by Joe Casey
Can an elite athlete’s early retirement give clues on how to retire? I woke up extra early on Sunday morning and was surprised to learn that Andrew Luck, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts had suddenly announced his retirement the night before. At age 29. News of his retirement leaked on Twitter during the team’s preseason game. Instead of informing his teammates after the game as planned, Luck held a hastily arranged press conference, which was originally targeted for Sunday. His press conference was emotional and heartbreaking at times as he explained what was the “hardest decision of his life”.
Luck explained that he was worn down by the repetitive cycles of injury and rehab over the past four years. He concluded that it was preventing him from living the life he wanted to lead.
“This is not an easy decision. Honestly, it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me. For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football.”
There has been a range of reactions. Luck was soundly booed by Colts fans as he left the field. One sports commentator tweeted that “Retiring cause rehabbing is ‘too hard’ is the most millennial thing ever”.
At first blush, the early retirement of an elite highly paid athlete may not appear to have much relevance to your retirement planning. Upon further review, these seven lessons can leave you better positioned for your own retirement decisions:
In the NFL, a top quarterback who’s 29 and about to turn 30, is in the prime of his career. But Tom Brady aside, NFL careers are remarkably short, lasting 3.3 years on average; 4.4 years for quarterbacks; and 11.4 years for players with at least one Pro Bowl appearance, according to Statistita.com. Luck played 6 seasons with one season missed completely due to a shoulder injury. Think about what the equivalent would be in your profession. For many professions, this would be like retiring in your early 40’s.
Luck spoke about the clarity he reached in considering his decision. In pondering his future, he considered the physical and mental toll his job was taking. Luck shared that his injuries had created a vicious cycle: “I’ve been stuck in this process. I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. (It’s) taken the joy out of the game”. These are two useful things to consider. Do you still love what you do? What’s the toll your job is taking?
A sizeable percentage of people are forced to retire early for health reasons or to care for a family member. According to surveys by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 48 percent of retirees leave earlier than planned. It’s wise to factor this into your retirement planning so you have the flexibility to retire due to unforeseen circumstances beyond your control.
In Luck’s case, he’s earned over $80 million in his career. While that’s not relatable, everything is ultimately relative. Deciding to retire early in any profession means that you’re walking away from a projected future income. There are certainly many things that are more important than money and health tops the list. Is your financial planning positioning you to walk away when you decide it’s time?
Luck has a degree in Architectural Design from Stanford and has shown many interests outside of football, including my personal favorite, the Andrew Luck Book Club. If you’re still working, dedicate some time to personal pursuits outside of work. The ‘all-in’ work culture today makes this challenging, but you’ll be glad that you did.
I was struck by how Luck talked about his past and present teammates, highlighting their working relationships, shared struggles, victories, and friendships. It was a reminder of how important workplace relationships can be – and a reminder of how they’ll need to be cultivated and often replaced in retirement. I was most impressed by how many people in the Colts organization he spoke about and thanked, at all levels from the owner to the equipment staff. It’s a good note to keep in mind when you’re planning to retire.
It doesn’t appear that Luck has a specific plan for what’s next, which is not uncommon for early retirees. There’s already speculation that he may unretire, as approximately 25% in the “real world” do. In the immediate term, he intends to focus on getting his body and his health right. He stressed that he and his family love living in Indianapolis and see it as their home. He talked about how unsure he was about being around the team as he worked on his rehab at the Colts facility.
Many people want to focus on wellness following a stressful and strenuous career. The key takeaway is to become comfortable with uncertainty and focus on the immediate next steps and build your next chapter one step at a time.
It takes a lot of courage when you’re at the top of your profession to make the call to walk away early. Andrew Luck displayed the courage to focus on his true priorities and move forward. There will undoubtedly be many adjustments and opportunities ahead.
I applaud Andrew Luck’s thought process and admire his decision.
Joe Casey is a former senior HR executive at Merrill Lynch, who’s created a second career as a retirement coach. He holds a Masters in Gerontology from the University of Southern California and, as a retirement coach and Designing Your Life coach, he helps people discover What’s Next after their primary career.