport or Jay Glazer is not going to hear and report it. The timing was unfortunate, but a reporter can’t be worried about that.
• In time, I think most Colts fans will get over the shock of it and think Luck’s a good man who just got tired of felling crappy. It is a tough pill, though, having the rug pulled out two weeks before the real games.
• Interesting point, the “touchstone-in-history” thing. I don’t know. Luck, had he hung in, probably could have/would have made more than $200 million over the rest of his football life. I don’t know many players in that circumstance who would say, “I’m good. I’ve got enough. I quit.”
1. I think the three biggest winners from the preseason weekend were:
a. Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, now 25 for 30 in preseason play, with two of his throws in Cincinnati deep balls on target.
c. All those people who did not buy tickets to Raiders-Packers in Winnipeg.
2. I think the three biggest losers from the preseason weekend were:
a. All those people would did buy tickets to Raiders-Packers in Winnipeg.
b. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has to hope completing three of 13 against Arizona won’t matter in 13 days.
c. The Texans, for likely losing Lamar Miller to a torn ACL in a meaningless game against Dallas.
3. I think, still, the Texans should either trade a high pick or picks to Washington left tackle Trent Williams, or figure out a Jadeveon Clowney-for-Williams deal. The more I think of this, the more one of those two deals makes a huge amount of sense for Washington. By the way, good idea by Washington to start Case Keenum, who is a pro’s pro and will keep the seat warm for Dwayne Haskins.
4. I think the more nosing around I did about the uselessness of the preseason, and the enmity that is creating for fans and coaches alike, the more I am hearing that the owners are using this as a chip in bargaining for the new CBA with players. Which is fraught with problems, as far as I am concerned. So the current CBA runs through the end of the 2020 season, which means that unless there is a new deal before next May, the NFL will have the same idiotic four-preseason-games-per-team schedule in 2020. This cannot stand. Roger Goodell has to convince owners that the damage to the game for making fans pay regular-season prices for lousy football goes far beyond the owners losing a few hundred thousand each August.
5. I think I have an idea (actually I stole this idea from a smart NFL person): Make every ticket to every preseason game league-wide cost $20. Then the season-ticket-holder won’t have to pay an absurd price to see the third-string guys play a glorified scrimmage. A season-ticket-holder will have to pay, say, $160 for the two exhibition games total, instead of maybe $1,200.
6. I think Jerry Jones is right: He has earned the right to kid around with Ezekiel Elliott. (“Zeke who?”) But just because you’re earned the right to do something doesn’t mean you should do it—particularly, in this case, during a very sensitive time like a contract holdout.
7. I think this startled me, and it left the impression that Miami coach Brian Flores didn’t realize the possible ramifications of challenging receiver Kenny Stills—who has been having a mediocre camp and who has major problems with new NFL consultant Jay-Z—by playing eight consecutive Jay-Z songs at the start of a practice last week. Cameron Wolfe of ESPN.com detailed the story well. You may recall Flores called out Stills for not keeping his criticism of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross in-house over Ross hosting a major Donald Trump fundraiser. So it’s likely Stills isn’t the biggest Flores fan right now—not that all players are going to like their head coaches, and that shouldn’t be the reason why a coach makes any decision. Flores said he did it to “challenge Kenny to perform regardless of whatever is going on outside.” I understand why Flores made the call—truly. But this situation is not your normal coach-motivating-player deal. The racial and social sensitivity over this issue, to an immensely socially conscious person such as Stills, is a tinderbox. Flores’ decision struck me as a taunt, or a troll, whatever he meant. I think Flores made a mistake.
8. I think this is the bottom line: You have to be yourself as a head coach, and if that’s absolutely who Flores is, then he’ll rise and fall in part using tools like that one. And I don’t think this necessarily plays any part in his actions, but assistants who have left the Belichick womb have found out—quickly—that players don’t automatically respect a coach greatly just because he fell out of the Belichick tree. A coach has to make his own path, and earn respect that has nothing to do with the fact that he got a master’s degree in Belichickology for a decade or longer.
9. I think I love Mike Zimmer’s postgame press conferences, particularly when he hasn’t had much time to cool off. The Vikings sent a 2020 fifth-round pick to Baltimore for Norwegian kicker Kaare Vedvik earlier this month, and Saturday against Arizona, in the Vikes’ climateless home stadium, Vedvik missed wide left from 43 yards and wide right from 54 yards. Asked by a reporter afterward about his level of concern with Vedvik, Zimmer said: “High.”
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, on the rebirth of football in a California town torn asunder by wildfires.
b. There’s so much emotion in that story, and Plaschke captured it so well, the highs and the lows. And the preseason-opening speech from assistant coach Andy Hopper to the Paradise Bobcats.
c. Hopper: “We don’t feel sorry for ourselves. There ain’t one damn victim in here! I feel like God chose us. I’m not saying God created that fire; I’m saying God chose us to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to make these guys the smartest dudes on earth, that they can go through something so horrible and come out the other end and represent to the rest of the world what a man can do.’”
d. Smart Football Story of the Week: by Ken Belson of the New York Times, about how a collision in a touch football game last year led to some much needed changes, and to the wearing of soft helmets, in a Texas league.
e. The scene set by Belson—4,000 players in a huge Texas 7-on-7 tournament in June, all wearing soft helmets after a jarring brain injury suffered by a bare-headed player last year—is vivid and important. Because of that injury, Belson reported, all 7-on-7 play in Texas will require the soft helmets now. You think that this kind of football should be devoid of head trauma, but fast kids running into each other can happen in touch football. The soft helmets seem like a perfect idea.
f. Little League Story of the Week: by Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger, on his search for the umpire he gave a double-bird salute to after a controversial call in a 1980s New Jersey baseball game.
g. Football Story of the Week: Kalyn Kahler of Sports Illustrated on the Bears’ very strange kicker derby this offseason.
h. The reporting on this story is terrific. You’ve got to see the pictures Kahler obtained of the rookie minicamp kicker results, with comments on each of eight kickers, like “Ball trajectory is a major concern.”
i. I kept thinking as I read this Kahler story: This is the kind of classic SI story from the eighties, the one everyone on the beat read and said, ‘It’s so quirky and original—wish I’d written that.’
j. Seems like The Hunger Games for kickers. And, of course, the Bears still haven’t found one.
k. Sad Story of the Week: Sofia Saric of the Boston Globe on the tragic murder of a Boston University student.
l. It’s been a long time since I read about a more senseless crime.
m. Beernerdness: Nothing wrong, I suppose, with Stella Artois (Leuven, Belgium), but I find it a boring pilsner. Tastes watered down to me.
n. Congrats to Trent Dilfer and his Lipscomb (Tenn.) Academy football team. In Dilfer’s first game as a high school football coach, the Mustangs beat Glencliff 66-8.
o. One word for those MLB nickname uniforms: hideous.
p. Of course, Jedd Gyorko adorning his nameplate with Seinfeldian reference “Jerk-Store” is priceless, but I’m just curious: Do players and managers and coaches really like this? I do love what Brett Gardner had on his back Saturday.
Just my opinion:
Football was tormenting Luck.
He had to get out.