Being a friend and college teammate of Andrew Luck didn’t give Zach Ertz any sort of premonition or early notice.
“I feel just like everyone else. I was watching the Miami-Florida game [Saturday night], it comes on the bottom of the screen,” the Eagles’ tight end said Sunday. “I called our boys [mutual friends] and I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I was shocked.”
The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist with whom Ertz spent three years at Stanford, who would call him on offseason Saturday evenings to go run pass patterns instead of looking for a party, was hard to reconcile with the tearful fellow who stood at a lectern in a thrown-together news conference Saturday night after the Colts’ preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
This Andrew Luck, still a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday, spoke of an “unceasing, unrelenting” cycle of injury and rehab that had “taken my joy of this game away.”
Ertz touched base with his former quarterback right away, he said, but he wasn’t expecting a quick answer.
“I sent him a text [Saturday] night saying that I loved him and I was proud of him with this decision. As everyone knows, he’s not really big in technology. I’ll probably let this whole thing die down and then call him in about a week,” Ertz said.
Ertz and other Eagles, including former Colts defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, said Sunday that as surprised as they were, they didn’t find Luck’s decision difficult to understand. The NFL keeps the curtain drawn on the specifics of injuries; fans remain oblivious to players fighting through lonely hours of painful rehab, or sometimes trying to play a speedy, vicious game with their ability to protect themselves compromised.
“I kind of understand where he’s coming from … I wish nothing but the best for him. It didn’t shock me. I was there, I’d see him fighting through injuries to come back, how much work and time he put into it,” said Ridgeway, who was traded from the Colts to the Eagles in April.
“It's tough. It's tough,” said Eagles coach and former NFL quarterback Doug Pederson. “Obviously, you could tell through his comments [Saturday night] that he put [in] a lot of thought and a lot of conversation with family, friends, coaches, the owner, and it's a tough thing for him to be able to step away like that. But I hope he gets healthy, and wish him the best moving forward.”
“I think that’s kind of the way the NFL is right now, there’s probably going to be more guys retire earlier than later,” Ertz said. “It’s always good to leave a play early than a play too late in this game. There’s so much risk that I think comes along with this sport.”
Eagles center Jason Kelce, who turns 32 in November, has acknowledged he entertained thoughts of retirement before signing a three-year, $24.5 million contract extension this offseason.
“It sounds like he was enduring a lot and was kind of tired of it,” Kelce said. “I’m sure he has more than enough [money] to be happy with.”
Kelce was asked if he still had the same fire, after the injuries he has endured. He said “fire” wasn’t the issue.
“I think even Andrew probably has the same fire, it’s just that fire didn’t overmatch the pain that he had to endure,” Kelce said. “I’m the same guy that I always have been. I love going out there and playing ball. I love playing with the guys next to me, I love coming to work every single day. In that respect, I’m very much looking forward to playing another year.”
But nobody looks forward to chronic pain.
“I was surprised, because he’s still young, he still has some years left. But obviously, he’s had a lot of [injuries],” right tackle Lane Johnson said.
Has Johnson, 29, who endured an MCL tear and a high ankle sprain on his left leg last season, thought about retiring?
“I’ve thought about it, and then I’ve thought, ‘What else would I do?’ I may be coming in here with y’all one day,” Johnson said. “It just gets monotonous doing the same stuff day in and day out. … But at the same time, you realize that you’re lucky to even be here.”
The idea that Luck had reached the end of his ability to endure was so foreign to Ertz’s memory of his teammate.
“In the offseason, in 6 a.m. workouts, it would be tight ends and quarterbacks [competing against each other]. With me and Andrew off the field, it was always relaxed and very supportive, but in those situations, we were extremely competitive,” Ertz said.
Sometimes in those competitions, Ertz said, players would alternate letting the other win. He and Luck did not do that.
“With us, we were trying to go at each others’ throats for two hours, at 6 a.m. in the morning. We were so competitive with one another, I think it really helped both of us. And Saturdays in the offseason, I’d get calls, like 5 p.m., ‘Hey, what are you doing? Let’s go run routes.’ It would just be the two of us on the field at Stanford, throwing.
“He was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. One of the best people I’ve ever been around, and definitely one of the most talented.”
Luck made a previous shocking decision, in 2011. Despite being projected as the top pick in the upcoming NFL draft, he decided to stay at Stanford another year. That one did not surprise teammates, Ertz said.
“At Stanford, we’d be in the locker room and there’d be stuff on the TVs about him all the time – all the hype about whether he was going to win the Heisman, or come out early, and he would literally go up to the TVs and turn them off. It wasn’t ever about him. He just wanted it to be about the team. … He never cared about himself as an individual or how he was viewed on the outside.