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‘Luck’ podcast, episode 5: The 3-year journey back from a career-altering injury

This is a transcript of episode five of The Athletic‘s podcast miniseries “Luck,” on the rise and sudden retirement of former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Find the series in audio form on The Athletic app or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Chris Ballard: Yeah, I didn’t know Andrew yet. I mean, I’d watched him play as a part of the Kansas City team in 2013.

Zak Keefer: This is Chris Ballard, who was hired as the Colts’ general manager in January of 2017. He’d spent the last four years in the Kansas City Chiefs’ front office, where he’d witnessed some of Andrew Luck’s finest moments from afar and some from up close.

Ballard: I watched him play and struggle for three quarters against us, and then in the fourth quarter absolutely come alive.

Keefer: Including the incredible 28-point deficit that Luck erased in that Wild Card playoff game his second year.

Ballard: I think we were up 38-10, and then he just got on a really hot streak and came back and had one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. So I had tremendous respect for him, the player.

Keefer: But it wasn’t that comeback that stuck with Ballard the most. It’s what Luck said — and what he didn’t — after the Chiefs beat him up in a 2016 regular season game. Despite losing their starting quarterback in the third quarter, the Chiefs left with an easy 30-14 win, absolutely owning the Colts up front on both sides of the ball, and Luck, per usual, took the brunt of the punishment. He was sacked six times and hit 12 times.

Ballard: I’ll never forget in ’16, we play him, and we had gotten after him pretty good. And after the game I was up in the press box doing work for some — you know, trying to get workouts and players set for that Monday, because we had a couple of players injured in the game. And I remember watching Andrew’s press conference.

Reporter: What was the basis of the offensive struggles today?

Andrew Luck: Me. I know I struggled. I think every offensive player in the room feels like we let each other down.

Ballard: He just — you know, you’re asking questions, “Andrew, you were hit multiple times in this game. What do you attribute those to?” And Andrew said, “You know what? I’ve got to get rid of the ball. That’s my fault. I’ve got to get rid of the ball.”

Luck: Yeah, yeah, and guys are going to work their butts off. If a holding is called, you know, guys are straining. Guys are doing a great job, I think, up front to allow those plays to happen. But it’s not just penalties on things, it’s dropped snaps, it’s interceptions, it’s missed opportunities. There’s a lot more than an O-lineman working his butt off to help protect.

Ballard: You know, “Andrew, you had a pick here — can’t remember what quarter it was,” and I remember it was because what play we had really pressured him on. And, “That’s my fault. I’ve got to throw a more accurate pass.”

Reporter: What do you think happened there? Did he slip on the route?

Luck: Good break by the corner, and probably not a very good ball or decision, for that matter. And he made a heck of a play. One of those you wish you could have back.

Ballard: And I just remember sitting there thinking, “Here’s a guy that we just beat up physically. He just owns it all. He takes all and relieves all the pressure off everybody else around him and never blamed anyone else.” And I’ll never forget walking downstairs and telling, I think it was Coach (Reid) and John (Dorsey), “Hey, man, I just witnessed one of the most unbelievable press conferences, in terms of leadership, that I’d ever seen.”

Keefer: And frankly, that’s how it went for Andrew Luck for most of 2016. He wasn’t able to consistently practice. He was living in the training room, hiding the pain from the public, even his own teammates, and all the while the torn labrum in his throwing shoulder was getting worse, much worse. The damage he did to his shoulder that season would complicate his rehab the following spring and push him to the brink of retirement. After Ballard was hired, he pledged over and over, “It’ll never be about one guy.” He vowed to get Luck the help he’d need for the next phase of his career.

Ballard: Let me say this, because Andrew’s a great player, but it will never be about one guy. It will never be about one guy. It’s about all 53 men in that locker room. It’s about all 63 men, including the practice squad that we have. It will never be about one person. It will always be about the team. Is he a good piece? Absolutely. But he’s just one of the 53 men that we have to go win with.

Keefer: That same month, Ballard’s $140 million franchise quarterback had undergone surgery on his throwing shoulder. And what no one knew at the time, he wouldn’t play football for another 19 months.

Ballard: You know, Andrew was not in a good place. Physically, he had just had surgery, and physically, he wasn’t in a good place. I’ll never forget our first meeting, and Andrew came in and he had his shoulder in a sling. I think he was two weeks post-op. I could tell he was a little anxious and nervous, and he had a list of things he wanted to talk about. Finally, he starts talking. I said, “Put down the list.” I said, “Can we talk and get to know each other? Let’s do that first, and then we can hammer through everything we’ve got to hammer through. But let’s get to know each other.” You know, the one thing is, I realized right away, is that I was going to have to build trust. I knew that was going to take time, and my actions toward Andrew were big. My actions going forward for him were going to be big in building that kind of relationship and trust that needed to be built. But physically and mentally, he was not in a real good place when I walked in the door.

Keefer: The place he was at is one of the lowest moments of his entire career. This is “Luck,” Episode 5, The Return.

READ MORE: Keefer: explains the genesis of the “Luck” podcast

Ballard: I think if you go back all the way to ’15 when he first was initially hurt, I think I was around when Andrew did his new contract. And the one thing that I really love about him, and we’re still very close, but one thing I really love about Andrew is his care for other people. You know, that’s not only a positive, but that can also be a negative. But Andrew doesn’t want to let anybody down. And his care and empathy for others is as strong as any player I’ve ever been around.

Keefer: Luck spent the last six weeks of the 2017 season in the Netherlands, slogging through rehab eight hours a day, five days a week. On Thanksgiving, he bought a turkey from the local butcher and tried to carve it. In his downtime, he poured through books, hoping to give his mind an escape. He tried to learn Dutch. He was 28 years old, and in a lot of ways, he was lost.

Luck: I wish I could tell you because that would mean I could tell myself.

Keefer: Luck came back to Indy late that December of 2017, and the Colts put him in front of reporters to explain this mysterious rehab he was doing. Why the Netherlands? And who was this unnamed trainer and what exactly were they doing?

Luck: The resources that he had over there that were not available here — some people and some other things.

Keefer: As evasive as Luck was about his physical rehab, he opened up about the mental struggles he was dealing with. During that press conference, I asked him straight up, what was his lowest point?

Luck: Uhh, the low point? There was a time, probably a couple weeks into being away from here — maybe early December — that was pretty difficult for me to sort of see the positive in things and got through that. I guess I see the positive and things a little more now.

Keefer: Eight months later, standing on the field after a practice at training camp, sweat dripping down his face, shoulder pads still on, Andrew Luck and I relived the most difficult year of his career. We spoke for 40 minutes, just the two of us, and it was the most open and the most honest he’d ever been in an interview. “I was a sad, miserable human,” he told me. “I was not nice to myself, nor was I nice to anybody else. I was a miserable S.O.B. to be around. I was nervous. And I was scared.” “Scared of what?” I asked. “I was scared in my core, in my insides,” he said. “There was a time I was very scared about football and about my place in football.” Then he said this, “If I wasn’t having fun playing football, I’d quit. I’d retire.” The night he retired, I would go back to that conversation and what he told me that day.

Luck: I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. Taking the joy out of this game, and after 2016, where 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.

Keefer: The biggest problem with Luck’s shoulder was that he tried to play through it for most of 2015, for all of 2016. It wasn’t the surgery and it wasn’t the snowboarding accident that Luck had somewhere along the way, and later admitted to. After he made it back from the Netherlands, Luck tried to return early in the 2017 season. He threw at practice one day in October, breathing temporary life into a season that was slipping away. The problem with that? He made it worse. He tried to throw through the pain. He started lying to himself, and his stubbornness bled into anger. He thought he could will himself through the rehab. “I convinced myself I could force things to happen, and I paid for it,” he told me. He was in the darkest phase of his football life, unsure if he’d ever play again. So Luck’s agent and uncle, Will Wilson, made a phone call.

Tom House: His agent reached out and asked if I would take him on as a client to see if I could fix his shoulder so he could throw again.

Keefer: That’s Tom House. House is a former big league pitcher who became a renowned throwing guru after he retired. He helped bring Drew Brees back from a devastating injury to his throwing shoulder, and in the years that followed, started to work with some of the very best quarterbacks in football. Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and more recently, Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert. Wilson called House in the winter of 2018, hoping he could bring Andrew Luck back from shoulder hell. Truth be told, they were running out of options.

House: If you speak with anybody or work with anybody that’s in chronic pain, being optimistic or joyful or having fun is not really possible. You kind of resent what you used to be because of where you are. And I think the first couple of months, that was kind of the way he looked at things. He felt like he had let his team down. He felt like he had let the fanbase down, the ownership. He had a very special relationship with the owner. He was basically, not only was he hurting, he felt like he was letting everybody down. He played hurt for a good three years. He had a surgery and a bad rehab and was just in pain, no matter what he did. He really couldn’t even roll a football 20 yards. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. He was buried in the tunnel, and he was getting zero feedback from anything.

Keefer: And what House learned early on, Andrew Luck was unlike any client he’d ever had.

House: The initial console was strange. I’d never run across someone that could finish my sentences before they got out of my mouth. I don’t know how much you know about him, but he might be the brightest human being, not just quarterback, but one of the smartest human beings ever been around, to a point where it was almost awkward trying to coach him. While he was very outgoing verbally, he’s really shy as a person, and it just seemed like everything turned inward on him. I think he and I, we got along good. He thought I was a little goofy, and I told him to his face that I knew he was goofy.

Keefer: House was certainly different, quirky in his own way, and as it turned out, his expertise was exactly what Andrew Luck needed. It wasn’t just a physical rehab, but a mental one as well.

House: With every elite athlete that comes our way, with what we call a star profile. It might come from mechanics, but they’re going to (get) functional strength (training), mental, emotional, nutrition and sleep. So I treated him just like every athlete that comes our way. And the one thing that he was very reluctant to do was anything that had to do with his mental, emotional makeup. I think he put it off and he put it off and he put it off and he put it off, until actually the first day that we worked together up in Stanford, I met him at their house up there, and I think he excused himself to go to the bathroom and went in the bathroom and took the test right on premise when I showed up. As that as a starting point, there were things in his profile that kind of indicated what he was going through. There were also some things that — the start profile itself is an insight instrument. It’s how he sees himself, not how I saw him, not how (his wife) Nicole saw him, not how the Colts saw him, but how he saw himself, and I think we hit closer to home than he realized when you looked at him.

Keefer: House’s was an entirely different approach, and early on the coach told the QB, who’d been mentally beaten down from years of pain and lost hope, something he desperately needed to hear.

House: I told him if it wasn’t structural, if it wasn’t something that required another surgery, that I was very optimistic that we can make it work. And I said, “The support you’re going to get from me, with mechanics and the functional strength that we do, the stuff that you’re going to get from your conditioning coaches,” not only with the team but with what he was doing independently, I said, “I think your chances are real good, but again, it’s going to be different. We’re not going to look for an outcome until you’ve got a process that gives you a better chance for that outcome.”

Keefer: The process was odd, even Luck thought so at first, but House’s plan was grounded in science and it was backed by results. His experience with Brees, whose injury was far more severe than Luck’s, helped provide a path during the rehab. House was famous for helping pitchers come back from injury and actually increase their velocity. His secret? It started with a training method that included using weighted balls. So for the first several months of the rehab, House didn’t even let Luck throw an NFL football. He instead had him progress from tennis balls to weighted balls to smaller high school footballs.

House: Five months to get him to be pain-free, we didn’t touch a football for that whole time. All we did was train with weighted balls and tennis rackets and (smaller) footballs, all really cross-specific stuff.

Keefer: House had to convince Luck that patience was vital. He couldn’t hurry the process. Every single step mattered. And for starters, Luck needed to stop lying to himself. In his words, he needed to stop looking for the silver bullet, because there wasn’t one.

House: It was literally getting worn out in the media. They kept saying, “When’s he going to throw a football? When’s he going to throw a football?” And we knew, from my research, that if you could throw a one-pound ball 50 miles an hour, you could throw a football 50 yards. There was a correlation there.

Keefer: Luck was on his way back, even if no one besides House could see it at the time, and even if there were a few quick detours along the way.

House: I don’t do well with tardiness or with an athlete being late, so I was up there and I flew up early in the morning, up to Stanford, and was actually waiting for him in the Stanford weight room. And he texted me he was going to be 15 minutes late — which is all I ask. If you’re going to be late, just let me know. And I said, “That’s great, but what’s causing you to be late?” Well, it turns out he was riding his bike from his house and went by a field of kids playing soccer, and you know he loves soccer. He thinks soccer is the beautiful game. He stopped and played 15 or 20 minutes, played soccer with 12-year-olds. If that can tell a story about what a guy is made up by, that’s Andrew Luck. Got along with 12-year-olds and he got along with a 75-year-old and everything in between.

Keefer: The turning point came that spring in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where Luck was staying with his left tackle and close friend Anthony Castonzo. One morning, they hopped on Google Maps and found the closest football field they could find. An old teammate from Stanford joined Luck for the workout, as did House’s nephew, and it was the first pain-free throwing session he’d had in almost three years.

House: For all intents and purposes, that junior high field might as well have been the Superdome. He threw nothing but dimes all day long, and I remember we were walking back from the field to where his buddy’s condominium was. He was very talkative, was smiling. I said to myself, “OK, I’ve got myself a happy 12-year-old right now. I hope he can maintain it.”

Keefer: A few months later, Luck returned to Indianapolis a different person and a different quarterback than he’d last left it. His shoulder was working again, and his confidence was slowly beginning to return. In early June, at the team’s minicamp, Luck threw in front of the media for the first time in eight months. He spoke afterward of a renewed optimism, of a belief that he’d be ready to go from the first day of training camp.

Luck: More short term is to be ready to go for training camp, to be able to, not just participate, but get better, get the team better. Go, see what we can make this year’s Colts.

Keefer: But after all the setbacks over the last 18 months, after all the false optimism, after all the doubts, words mattered little. Luck needed to get back on the field, and he knew it.

Stephen Holder: Until we really got out there and saw him take that first snap under center, it really was not real until you actually saw it.

Keefer: This is my longtime colleague, Stephen Holder, who covered the saga for The Indianapolis Star and later, The Athletic.

Holder: There have been so many starts and stops that there was no assumption, certainly not on my part, that it was going to work and that he’d be OK or that he’d play well. Like, we had no expectations. So I remember the first practice, he comes out there and he’s Andrew Luck! It was unbelievable. I thought for sure, for sure, he would have some struggles and it would take time. I’m telling you, from day one, he looked pretty much like himself. Now, I do think he had some rust. Early in the regular season, he wasn’t quite at the same level, and they called plays a little differently. There were a lot of quick, shorter passes. It wasn’t really opening it up. But by midseason, I think he had basically taken all the governor off of that shoulder, and he was letting it rip. He was Andrew Luck again. You know, when you talk about where he was in the, I would say, the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2018, it’s literally night and day. And night and day is a great way of putting it, because, frankly, it was the darkest point, I think perhaps of his life.

Keefer: The one person who saw it all up close was Jacoby Brissett, who filled in for Luck at quarterback during the 2017 season after being traded by the Patriots six days before the opener. The two quarterbacks didn’t know each other before that and hardly knew each other during that season.

Jacoby Brissett: I think that year, that offseason, when he came back after he went on IR, he came back and it was just, we were like, “If we’re going to be here with each other, we might as well…” You know, that kind of thing. We just slowly start communicating and communicating, and then, just me being there for him, and same for him being there for me. And then we kind of just got along and then the relationship kind of progressed from there. I definitely don’t think he was there mentally. He was always working on this and rehabbing this. I mean I barely knew him at the time, but you could just always see he looked frustrated.

Keefer: During a lengthy chat this spring, I asked Brissett, who’s now backing up Deshaun Watson in Cleveland, if he thinks Luck seriously considered walking away after the horrors of 2017.

Brissett: I mean, I’ve had the conversation with him. It wouldn’t have surprised me. I mean, just seeing him, he was disgruntled, and just being in this league for a while now, you know, the constant of that stuff, it kind of weighs on you, for sure. And obviously, I didn’t know him previously until that year, so I can only imagine the frustration he was going through. And I mean, he was the No. 1 pick and he’s the franchise guy. He’s the second coming to Peyton Manning, all those things probably weighed on him a little bit.

Keefer: Meanwhile, Ballard was reshaping a roster that had fallen off considerably in talent. In February at the NFL Combine, we asked him: how confident was he that Luck would make it back?

Ballard: The one thing we will not do with Andrew is we will not skip a step. Every step that he’s taking right now has a purpose behind it, and he’s going in the right direction. Do I have any doubt that he’s going to be ready? No, I don’t.

Keefer: Trust me, it was a gutsy statement at the time, considering the furor Ballard would have faced if Luck hit another setback. Colts fans, remember, were still dubious. They hadn’t forgotten Jim Irsay’s false promises before the 2017 season. But a month later, Ballard doubled down, trading out of the third pick in the draft back to six, confident that his team didn’t need a quarterback. Teams even called him, asking if Luck was available in a trade. Ballard laughed them off.

Ballard: Look, we had some calls last year at the trade deadline, and I just — come on, man. I’m not those seriously. We’re not trading Andrew Luck. I’m not putting that on my résumé.

Keefer: The Colts were also a team in transition. (Chuck) Pagano had been fired. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had reneged on his deal to become the next head coach, paving the way for (Frank) Reich to take over.

Ballard: I’ll never forget, like, you remember in December when he went away, and then he came back, and unfortunately, we had to let go of Chuck. Then we went through the coaching search, and then Josh made his decision not to come. And I’ll never forget I talked to Andrew right after that point, and he told me — he said, “Chris, I’ll be back. You can bet I’ll be back.” And I believed him. I did. And for whatever reason, I just heard conviction in his voice that he was going to be back, and he was going to be himself and he was going to play good football.

Keefer: After years of overlooking the offensive line, this is how desperate Colts fans were for protection: After Ballard took Notre Dame All-American Quenton Nelson sixth overall, the first time the Colts had taken an offensive guard in the first round in over three decades, fans cheered like hell. A monster to help protect the franchise quarterback, finally.

Ballard: Look, our main focus was to make sure we got our fronts — get some young talent on the fronts to improve both of those areas, and I think we did that.

Keefer: August 2018. After months of hell that took Andrew Luck from Indianapolis to the Netherlands to California and back, the Colts’ franchise quarterback opened training camp without any throwing restrictions. All the work he did with House, both physical and mental, had paid off. And right off the bat, he looked like himself again. But the questions lingered, as he moved through the preseason, how his shoulder would hold up during games, how would it hold up over the course of the year? Even Luck couldn’t know for sure.

Brian Schottenheimer: Well, it was cool for me because — you won’t remember this, most people don’t. I remember it just because it was such a special moment for me, but we played them out in Seattle in the very first preseason game.

Keefer: Brian Schottenheimer was the Colts’ quarterbacks coach in 2016 and 2017, before being hired as the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator ahead of the 2018 season. That’s where the Colts opened the preseason that year.

Schottenheimer: And he and I probably talked for 25 minutes, maybe 30 minutes, before the game. I could see the smile on his face. He was so excited to get out there. He was nervous. Like, think about that. A guy that had done all those things, he was actually so excited, but yet nervous and (he had) butterflies. He ended up playing great. I mean, preseason, but who cares? I mean, he moved ’em right down the field.

TV announcer: We get our first look at (Luck) tonight as he works in the shotgun on first down. Out of the backfield, Marlon Mack gets around KJ Wright, picks up the first down, and a nice way to start for Luck and the Colts.

Schottenheimer: That’s one of the highlights of my time with Andrew was just seeing that just absolute incredible emotion that he was showing before that game, a meaningless preseason game that most people don’t even play in.

Keefer: And Luck was on his way back, and after a feeling-out period realized he had an ally in Jacoby Brissett. Over time, the two would grow into close friends, and Brissett would become one of Luck’s biggest supporters during his comeback season.

Brissett: I wouldn’t say we had a friction between us, but it was like, we were both going through our things, so it was kind of hard for me to really get a good first impression when he was going back and forth with how he was that season and stuff like that. But then that next offseason, when he came back, he was healthy and we had a fresh start, him coming back being the starter, and then we were able to just start over from scratch. It kind of just — I mean, we had some similar war wounds and stories, so it was kind of like we fell back on that a little bit, and then it kind of just progressed from there.

Keefer: Luck would actually admit in his retirement press conference how jealous and how resentful he was of Brissett at this point. “This fun, happy dude who was in my spot,” he said, “as the quarterback of this team. I obviously did not have any confidence in myself, and I obviously could not have been more wrong about him.”

Robert Griffin III: It weighs on a quarterback a lot, and Andrew spoke to it. I remember before he retired he had talked about Jacoby Brissett.

Keefer: Robert Griffin III, the QB who topped Luck for the Heisman in 2011 and went one pick behind him in the NFL Draft a few months later, then beat him out for Rookie of the Year, knows firsthand how much it weighs on a franchise quarterback when pain prevents you from being with the team every day.

Griffin III: I believe Jacoby started the year that he was out, and he said that watching Jacoby take the first team reps and watching Jacoby do this and watching Jacoby do that, he couldn’t help but feel like, “Man, I’m supposed to be doing that.” And here’s the thing: When I was in college, I tore my ACL in 2009. When I tore it in 2009, I didn’t love football at that point, but it was taken away from me, so I wasn’t able to go practice. I wasn’t able to go travel with the team. And I would be going in the training room to do rehab and everybody else going out, running around, having a good time, while I’m trying to learn how to walk again. And for me, I feel like that might be a little bit of what Andrew was going through on a repeated basis. He was having to do that almost every offseason.

Continually, for years, something was hurt. He was having to rehab something and the game kept getting taken away from him. And then when he missed that year, he said it. He had formed some forms of jealousy towards Jacoby Brissett because he felt like he was doing what he was supposed to be doing and this was his team and this, that and the other. So for a quarterback, that weighs really, really heavily on you, because we are all these alpha-type, type-A personalities who want to be in the mix, and we’re all territorial. So I think for Andrew, that is part of what might have made him resent the game just based off of what he said. He hasn’t told me anything like that.

Keefer: Luck escaped the preseason unscathed, and with each passing week was looking more and more like his old self. He’d even learned something new.

Brissett: After the first week of training camp, we were full go. We’re going at it. And he was like, you could just see his mind click. Like, he was like, “I’m playing football.” I’ll never forget it was the joke. Like, “Andrew, you don’t take hits. You don’t take hits, you don’t take hits.” So he was scrambling out of the pocket and something happened, he just ran the ball and didn’t go out of bounds. And it’s obviously practice, you can’t get hit or anything like that. And Frank made an emphasis, “Hey, Andrew, you’ve got to get down or get out of bounds.” Or Nick said something like, “Get out or get out of bounds.” Like, you could just see him like, “OK, I can do that.” Rather than – I guess old Andrew was like, “Oh, I’m going to take the hit. I’m going to run somebody over. I’m going to put my body on the line.” And then it happened in a game, he really ran out of bounds at like the two. He was just different, you know? It was just — and I thought that was really cool just to see the flip of like, I saw him last year or the year before and I saw him the next year, and it was like, “Man, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league for a reason,” you know?

Keefer: Andrew Luck? Not taking a hit? This was a eureka moment, but even a few games into the season there was still a part of him that craved contact. I suppose old habits die hard.

Brissett: He was playing so well versus the Patriots. Our offensive line was playing really well, too, and he hadn’t gotten hit. I just remember him saying, “Jacoby, this is going to sound weird, but can you hit me on the sideline? Because I need to feel the game right now.” I go, “I don’t think I’m supposed to hit you. I think that was the purpose of us refurbishing the line was for you to not get hit.” I, like, push him on his chest, and he was like, “Damn, that feels so good.” And I go, “All right, well, hopefully, you don’t get hit again.”

Keefer: The Colts started five rookies in Week 1 and lost to the Bengals. Two weeks later, they were 1-2 after dropping a road game in Philadelphia, 20-16. Le’Raven Clark, subbing in for the injured Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, was burned off the edge on a fourth down with 1:15 left. Luck never had a chance.

Holder: With the game on the line, they’re in the red zone. He’s trying to make a throw to the end zone, and he gets sacked from behind as he’s rolling out. And he just lays there on the turf and just punches the turf bunch of times, and it was one of the most outward displays of frustration I’ve ever seen from Andrew Luck. He was just — he was pissed. He was really, really pissed. It’s funny because it was a moment where, OK, if Andrew Luck is starting to show that frustration, then this might be a long season, OK? Because he never did that. He very rarely ever did that. When you saw that from him, I think you had to start wondering, “Man, maybe they won’t turn this around.”

Keefer: A week later, the Colts hosted their AFC South rivals from Houston, the first of three meetings between the teams that season. Indianapolis was 1-3, desperate for a win, but the offensive line wasn’t yet whole, and Luck still wasn’t himself. Ballard was sitting on the sideline next to Tom House when Luck jogged up to both of them.

Ballard: So I’ll never forget — you know, we started out, I think at that point we were 1-3, and Tom and I are sitting on the (training cart). Practice ends, Andrew walks over and looks at Tom and just said, “Look, will I ever be great again? Will I ever be who I was again?” And I think physically at that point, Andrew was good. Now, it was just mentally getting the confidence back that he needed to have to play at a high level again. And Tom actually stayed through the weekend and watched the game with me in the box, and in the first half, if you remember now, we got down. We weren’t very good as a team, but boy, in the second half, man, that’s when you saw the real special in Andrew come out.

Keefer: The Colts were down 21-10 at half. Luck was just 12-for-24, and he’d been sacked three times. Then in the second half, he went crazy.

TV announcer: Luck on third-and-10. Protected here, going to take a shot. Far side of the field, and it’s caught! Hilton!

Keefer: Down 18 points early in the third quarter, Luck got ridiculously hot, throwing for 322 yards and three touchdowns after halftime. He hit Nyheim Hines on a touchdown with 51 seconds left that brought the Colts to within two, then drilled Chester Rogers on a two-point conversion to send the game to overtime.

TV announcer: Luck fakes the handoff, throws to the endzone, it’s caught! Rogers! And we are tied!

Keefer: But the Colts would lose it late after head coach Frank Reich elected to go for it on a fourth-and-4 from his own 43-yard line with 27 seconds left in overtime. The decision at the time was heavily scrutinized, but Reich never blinked, never second-guessed himself.

Frank Reich: We’re not playing to tie. I mean, we’re going for that ten times out of ten. You know, we’re going to be aggressive. That’s what we want in our players, that’s a mindset that we have in our players. That’s the only way to win in this league, I think.

Luck: We’re not going to play for a tie. I think everybody in that locker room fricking loves that. I love that. Now, we’ve got to execute. I’ve got to play better. I’ve got to throw a better ball. I mean, we all know where we have to improve, but that attitude? We can get behind that.

Keefer: It was a crucial moment early in the coach’s tenure, and from that moment forward, his players had his back, and his quarterback had his swagger.

Ballard: You saw just a little different look in Andrew’s eye going forward, just a confidence level that, “OK, I still can do this at a high level. I’m still very valuable to this team,” and I thought that was a very important moment for him, even though we ended up losing the game when we went for it in overtime. You know, I thought that’s when both Frank and Andrew, the belief in both of them within the team, really made a switch at that point.

Keefer: From there, Andrew Luck played some of the best football of his career.

Brissett: He kind of just said, “Fuck it. I don’t care what anybody else thinks of me. Whatever. I’m going to play football.” Like, he used to talk about, “I’m just going to play football, have fun with my friends, make my family proud and make my teammates proud.” And you saw that when he played. You know, he was actually fun to be around, even though Andrew has the worst jokes in the world, some of his jokes were actually funny now because he’s coming from a clear (mind) — it was weird. He just was a better person.

Keefer: The Colts lost their next one in New England to fall to 1-4, but Luck stayed hot. In five days, he’d thrown for 829 yards and seven touchdowns, the best two-game stretch of his entire career. The Colts just had to figure out everything else around him, and they were about to. But first came an ugly loss in the Meadowlands, a 42-32 defeat to the Jets that left the Colts 1-5, tied with the Arizona Cardinals for the worst record in football.

Brissett: I’ll never forget, I think we were 1-6. I just saw him coming in to work upset. And I’m like, “This dude deserves more,” you know? “Andrew, you deserve more.” So I literally, like, I went to him and I told him, “Andrew, you deserve more from this group. You have put in the work to earn the respect of these players and these coaches that you should demand more from everybody because like you need to get up in front of this offense and tell them what you want, and that’s what you’re going to get.” And this is not to toot my horn or anything, but it was just like I saw that bad motherfucker Andrew come out. Like, “You’re damn right I deserve more, I demand more.” He started to demand more from himself, from everybody, even me. Like, “Jacoby, I need you to do this.” And I was like, “OK, no problem.” I remember him just saying, “You know, we’ve still got a chance. I think we’re still going go to the playoffs.” One week at a time, he kind of showed us how that was it, you know? And it was something cool to see.

Keefer: The Colts beat the Bills the following Sunday, then the Raiders a week later, then the Jaguars, then the Titans, then the Dolphins. Luck was demanding more from everyone. One week offensive guard Matt Slauson said that Luck exploded on the entire offensive line on the sideline. A few weeks later, he was shouting, “We’re better than this,” after they’d fallen into a first-quarter hole. Later in the season, Luck lit into the entire team at halftime, screaming at them for five solid minutes, calling their effort embarrassing and pathetic. A few hours later, a 17-7 deficit had become a 28-27 win, and by late December, they’d ripped off eight wins in nine weeks. A Week 17 game in Tennessee between the Colts and Titans would decide the AFC’s final playoff berth.

Holder: I thought it was one of his best seasons, if not his best, in terms of efficiency and accuracy he played with. I thought that he and Frank Reich made an incredible tandem. It was also just the happiest I’d seen him as a player, and he had just a newfound outlook on the game. You know, I think he’d always kind of taken football for granted. He was always good at it. It just was easy for him. Football wasn’t hard. Imagine being that good at something, and it’s not that hard for you. That’s crazy, but it’s true. For Andrew Luck, 2018 was such that he had been through so much and finally recaptured what he lost, I think for the first time he had just a higher level of appreciation for it, and he was a different guy. He was a different person, not a different player, but a different person. That is an image and a memory of Andrew Luck I will always, always have, because he changed. There’s no question about it.

Keefer: House, who made it to several Colts games that season to check in on him, remembers a moment with Luck’s fiancée, Nicole, early that season.

House: Nicole said it best, I forget how many games into the season. She came out and gave me a hug and said, “Thanks for giving me my Andrew back.” What you saw and what he was talking about, she actually felt the same thing from inside the bubble.

Keefer: In that winner-take-all game against the Titans, Luck was electric, throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns in a game that was never in doubt. From 1-5 to the playoffs, the Colts had done it. They became just the second team in NFL history to do so, and the symmetry that night was striking. It was on that very field early in the 2015 season where Andrew Luck’s career took a vicious turn. The hit from Jurrell Casey changed everything. He would miss 26 games over the next three seasons, wondering at his lowest moment if he’d ever play football again. And here he was on the top of his game, the shoulder finally behind him, a playoff quarterback once more.

Luck: I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s about the journey, in a sense, and it’s about the process. And I have enjoyed that a lot. It makes it — certainly, winning makes it fun. I’m so thankful that I am in good health, that I get to play the game I love with an amazing group of men. Fulfilled, in a sense. This really has been a fulfilling year to this point.

Keefer (in a press conference): Can you appreciate the irony? I mean, it was on this field four years ago when this whole thing started, and here you are, punching the playoff ticket after a fully healthy season.

Luck: It makes for a good story, Keefer.

Keefer (in a press conference): I had to try.

Keefer: In an emotional postgame locker room, Chris Ballard, the GM who boldly predicted Luck would make it back long before anybody believed him, found his quarterback, and the two embraced in a long hug. By the end of it, they both had tears rolling down their eyes. This wasn’t about the Titans, and it wasn’t about 2018. This was about the last three years and everything it took Andrew Luck to get back to this moment.

Ballard: Man, I still get emotional thinking about that, just knowing what Andrew had been through, what we had been through organizationally. I’ll never forget, we’re all celebrating, then I saw him. We just gave each other — both of us got tears running down our face. You know, to know that what we had done as a team and everything he had overcome — it was a really emotional moment. I still get emotional thinking about it just because I think one of the things that is really misunderstood about Andrew, and this is what made him really special, was his — like, he’s a not a good teammate. He’s a special teammate. I mean, a really unique, special human being that cares about everybody. For all the — and Andrew doesn’t read or listen to anything, but it’s hard not to hear what went on over that past year and a half, and to get to that moment and have that big moment, a big win in Tennessee to get into the playoffs after the way we started, when everybody doubted, including himself, to overcome that hill, that’s a career moment that I’ll never forget.

Keefer: The Colts whipped the Texans in their playoff opener the next week, setting up a Divisional Round game against the Chiefs. The Colts ran out of steam, losing 31-13. For Luck, everything changed after the shoulder injury. His outlook on football, his outlook on life. Making it all the way back, finishing the year healthy, leading the Colts from the depths of 1-5 to the second round of the playoffs? It was the most fulfilling season of his football life.

Brissett: On the flight home after the Chiefs game, me and him had a good 30-, 40-minute talk on the plane. Even on the bus ride, he just seemed at peace. Obviously, it was a tough loss. You obviously don’t want to lose. You would have never thought that we lost, you know? And it wasn’t that he didn’t care, but you can just tell he put it all on the line, and he just laid it all out.

David Shaw: Fighting through it, not for the records, not for the money, for the guys in that huddle.

Keefer: David Shaw, who coached Luck at Stanford.

Shaw: He just knew, “These guys need me. I can’t stop. I can’t sit out. I can’t leave them out there to dry. I can still play and still play at a high level,” and to watch him go through that and then come back out the back end and play freakshow football. I mean, freakshow football. They call it “hero ball,” right? It wasn’t hero ball. Like, he wasn’t there for himself and stats. And I think once he got through the darkness and got a path — I won’t say it for him, but there are a lot of people that he can thank for helping him get out of that dark place. Once he got out of that dark place, because the other thing that Andrew loves to do is work. So once he got a path, once he got the people in place that he could lean on for both his mental and his physical health, and he could get back to work, nobody works harder. Nobody pushes himself more and nobody asks more of themselves, and at the same time is selfless, than Andrew. So it was just great to hear that sound in his voice once he made that turn and was on his way back.

Keefer: After the season, luck was the runaway pick for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Luck: This is a treat. I’m used to coming in second at most award ceremonies, so to receive something is nice. I commend all the other honorees. I commend all the other players in here. Truly an honor. Being injured, missing football is no fun, but you do learn a lot about yourself. On the flip side, I can honestly say that the result has probably been the most positive thing, not only in my professional career, but in my life.

Keefer: 2018 wasn’t just the most rewarding year of Andrew Luck’s NFL career, it was also his most efficient. He threw for 39 touchdowns and almost 4,600 yards. His completion percentage was four points higher than any other season. His QB rating was his best ever, and perhaps most important, he was only sacked 18 times, the lowest total in the league. Indy had finally fixed the line. The Colts were coming and coming fast, or so we thought.

Robert Mays: For him to come back in ’18 and play the way he did, and for it to be this moment where everything — just the resurgence.

Keefer: Robert Mays, host of The Athletic Football Show.

Mays: Think about this. “Now, Quenton Nelson is here, and we drafted (offensive tackle) Braden Smith. The offensive line concerns that had plagued us for so long are finally gone, and we have the style of play where the ball is getting out of his hands quickly and the offense is more conducive to him surviving.” I loved watching those teams. You have those two tight end sets, and it’s (Eric) Ebron and (Jack) Doyle and they have such complementary skill sets. Nyheim Hines, that game against the Texans that year, he made a crazy leaping touchdown catch, and it’s like all of this makes sense. And so it just had that feeling of like, “Man, I can’t believe we’re going to get to watch him step into the second act of his career with now this infrastructure that I have faith in, that I think that really can prop him up.” And we got one year. He threw 39 touchdowns, and it looked like everything was possible and anything was on the table.

Keefer: He and Nicole were married that spring in the Czech Republic, and while abroad he was checking in with Ballard every few days, asking what the Colts were doing in free agency to improve the roster. In a meeting after the season, Luck had told his GM that he was going to be better in 2019 and the team was going to be better in 2019. A Super Bowl run wasn’t out of the question, but what no one knew at the time, he would never play another game in the NFL.

(Illustration by Adam Parata)

 

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