Bobby Ellis/Getty ImagesIf you want to understand why Andrew Luck, one of the game’s great young stars, walked away from football at the age of 29, you need to understand what’s happening with another player, one whose exit from football hasn’t gotten as much attention. Le’Ron McClain. His story, Luck’s story, and the stories of many thousands of former players are all intertwined. Just hours before Luck stood on a podium Saturday and told the football world he had no choice but to leave the NFL because football was wrecking his body, McClain went to social media and pleaded for help for a wrecked mind.”I have to get my head checked,” McClain tweeted. “Playing fullback since high school. Its takes too f–king much to do anything. My brain is f–king tired…@NFL I need some help with this s–t. Dark times and its showing. F–king help me please!! They don’t care I had to get lawyers man!”Need to tell my story of how my head is crazy and how football did it…. Please someone help me get this out the @NFL puts paperwork in our faces and thats it. Yes its programs f–k all that I need help now I need a plan….. F–k Man. They dont f–king get it man.”It was a public cry for help. And even if Luck didn’t indicate he’s had any such issues, you know this must have been a big part of why he left a sport he loves so early. It’s the fear of becoming McClain—maybe not McClain specifically, but the idea of him. It’s the fear of becoming like a legion of former players who can’t walk straight. Whose knees are gone. Whose brains are failing because of thousands of hits.Luck saw the constant pain he was in. And he’s seen how that pain can become irreparable—the kind of pain McClain and countless others now face. Why would he want any part of that? Michael Hickey/Getty Images”I’ve been in this cycle which feels like, I mean, it’s been four years of this injury, pain, rehab cycle, and for me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football,” Luck told the press. “… I can’t live the life that I want to live moving forward with this year. …”Part of my journey going forward will be getting out of pain and figuring out what’s going on and how to feel better.”The NFL grinds up players into pulp and spits them out. There is little compassion or care for them. What Luck did was decide he wouldn’t wait until the league had put him out by the curb for recycling.Luck is married and has a child on the way. He has money. He doesn’t want to be a former player who can’t pick up his child. He should be able to enjoy life.This isn’t Luck being soft or a millennial (yes, the latter was actually said by someone). This is about surviving football and then surviving life.Some in football can’t understand it because football is their life. But for Luck, his life is his life.One AFC general manager, after hearing the news, texted me and said, “This can’t be real, can it?”Bobby Ellis/Getty ImagesFootball is so consuming for most in the NFL that their reaction to someone walking away in their primes is disbelief. Also, in typical NFL fashion, the league continues to roll on despite this devastating news. And also in typical NFL fashion, there was joy from teams over Luck retiring. Not happiness over his injury, but happiness that they no longer had to compete against him.One AFC South team official texted that while he felt bad about Luck retiring, “the entire AFC South is dancing in the streets.”Some of you may not have seen Luck when he wasn’t as battered and broken. He was, in many ways, the 21st-century John Elway. He was exciting, an accurate passer and extremely athletic. He made four Pro Bowls and led the league in touchdown passes in 2014.His impact, however, went beyond the data. Luck was a genuine star in the league and gave hope to a Colts franchise that had been a laughingstock. Luck, quite simply, was a brilliant player who made the NFL better.The list of injuries Luck overcame read like something from an NFL dystopian novel:Zak Keefer @zkeeferPhysical toll on Andrew Luck through 6 NFL seasons:
» Torn cartilage in 2 ribs
» partially torn abdomen
» a lacerated kidney that left him peeing blood
» at least 1 concussion
» a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder
» and this mysterious calf/ankle issue that led to thisThe concussion is also the only one we know of. If you think Luck had just one concussion, you’re a fool.The four players that I covered who I saw take the most physical abuse are former Giants running back Rodney Hampton, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (who also retired at 29) and Luck.Behind the elegance and beauty of football is a horrific and brutal reality. Most of the time, that reality gets the best of players.Luck decided it wasn’t going to get the best of him. Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.