In the annals of football history, foul-tempered fans have provided more than a few moments of immense ugliness. In 1999, for example, Philadelphia Eagles fans cheered as injured Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin was carted off the field with a career-ending neck injury. In 2001, disgruntled Browns fans (there are no gruntled ones) littered their team’s field with beer bottles after a botched call by officials.
This past Saturday, Indianapolis added its own moment to the half of infamy. During the Colts’ third preseason game, Adam Schefter announced on Twitter that Andrew Luck, the team’s 29-year-old star quarterback, would be announcing his retirement after struggling with a series of injuries over the past four years. News of Luck’s stunning retirement began to ricochet off the walls of Lucas Oil Stadium. In response, a number of fans began raining down boos upon their beloved quarterback as he trotted off the field for the last time.
This was a profoundly ugly moment for the city. It was also profoundly uncharacteristic of Colts fans. Indianapolis, for those who’ve never visited, can best be described as the Chick-fil-A of American cities.
Indianapolis is efficient: it takes 15 minutes to get from the stadium to your car to the interstate after a game. It’s clean: enjoy a lovely stroll on the Canal next time you’re in town. Most importantly, the citizens of Indianapolis are stunningly polite, especially with sports.
When the Packers come to town, we don’t look down upon seemingly adult human beings wearing chunks of plastic cheese on their heads. When the Ravens descend on our city, we bless the hearts of embittered Baltimorians who will never forgive Robert Irsay for moving the Colts to Indiana in the middle of the night after the city threatened to steal his team. When Tom “Tormenter of Hoosiers” Brady takes the field in Indy, we pray the imprecatory psalms against him, but silently.
Until the NFL plants an expansion team in Salt Lake City, you will not find a kinder group of fans than the blue-bleeders of Naptown. Why, then, did scores of normally well-mannered Colts fans treat their quarterback with such cruelty Saturday night, especially after Luck spent several years giving them his best at the expense of his long-term health? To understand this uncharacteristic ugliness, consider the following analogy.
Dreams Repeatedly Dashed
A man meets a woman afflicted with a deadly disease. Even though doctors have given her a 5 percent chance of surviving the year, the man marries the woman, convincing himself that she’ll be fine. She dies on the honeymoon.
After a few months of heartbreak, the man then meets another woman with the same disease and approximately the same odds of survival. The man convinces himself that, this time, things will be different. They fall in love and get married. She dies six weeks later. Next year, same scenario. He kisses the bride. She dies. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If we knew such a man, we would rebuke him for making such a foolish emotional investment year after year. We would pull our hair out in response to his idiotic habit of giving his heart to a union that is almost certainly going to end in heartbreak. Yet this is what every sports fan does every year.
Hopes and Dreams that Cannot Come True
When our parents first sat us on their knees and taught us the concept of first and ten, when they bought us our first jerseys and led us in our first chants, they pointed to the field and said, “That is your team, son. Love her. Marry her.” And so we did.
But then she died. Either she died before the playoffs even began or she died on wild card weekend or she died during the championship game. Either way, she broke our hearts. But a few months later, we’d mended those organs with a dose of self-deception and were ready to love again.
“This year, things will be different,” we told ourselves. “The experts are wrong, corrupted with East Coast bias or some other judgment-compromising condition. This year, our draft picks will pan out. This year, our new defensive scheme will produce results. This year, our bride will live.”
Then she died five minutes into the first quarter of the first game when our quarterback was lost for the season with a knee injury. “Ah, well, maybe she’ll live next year.”
From Hope to Despair Is Such a Short Trip
Such was the saga of the Andrew Luck era in Indianapolis. It began with hope. Three 11-5, playoff-bound seasons, getting one step closer to the Super Bowl each time. Then came the demoralizing injury-plagued seasons, where Luck repeatedly left bits of his ribs, abdomen, kidney, head, and shoulder on the field trying to carry the garbage roster, courtesy of then-General Manager Ryan Grigson’s staggering draft day incompetence.
But in the second half of last season, everything began to turn around. After a 1-5 start, the team rebounded to finish the season 11-5 and made it to the second round of the playoffs.
The playoff loss to Kansas City was deflating, but the people of Indianapolis were filled with hope. Yes, our bride was dead, but next year, finally, the next incarnation of that beautiful woman was finally going to survive.
We didn’t need to fool ourselves into thinking that Trent Richardson was finally going to reverse his historical-bust-trajectory anymore. We didn’t need to convince ourselves that the coach behind one of the worst plays in NFL history had figured out how to become Bill Walsh in the offseason. We didn’t have to settle for wishful thinking. It was real this time.
“The Colts are going to win the Super Bowl,” we were telling ourselves every day from the end of last season until Saturday evening. “Andrew Luck, the best quarterback in the game, has at least seven more years of elite play. He finally has a top-tier GM. He finally has a capable head coach. He has perhaps the best offensive line in football, and a growling, angry defense, hungrier than ever to give him the ball. Luck, the quarterback we chose over Peyton Manning, is finally going to do what Peyton Manning couldn’t. He’s going to bring Indianapolis multiple championships. He’s going to turn us into the next NFL dynasty. And it all starts now.”
Pop Goes the Luck Balloon
As the new season approached, we saw our bride walking down the aisle, looking healthy and strong, and we joyously told ourselves, “She is not going to die at the end of the regular season this year. She’s not going to die on wild card weekend. She’s not going to die another brutal, snow-covered death in Foxboro. She’s going to live this year, and the next year, and the next.”
Then she left us at the altar. She didn’t die. She didn’t breathe her last in our arms. She quit before the ceremony even got started.
So, was it indefensible, vile, reprehensible, stupid, classless, and thankless for Colts fans to show such hostility to a man who gave them such profound joy since 2012? Absolutely. But was it understandable? Of course.
Luck’s shock departure is perhaps the most hope-dashing retirement in NFL history—more so than Jim Brown’s or Barry Sanders’s. Luck was the cornerstone of a Super Bowl-bound team. He was helming a team that was nearly at the peak of the mountain. And two weeks before the start of the most promising season in recent Colts history, in the middle of a preseason game, Luck essentially pointed to Super Bowl glory and told Colts fans, “You can’t have that anymore.”
The Idol We Made of Andrew Luck
Granted, the actual Luck wasn’t saying that. Rather, those were the words we heard from the mouth of the fantasy Andrew Luck—the one who has no humanity, the one who exists only to enthrall us with his athletic exploits, the one who is duty-bound to crack his skull and explode his spleen for our amusement.
That Luck was supposed to heal the wounds of our personal failures by applying the balm of the Lombardi Trophy, patting us on the head and saying that “we” won it together. That Luck was supposed to reinforce us in the belief that we’ve been doing the right thing by prioritizing money and accomplishments over our family and our health. That Luck hadn’t given us what we deserved, so he was still in our debt, and therefore he deserved our ire for trying to declare bankruptcy via retirement.
As the saga of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis has shown us, our devotion to sports can inspire the best in us. It brings out the hopefulness of humans. It nurtures community pride, joy, kindness, honor, and love. But as the Ballad of the Neckbeard also shows, sports fandom also brings out the worst in us. It magnifies our selfishness, cruelty, and violent, rage-filled hearts, and our staggering, hypocritical idiocy.
The greatest way to avoid feeding this monster within us is, of course, to look to Christ, His blood, and His forgiveness. The more we look to the true God to fill our lives with true meaning and true joy, the less we’ll turn sports into an idol, which means we won’t be so inclined to toss cruelty and hatred at whichever athletes happen to prevent our puerile fantasies from becoming realities.
Colts Fans Can Do Better Next Time
But even if we can’t count on every boo-bird in Indianapolis to discover the peace of Christ, Luck at least deserves for the people of Indianapolis to rediscover their manners. As a proud Hoosier-in-exile, I trust that my former neighbors will do so, if given another chance.
The Colts’ home opener is not until week three of the NFL season. I hope that, by then, we Colts fans have seen through the fog of that initial, irrational stupidity that manifested on Saturday night. I hope we recognize that Luck owes us nothing. In fact, he’s already given us far more than we ever had any right to ask.
Likewise, I hope we realize that Luck prioritizing his long-term health, wife, and unborn child over the favor of fickle strangers is not just something we should understand. It’s something we should emulate. On September 22, I hope Colts owner Jim Irsay brings Luck onto the 50-yard line. I hope the mayor of Indianapolis gives him the key to the city, and I hope a sold-out Lucas Oil stadium shouts in unison, “You were always a real human being. You were never our fantasy bride-to-be. We’re sorry we treated you like one.”
Then I hope that the Colts lose the rest of their games, snag Tua Tagovailoa with the first pick in the draft, and finally marry a girl who won’t die before healing all of our woes with Super Bowl glory next year.