INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – For a nanosecond, it seemed to be just another day at the office.
In the linebackers’ neighborhood, Darius Leonard was encircled by the media and Anthony Walker was bouncing around, playfully shouting at nobody in particular.
In the far end of the locker room, punter Rigoberto Sanchez walked in and plopped down in front of his stall. Longsnapper Luke Rhodes followed.
Mo Alie-Cox, a tight end by trade, had slumped into his stall, perhaps to catch a quick nap. The only evidence of his existence was his protruding feet.
Then, slowly, it became obvious this wasn’t just another Monday at the Indianapolis Colts’ Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center.
There was that empty locker next to Anthony Castonzo. It used to belong to Andrew Luck.
“Yeah, it was weird to have a little extra space next to me,’’ Castonzo said with a wry smile. “I can spread out. Thanks, Andrew.’’
“But yeah,’’ he quickly added, “it’s weird not having him here.’’
That’s the NFL: here today, gone tomorrow.
As the players filed into the room for Monday morning’s team meeting, they were greeted by coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard. It was time to put the grieving behind – Andrew Luck had retired Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium; that wasn’t going to change – and move forward.
Reich is an ordained minister and master orator. He chooses his words and messages wisely.
“We talk about a theme or a word that helps us make sense of things,’’ he said.
The latest Word of the Day: paradox.
“We said paradox is a statement in which it seems that if one part of it is true, the other part cannot be true,’’ Reich said. “For example, everyone makes a unique contribution on this team, yet everyone is replaceable.
“We can deeply love and respect and care for each other, yet the team must come first.’’
Recognize and appreciate the contributions of Andrew Luck. Understand the value he brought to the franchise since being selected with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft. Cherish the camaraderie you shared.
“But at the same time,’’ Reich told his captive audience, “we can share an excitement and an enthusiasm about the team that we have going forward and the journey ahead of us. Ultimately, it isn’t how good any one player is. It’s not. It’s about how good we are as a team.’’
The past 36 hours were about Luck and his emotional decision to break the injury/pain/rehab cycle and “remove myself from football.’’
“Andrew did the right thing,’’ Reich said. “He did the right thing for himself, and he did the right thing for the team, knowing the requirement and the commitment that’s needed for the journey ahead.
“He did the courageous thing and he did the honorable thing.’’
But that was Saturday night. This was Monday afternoon.
It was time to reset and move forward.
From Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett was one of the first to learn of Luck’s franchise-shaking, city-shocking decision to walk away from the Colts and the NFL after seven seasons marred by too many injuries, too much pain and clearly too much rehab.
They found a room, shut the door and cried. There were light moments and laughs and the meeting ended with Luck flashing his goofy smile, but there were tears.
“It’s been that, a roller-coaster of emotions,’’ Brissett said. “The main thing is not being able to see Andrew every day. Today was kind of weird walking in and not seeing him, but that’s the thing to deal with.’’
Initially, Brissett was shocked as Luck shared his retirement decision. The two had grown close – will remain close “longer than the days of either one of our football careers,’’ Brissett said – since Ballard acquired Brissett in a September 2017 trade with the New England Patriots.
“Football brought us here,’’ Brissett said, adding his relationship with Luck began to develop due to the “similarities and playing quarterback. The relationship just grew organically. It just took off from there.
“We also had different upbringings, and that’s what I think brought us closer together. You just see that respect level on both sides helped form that friendship and that bond.’’
As the meeting wound down, there probably was another hug or two. More tears and laughs. It was clear Luck was at peace with his decision.
“No question,’’ he said. “He was like smiling at the end, and that’s what helped me gain clarity and understand the situation. I wish him the best. He knows that.’’
Brissett was aware of Luck’s determined yet draining rehab with the strained left calf and ankle injury. He was privy to every frustration his friend was dealing with.
“Not a chance,’’ Brissett said. “But that’s just the NFL. You never know when it’s your time or somebody else’s time; day-to-day.’’
So another Monday unfolded. Players had lunch, meandered through the locker room, pulled on their pads, talked with the media.
Like so many of them, T.Y. Hilton was asked to share his thoughts. If you had to list Luck’s closest friends on the team, it would include Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly, Jack Doyle, Brissett and Hilton. Luck and Hilton were part of the transformational draft class of 2012.
As was the case with Brissett, Hilton knew of Luck’s retirement long before it became official Saturday night.
“I’m his best friend, so of course,’’ he said while wearing a Stanford hat in recognition of Luck. “We had a heart-to-heart. Lot of emotion, lot of cries, lot of ‘I love you’s,’ lot of hugs.
— Chris Hagan (@ChrisHaganIndy) August 26, 2019
“I was all for it because when he’s in pain, I’m in pain.’’
The pain of parting with a close teammate lingers.
It’s been four or five days since Luck shared his decision with Hilton, “so I’m starting to get back to myself,’’ Hilton said. “I still cry every now and then, but I’ve just got to go out there and help my team.’’
Life goes on.
“Oh, yeah,’’ Hilton said. “That’s the nature of this business. We understand that as players.’’
Added Doyle: “Whether it’s an injury or whatever it is – a retirement – the league just keeps going. Everyone knows that that’s in it or have been in it. That’s what we do.
“We go out and practice today.’’
Reich brought his “A’’ game to the team meeting. It was the right message for the right occasion. His team had just been punched in the gut.
But the team’s fan base also was reeling. How, everyone wondered, would this team recover after losing its franchise quarterback two weeks before the Sept. 8 season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers?
Again, Reich had a message, one based in a metaphor he first used last year regarding climbing Mount Everest.
“Let me assure Colts fans of this: this team’s not done climbing,’’ he said. “In fact, we’re just getting ready. We’re just getting started and we can’t wait. Just feel like Chris and his people have done an unbelievable job of assembling a team of players that this locker room is special.
“There is a character quality and a passion for this game and for this city and what the horseshoe represents that is special. We believe that our players will rise to that challenge and that occasion. We’re ready for the journey ahead.’’
Clearly not a normal day.
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