Sixteen months ago, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay experienced one of the most excruciating moments of his professional life. Sitting in a room with general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich, Irsay's stomach dropped as franchise quarterback Andrew Luck informed the power trio of his desire to retire.
"I sometimes wonder if that was just a bad dream I had," Irsay recalled Tuesday. "It's just very, very, very difficult."
A few weeks shy of his 30th birthday and coming off a season in which he'd earned his fourth Pro Bowl selection and been named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year after leading the Colts to a road playoff victory, Luck stunned his bosses -- and, soon after, the football world -- with the news that he'd abruptly chosen to walk away. At the time, just a couple of weeks before the start of the 2019 NFL season, Irsay seemed hopeful that Luck's decision wouldn't prove to be a permanent one. In a press conference announcing the move, Irsay referenced Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as athletes who'd made successful comebacks after stepping away and said of Luck doing something similar: "I don't rule it out."
Should Luck, now 31, choose to resume his career, Indy would retain his rights for two seasons under the terms of his existing contract. Yet, two starting quarterbacks later, with the Colts (8-4) tied with the Tennessee Titans atop the AFC South and closing in on another postseason appearance, Irsay sounds far more pessimistic about a potential Luck comeback.
"You know, I don't think so -- I really don't," Irsay said Tuesday, in an interview with NFL Media to reflect upon the 40th anniversary of John Lennon's death. "I think that door's closed."
Luck, who has since become a father -- he and his wife, Nicole, have a 1-year-old daughter named Lucy -- still has a house in the area and remains in contact with many of his former teammates and others in the organization. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft has given no indication to those close to him that he plans to resume his career -- at least, no one who has felt compelled to share. On Thursday, star receiver T.Y. Hilton was asked the question on Good Morning Football and answered: "Coming back? I don't know. He's pretty happy in retirement life. He's just enjoying it and enjoying it with his daughter, Lucy.
"I don't think we will (see him). He's just enjoying himself. I'm happy for him."
The question is especially intriguing because the Colts don't have a clear plan at the position for 2021 and beyond. Their current quarterback, 39-year-old Philip Rivers, signed a one-year, $25 million contract last March and will need offseason foot surgery. Backup Jacoby Brissett, who served as the team's starter in 2017 (which Luck spent on injured reserve after undergoing surgery to his throwing shoulder) and 2019 (having signed a two-year, $30 million extension before that season), will also be a free agent.
In recent days, there has also been speculation about a possible pursuit of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, whose benching (for second-round draft pick Jalen Hurts) was announced by Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson on Tuesday. Wentz, the second overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, has a strong relationship with Reich, who served as the Eagles' offensive coordinator during Wentz's first two NFL seasons. Should the Eagles make Wentz, whose current contract runs through 2024, available via trade, the Colts are viewed in league circles as a likely suitor.
In the meantime, Irsay is enjoying the team's chemistry under the leadership of Rivers, who has completed 68.1 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,263 yards and 18 touchdowns, along with nine interceptions. The longtime Chargers quarterback has been playing through a plantar plate rupture in his right foot, putting off surgery until after the season.
Indy, which eked out a 26-20 victory over the Houston Texans last weekend after recovering a fumbled snap in the final two minutes -- with Houston 2 yards from a potential go-ahead touchdown -- faces a pivotal road test Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders (7-5), who, like the Colts, are in the mix for a wild-card spot in the AFC.
"It's just such a great group of guys," Irsay said, "the blend of these young, outstanding players kinda getting to know Philip Rivers, who's just -- I think, if it's possible -- underestimated on his leadership and toughness. His guys rally around him; I mean, everyone loves that guy. We'll see what happens. We've got four more, and it was a little too close for comfort in that Houston game, man. It was like Maradona: I think it was the Hand of God that knocked the ball out."
Luck, of course, knows all about playing through pain. He retired while suffering from an ankle injury, the latest ailment to plague him over a four-season span during which he contended with numerous shoulder issues, a kidney laceration and fractured ribs. "This is not an easy decision. Honestly, it's the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me," Luck told reporters after announcing his retirement.
"I've been stuck in this process," Luck said two Augusts ago. "I haven't been able to live the life I want to live. It's taken the joy out of this game ... the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I've been in."
The timing of the decision proved to be a gut check for the organization. Not surprisingly, the Colts slipped to 7-9 in 2019.
"You know, I don't think so -- I really don't. I think that door's closed." Colts owner Jim Irsay, on the possibility of Andrew Luck returning
"That was tough," Irsay said. "I just give Frank and Chris Ballard so much credit. All three of us said, 'Hey, there's no crying in football; this is time to pick it up, and this is where leaders lead.' And so I think you throw it on your back as a leader and take it upon you to keep marching up that hill.
"You really understand that when you try to define what is a champion, it's really about overcoming adversity. That almost defines it, period. It's not about just when things go your way and you're so gifted, and, 'Yeah, I work hard' -- no, it's going against adversity, and I mean really the type of adversity that shakes you and rocks you and questions everything that you believe in, yet you still stay true to what you believe in and overcome that."
Irsay believes the decision Luck made 16 months ago isn't likely to be reversed.
"I mean, anything's possible, and he's still friends with the organization, and we all still have contact with him," Irsay said. "Some of the guys, like (left tackle) Anthony Castonzo or T.Y. know a lot more than some of the newer guys. But look, he was a great player and everyone has to go down the path they think is right for them and their family, and you always respect that.
"So, I love Andrew, I wish him well. He's raising his daughter, Lucy, and I just hope for him to have an incredible life and that sort of thing. But I don't see it coming back around. If it did, then great, that'd be a great story. You know, Jordan was gone for two years and then back.
"But it seems a lot longer. I can't personally believe that it's only a year and a half ago that it happened. I mean, it seems like five years ago, it really does ... a long time ago. So I don't really see that being a possibility, but you never know."