Calling it the “hardest decision” of his life but “the right decision" for him, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement Saturday night. His decision drew boos from many Colts fans, support from current NFL players and disbelief from observers across the country.

How could one of the best quarterbacks in the league choose to walk away at 29 years old? How could he leave hundreds of millions of dollars in potential future earnings on the table? Sure, Luck has earned close to $100 million so far. Even ignoring his enormous salary, though, fans wonder how a top athlete could turn his back on what they see as a dream job.

Unfortunately, it’s an easy answer. Injuries and pain versus health and joy. Luck has missed 26 games in his career, including the entire 2017 season. His list of injuries includes tears in his rib cartilage and abdomen, a kidney laceration, a concussion, a labral tear in his shoulder, and now, a calf strain, high ankle sprain and posterior impingement of his ankle.

Luck announces retirement following Colts loss to Bears

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws against the Houston Texans during an NFL playoff game in Houston last season. Luck announced his retirement on Saturday. File/AP 

Quite simply, Andrew Luck grew weary of hurting. The last few years of his short career were an unrelenting, never-stopping “cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab.”

The wear and tear on the four-time Pro Bowl player started early in Indianapolis. In his first three years, he was hit or sacked 352 times, about 60 times more than any other quarterback, according to NFL writer Scott Kacsman.

Even though he is calling it quits before age 30, Luck isn’t young in a football sense. As Ken Belson of the New York Times points out, Luck has played tackle football for two decades.

It’s more than just money that drives athletes to stay in the game. They’re competitive and want to win championships. They want to help their teammates succeed and to please their fans. They play on despite the toll it takes on their bodies.

The NFL and its numerous critics can debate whether football is getting safer, but there is no question about the long-term effects of the injuries, the hits, and the long seasons on players’ bodies. When I watch the NFL Hall of Fame inductions, I’m struck by how many of the former greats struggle to simply walk to the podium.

Fans don’t see the wear and tear on players during the season. TV cameras don’t show athletes painfully stepping into the whirlpool or onto the training table the day after games. They don’t see the mental anguish from around-the-clock pain after one injury, let alone injury after injury like Luck and so many players suffer.

In the days since Luck’s retirement, many have speculated that more players will follow his lead. I actually hope that is not the outcome of this announcement. Instead, I’d like to see the NFL make changes to take better care of the players so fewer of them need to ponder early retirement.

Rather than players taking narcotics and getting injections of painkillers to treat their pain, hopefully we can find ways to decrease the pain inflicted on them in the first place. Maybe the league can increase roster sizes so players are on the field for fewer plays each game. Maybe teams can offer mental health specialists to assist the players with the emotional challenges of their injuries.

Will more players be forced to choose between money and their health? Or will the league act to better protect the players and allow them to play the sport they love for many more years?

Editor’s note: Dr. David Geier is an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston and author of “That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.”

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