Toward the end of August, Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old quarterback for the Colts, announced his retirement. He’s not retiring from everything – just the NFL. He told a reporter last March, “Honestly, I think I could be very happy teaching high school history.” In his announcement, Luck said,
"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 been 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.
"I've been stuck in this process. I haven't been able to live the life I want to live. Taken the joy out of the game, and after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again. I find myself in a similar situation and the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I’ve been in.”
He was booed for it by fans. He was insulted on social media. He was called weak. Some of his detractors insisted he just plain lacked the commitment to stick it out through the pain that comes with a football career.
His resignation speech actually confirmed that he was choosing between mutually exclusive paths. You cannot be a truly great quarterback if you don’t give it your all. He said,
“I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”
When he realized he was not ready to do that, he stepped back. He chose his prior commitments as a human being that would be impossible to fulfill if his health is totally wrecked. No amount of cheering from the stands and no amount of money could compensate for that.
That is the kind of commitment that Jesus looks for. It isn’t that he wants people to despise or reject their families when he says,
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]
He means that for his disciples, he has to come first. It is just that kind of relationship. And since his major command to his followers is to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself, their love for him is going to show in how they relate to God and to people. It is going to become complex. I guarantee that.
Jesus told his disciples that they should consider what it means to follow him, because discipleship, living as his follower, is one of those all-or-nothing decisions. It means that you may have to turn aside from other commitments in order to do what he asks. Discipleship means that following Jesus is your priority. You look at your commitments, and honor what is honorable, but when there is a conflict, you go with him. You may even need to say, “No,” to things that have a lot of good attached to them. You may even need to say, “No,” to sports when they decide to push Jesus aside.
Some relationships, by their nature, are all-or-nothing. The most obvious, for us, is marriage, but it wasn’t always that way. In Ephesians 5, Paul goes directly against the norms of Roman and Greek society when he insists that not only should a wife be faithful to her husband, a husband must also be faithful to his wife. The prevailing social attitude was that “boys will be boys” but that was not going to be the way within Christianity. Because he saw human relationships as (at least ideally) reflecting the relationship between God and humanity, and in its fullest between Christ and the Church, it has to be whole-hearted and, again, all-or-nothing.
Discipleship is not a “what-if” matter. It is an entire way of life and plays out in a lifetime of concrete choices. Jesus’ call does not leave us on the sidelines. It sends us into the scrimmage where choices get made. A lot of those depend on being able and willing to look seriously at the world and ask what is authentic and what is not. Jesus often speaks a truth that is uncomfortable but, if heard, makes us better.
Let’s go back to Andrew Luck’s resignation statement again. He may actually improve other players’ lives by pointing out the destructive side of the sport, “this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason”. It’s a reality that, for whatever reason, we have until recently ignored. One of the few female sportswriters that I know of, Natalie Egenolf, wrote about this:
“Since when does anyone in any profession (outside of joining the military) knowingly agree to potentially severely damage not only their physical body but their mind?
Athletes are conditioned to believe they must not show weakness, that in order to be a ‘true man’ they must sacrifice everything for the ultimate glory of being champion.”
Jesus’ whole life calls human assumptions into question. Love our enemies? Really? Turn the other cheek? Are you serious?
To follow Jesus means taking on his assessment of life, and to live it his way. He’s plain about that.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:27]
When we become devoted to money, to popularity, to fame, to the rush that comes from opioids or any other chemical substance; when we get caught up in the demands of prestige and the need to keep up appearances, or whatever your particular temptation may be (because everyone has their own), sooner or later Jesus is going to say, Hey!
“none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” [Luke 14:33]
But I am convinced that he does that so that our possessions don’t come to possess us.
Matthew gives a version of this same passage from Luke that puts matters this way:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [Matthew 10:37-39]
There are plenty of football players and even coaches who have a strong and healthy faith, and I know nothing about Andrew Luck’s spiritual life. But I do feel confident making at least one prediction about his future, which is that if he does teach high school history he will do well. For my part, I feel like he has taught me a good lesson, and I have been out of school for awhile, now.
And I also predict that anyone whom Jesus tells to take up the ball and run with it will cross the goal line and maybe even get a chance to do a little victory dance in the end zone.