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Retirement spares Luck inglorious ending

The sports world went apoplectic last Saturday evening when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement after seven seasons. He was battling a nagging calf injury throughout training camp and exhibition games, and given his history of past injuries, including one which kept him out during the entire 2017 season, it was totally understandable.

By stepping away 19 days shy of his 30th birthday, Luck is going to be able to help his children (his wife is pregnant with their first child) play sports. He’s going to be able to help his family build a dream house if they haven’t already. He’s going to save the NFL a heck of a lot of disability payments, because he isn’t going to have nearly the dire conditions many of his contemporaries will be facing.

Luck is going to be in the NFL in some capacity, either as a broadcaster or an executive. He’s not going to let that Stanford degree go to waste. I’m sure all of the networks are eyeing him for 2020. I could see him joining Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland in the ESPN Monday Night Football booth. Or maybe Cris Collinsworth decides to hang it up and Luck slides in next to Al Michaels on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

By hanging it up when he did, Luck saved himself the embarrassment two former Colt quarterbacks suffered, and the embarrassment a third avoided.

Johnny Unitas was, in my opinion, one of the two greatest quarterbacks to grace the National Football League. Sammy Baugh is the other.

Unitas was the NFL when he led the Baltimore Colts to NFL championships in 1958 and ’59. He continued his greatness into the 1960s, then bookended his career by helping the Colts win Super Bowl V in 1970.

In 1972, new Colts general manager Joe Thomas and new owner Bob Irsay ordered Don McCafferty, who coached Baltimore to victory over Dallas two years prior, ordered Unitas to be benched in favor of Marty Domres, who was acquired from the Chargers during the offseason. McCafferty refused and was immediately fired. Unitas was benched by interim coach John Sandusky. He remained on the bench save for brief appearances in December games, when the Colts were assured of their first losing season since 1956.

Unitas was not going to be back in Baltimore for 1973. After 17 seasons in Baltimore, the prudent thing would have been for Johnny U to hang up his black hi-tops and ride off gracefully into the sunset.

Sadly, Unitas felt he could still play at 40. So the Colts dealt him to the Chargers, where San Diego coach Harland Svare was assembling the NFL’s old folks home. Unitas joined fellow great Deacon Jones in California, as well as a draftee out of Oregon.

Unitas was well over the hill. His tenure in San Diego was an unmitigated disaster. The Chargers finished 2-11-1, and it was later revealed many players were using marijuana. The only good thing to come out of Unitas’ season with the Chargers was the rapid ascension of Dan Fouts, the rookie who set NFL records piloting Air Coryell in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Unitas’ replacement was Bert Jones, drafted second overall out of LSU in 1973 (the Saints owned the pick, but traded it to Baltimore for defensive end Billy Newsome). Jones won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1976 and led the Colts to three consecutive AFC East championships.

By 1981, he had been beaten to a bloody pulp behind a Swiss cheese offensive line. The fact the Colts’ defense had more holes than Swiss cheese forced Jones to throw 50 times a game, wearing out his arm faster than it should have.

When Frank Kush became the Colts’ coach in early 1982, his first move was to dump Jones. Fortunately for him, the Rams were in need of a quarterback after Vince Ferragamo jumped to the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, and a trade was worked out.

Jones won the starting job in training camp, but the injury bug bit again. Ferragamo was back in Los Angeles after the Alouettes were forced into bankruptcy, and after the 1982 strike which reduced the season from 16 games to 9, Ferragamo took the job and kept it. Jones retired after the season.

Kush replaced Jones with Art Schlichter, drafting the Ohio State star fourth overall in 1982. Too bad Schlichter liked gambling more than football. The Colts then bounced from quarterback to quarterback (Mike Pagel, Chris Chandler, Jack Trudeau, Jeff George, Jim Harbaugh) before drafting some guy out of Tennessee first overall in 1998.

Peyton Manning, the Colts starting quarterback from 1998-2010, suffered a serious neck injury and was forced to miss all of 2011. When the Colts went 2-14 and secured the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, they knew they would be selecting Luck as soon as he declared for the draft.

Manning went to Denver, but instead of facing the same fate as Unitas and Jones, resurrected his career, winning MVP honors in 2013 by throwing 55 touchdown passes. He closed his career by defeating the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Fortunately, we will never have to witness the grotesque sight of Luck in a uniform other than the Colts. Manning is the exception, not the rule.

The Saints have had their share of geezers who didn’t know when to quit. Jimmy Taylor, Ken Stabler and Earl Campbell all come to mind, and don’t forget Paul Hornung was selected by the Saints in the expansion draft but retired before ever playing a game. Doug Atkins defied the odds and had three stellar seasons in New Orleans, capping a 17-year career which landed him in the Hall of Fame.

Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform may have been the worst. Nobody would have blamed him if he had called it quits after surpassing Walter Payton’s career rushing record. Payton never lowered himself to the humiliation of another team after 13 seasons with the Bears. Neither did Jim Brown.

Athletes don’t want to be viewed as quitters. In this case, Luck wasn’t a quitter. Quite the opposite. He was man enough to admit it was time for him to walk away.

I hope the Colts do not give any angry fans refunds on their tickets. Fans cannot and should not gripe about a particular player retiring or otherwise being injured. That’s sports.