Colts QB is leaving the NFL at the top of his game.

By RICK CLEVELAND,

It was so shocking because it happens so seldom: An NFL superstar retiring at the top of his game.

Andrew Luck's retirement this past weekend from the Indianapolis Colts caught the football world off guard for so many reasons:

• Luck is one of the best in the world at what he did.

• He leaves as much as half a billion dollars on the table.

• He probably will have to write his team, the Indianapolis Colts, a huge check.

• He has long been considered a football nerd. His dad is Oliver Luck, a former pro football quarterback himself. Oliver Luck, the dad, grew up in the football hotbed of Cleveland. Andrew Luck played his high school football in Houston, where the sport is close to religion.

Most American men would give anything to have what Luck had. And now he gives it all up in what should the prime of his career. He turns 30 on Sept. 12.

This is professional football, so first we talk about the money. He has made just over $97 million in his first seven years in the NFL. And that's not even close to what he stood to make over the remainder of his career. He might have to pay as much as $25 million back to the Colts. That would still mean a net of $72 million for seven years work. He'll get by.

But that's relative peanuts compared to what he might have made had he played as long as Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, two guys with whom he is often compared.

Colts owner Jim Irsay believes that Luck could have made as much as $500 million over the remainder of his career had he signed two more multi-year contracts that now bring in as much as $40 million a year and are still escalating.

Young fans have nothing with which to compare Luck's situation. Who gives up a chance to make that kind of money?

Slightly older fans will remember when now 51-year-old Barry Sanders retired from the Detroit Lions after the 1998 season at age 30.

He had run for more than 1,100 yards in each of his 10 seasons. He went out having gained nearly 1,500 yards on a career high 343 carries in 1998. He was in the league for 10 seasons and made the Pro Bowl for 10 seasons.

And then he quit – healthy, at the top of his game. Sanders was one of the best players for one of the worst teams. His agent asked for the Lions to trade him. The Lions wouldn't, so he quit.

Older fans – those of my vintage – will remember the even more amazing case of Jim Brown, who certainly is in the first sentence of any conversation about the greatest player to ever play the sport. This was way back in 1966.

Brown was Superman in pads and the game's greatest superstar with the Cleveland Browns. Here's how the Associated Press dispatch announcing Brown's retirement read:

“LONDON (AP)—Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, of the National Football League, the leading ground-gainer in pro football history, will announce his retirement today. The 30- year-old fullback will make the announcement at a news conference here, where he is making a motion picture. Although Brown still has one year to go on a two-year contract at a salary reported to be $60,000-plus a year, he has decided to step out at the top of his career.”

Brown was making the movie “The Dirty Dozen” when he announced he was quitting football. I am guessing learning lines and acting seemed a lot easier way to make money than being the most marked man in a most violent sport.

He was the best player in the sport, at the top of his game. And, even then, he was making but 60 grand a year. My how times and salaries have changed.

Brown and Sanders retired relatively healthy – not so with Luck, whose career has been marked by serious injuries: torn ribs cartilage, partially torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney (he peed blood); at least one concussion, a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and calf and ankle injuries.

His career has included much sitting, much rehab, much pain. Unlike Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Brees and many others who have returned from career-threatening injuries, Luck didn't think it was worth it.

He has been – and will be – derided by many. Not me.

Rick Cleveland is a Hattiesburg native and an award-winning sports columnist in Mississippi. Email Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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