The game ‘wears on you’: Former Utah Ute great Scott Mitchell feels Andrew Luck’s pain
In the wake of Andrew Luck’s retirement, former QB Scott Mitchell recalls the brutal challenges of football’s glamor position.
SALT LAKE CITY — Scott Mitchell is 51 years old now and talks about sports on KSL radio for a living, but in another lifetime he was a quarterback in the National Football League. He played in 103 games during an 11-year career, and he feels every one of them in his bones, as do so many of his gridiron peers.
He played in a charity golf tournament recently and every swing was painful. His back hurts. So do his knees. “I love to play golf, but it’s not enjoyable now,” he says. “Golf is something you’re supposed to be able to do later in life. It’s a hard thing. My kids play golf.”
The accumulation of the blows and thousands of sprints and passes began to catch up with him two to three years ago. He tore the meniscus in both knees in the annual alumni flag football game at the University of Utah — first one and then the other a year later. Surgery followed. That was the end of flag football for him. So there it is: Even the sedate pursuits of flag football and golf are too much on a body prematurely aged by football.
Mitchell thought of all this when Andrew Luck recently made the stunning announcement that he was retiring from the NFL at the age of 29 because of the toll that injuries have taken on him physically and mentally.
“It wears on you,” says Mitchell, who played for Miami, Detroit, Baltimore and Cincinnati from 1991 to 2001 after three seasons at the University of Utah and three seasons at Springville High.
Mitchell winces when he hears people say that the quarterback position is the glory position, as if it were protected from all the nasty stuff that football is renowned for. He remembers something that former teammate Dan Marino once told him: “Anyone who lines up under center is tough. It takes courage.”
Imagine if you were given a ball and told to stand 5 yards away from a herd of large, athletic men who, at your signal, would sprint to you and throw you to the ground as rapidly as possible. Not only do many of them outweigh you by 100 pounds, but they’re faster than you, and the only thing between you and them are teammates who attempt to block the barbarians at the gate while backpedaling and no holding is allowed. You have about three seconds to stand there in the midst of chaos looking for someone to whom you can throw the ball before they get you.
“Quarterback is the only position on the field that can’t defend himself,” says Mitchell. “The crowd follows the football and doesn’t see what happens. He gets hit after every throw. When I really got nervous was when the linemen were running faster than I did. You can run fast on fear, but … You just get beat up. It takes a toll. After a Sunday game, it was, like, Thursday when I started to feel like, OK, I can play next week. It was a month after the season that I started to finally feel halfway normal.”
He had bruises all over his body the day after a game, one of which turned purplish black and ran from his hip to halfway down his leg. He had sprained ankles, a broken wrist and a torn AC joint in his shoulder. As the starting quarterback for the Lions, Mitchell was running down the field in a playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals when a tackler closed rapidly. “I remember seeing the whites of his eyes,” says Mitchell. “He hit me helmet to helmet.” He remembers nothing else until he woke in a hospital four to five hours later.
“Here you are in the prime of your career, you’ve got a good team that turned the corner last year, you’ve got the coach, you’re an MVP candidate. To give all that up — that would be hard.” — Scott Mitchell
Mitchell was normally a more stationary, pocket passer who rarely ran the ball. Luck was a physical, athletic player who would run upfield and take on tacklers. “For a guy like Andrew Luck, he lived 10 lifetimes,” says Mitchell. “He was more of a stick-his-nose-in-it quarterback. He took a lot of shots. That wears you down quickly. You don’t see a lot of running backs who last long in the NFL.”
Luck collected a number of injuries and missed the entire 2017 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Luck’s injuries include one (known) concussion, a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, a lacerated kidney, a partially torn abdominal muscle, torn cartilage in his ribs, and ongoing calf and ankle issues. For Luck it wasn’t worth the $400 to $500 million that he gave up in future estimated earnings.
Much has been made of the fact that several players at various positions have retired early in recent years either because of injuries or a fear of injuries, especially to the head. Luck is the first at his position to do so, and he is retiring in an era in which an unprecedented number of older quarterbacks are on the field: Tom Brady (42), Drew Brees (40), Eli Manning (38), Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers (37). All would be described as more traditional pocket passers.
“With all the money available and the technology and the rules changes, they have it a lot better from a physical standpoint than we did,” says Mitchell.
In recent years, many rules have been enacted to protect players, especially quarterbacks, from injury. There also has been a drastic reduction in the number of practices and the amount of contact in practice.
“That’s $400 million he’s walking away from,” says Mitchell. “I have to believe it’s an excruciating decision (for Luck). It’s a choice between winning the lottery or having quality of life. (Football) happens only a short time. Exhaust it to the nth. It would be tough to end it at that age and in the position he’s in. (Colts head coach) Frank Reich is the best coach there is for a quarterback. He’s going to put him in the best position to succeed. There aren’t many of those guys. Here you are in the prime of your career, you’ve got a good team that turned the corner last year, you’ve got the coach, you’re an MVP candidate. To give all that up — that would be hard.”
As for Mitchell, despite the violence of the game and the knee and back pain, he says, “There’s nothing like it in the world. I loved my experience. The good, bad and ugly. I miss it every day.”