Twelve men who made their mark on football departed in 2019—some tragically, some dramatically, some in the normal course of football events. (Actually, there were many more than 12. This list could be three times that. Twelve who stood out to me:
Andrew Luck retires at 29. At 9:29 p.m. on Aug. 24, Adam Schefter tweeted that Luck would retire immediately. One of Luck’s closest football friends, Matt Hasselbeck, said, “I thought Adam got hacked.” That’s how much this retirement shocked the world. But should it have? For about 42 of the 47 months prior to his announcement, dating back to a shoulder injury in September 2015, football meant pain to Andrew Luck. “It’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and off-season . . . Taken the joy out of the game. And after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I will not go down that path again,” he said. Five days before the retirement, he walked into owner Jim Irsay’s office and didn’t say he was thinking of retiring. He said it was over; he was retiring. “My mind’s made up,” he said. Luck left a good $200 million in future earnings on the table, but he didn’t care. Still doesn’t apparently. I’m told he’s had very few thoughts of playing again, ever.
Rob Gronkowski retires at 30. Gronk’s career average catch: 15.1 yards. Tyreek Hill’s career average catch: 14.6 yards. One of the most amazing things about the 2019 season is the Patriots never replaced Gronk—the free-agent class was stripped bare by the time he retired March 24—and were an offensive shell of themselves, and went 12-4 this fall with a 42-year-old quarterback and a make-it-up-as-you-go-along receiving corps. As with Luck, there’s no indication that Gronk the Wildman will ever play football again.
Bart Starr (1934-2019) dies. He won the last nine playoff games he ever played, including three NFL championship games and the first two Super Bowls. Touchdown passes in those games: 14. Interceptions: 3. One of the classiest players in NFL history, he signed every autograph meticulously, as though he were trying to win a penmanship contest. I asked him about that late in life. “Why would you want to do it any other way?” he said. “That’s the only way I know.”
Ron Rivera is fired in Carolina. A 29-32 record with no playoff wins in his last four seasons doomed him, but he coached the Panthers to one of the best regular-seasons in recent years: 15-1 in 2015, with the highest-scoring offense and the league’s sixth-ranked defense. Rivera’s got a great human touch, and would be high on the list if you asked the 1,600 NFL players, “Who’s the coach you’d most like to play for?” He’ll be a strong candidate for teams seeking coaches this week.
Don Banks (1962-2019) dies. One of the most crushing blows of this, or any, year for me came when my friend Sam Farmer called me one day when I was on my training-camp trip in Indiana and said absolutely out of the blue, “Don is dead.” One day before that, Don, a veteran NFL scribe with the scruples of Job, had his first story for his new NFL gig at the Las Vegas Review Journal, and he said to me with excitement over the phone, “I’m back, baby!” He was calling from a hotel room in Canton, where he was for the Hall of Fame enshrinement. He went to bed that night and never woke up. Heart attack. Don’s 21-year-old son, Micah, a student at George Washington, said it best: “Remember the Boston Globe baseball writer who died last spring, Nick Cafardo? I was hanging out with my dad when that happened. Nick died on the job one day, covering the Red Sox. I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, that’s the way to go, doing what you love.’ That seems sort of fitting now—my dad, doing what he loved in Canton, Ohio.”
Julius Peppers retires. With the fourth-most sacks since it became a stat (18 more than Michael Strahan, 20 more than Jason Taylor), there’s little doubt that Peppers will wear a gold jacket one day. I love how consistent he was. He had 11 sacks in 2004, at age 24; 11 sacks in 2011, at age 31; and 11 sacks in 2017, at age 37.
Gino Marchetti (1926-2019) dies. He made one of the biggest, and most controversial, tackles in NFL history. In the 1958 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium, with the Giants leading the Colts 17-14, New York was trying to run out the clock in one of the biggest games in football history to that point. Marchetti tackled Frank Gifford, and the ball was marked just short of a first down—the Giants screamed that the spot was awful, and they should have been awarded a first down. Meanwhile, Marchetti was on the field, in agony. He had a broken ankle. The Giants had to punt on fourth and inches with two minutes left. John Unitas drove the Colts to a tying field goal with seven seconds left, and the Colts won in overtime. Without Marchetti’s tackle, it’s very likely the Giants would have won that game. Interesting. Unitas and the Colts won the title again in 1959. That was his last ever. If Marchetti doesn’t make the tackle in ’58, do the Colts win in ’59? And does the NFL become the incredible spectator sport it became without that great theater in New York in 1958?
Joe Horrigan retires. When Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s historian, archivist and keeper-of-the-flame, surprisingly retired last spring, he left the Hall with a legacy of caring about one thing: that the deep roots of the game will never be forgotten. Horrigan honchoed the founding and formation of the Ralph C. Wilson Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, with more than 40 million pages of documents and contracts going back a century and including the minutes from the meeting in Canton that formed the NFL in 1920. “There is nobody more knowledgeable about the 100 years of pro football than Joe Horrigan,” John Madden told me last spring. “It’s is not even close. You can’t replace that brain.”
Pat Bowlen (1944-2019) dies. In the three decades he owned the Broncos (before stepping away due to Alzheimer’s disease in 2014), the franchise played in six Super Bowls and had five losing seasons . . . and the Elway/Manning Broncos, born when Bowlen was still in control in 2012, won the Super Bowl the year after Bowlen left. His deft handling of the team meant not overreacting to a bad season, and giving football people like Mike Shanahan the resources they need to win. Not to mention his influence in league activities. Bowlen was the driving force behind the league adding another prime-time window, Sunday night football, and giving the NBC show the great games it needed to dominate network TV.
Darren Sproles retires. “My body is telling me it’s time to step away from the game,” Sproles, 36, said in a statement 10 days ago. He was so good, so valuable, for so long. He was good enough in five San Diego seasons to be named to the Chargers’ all-time team. In New Orleans (for just three years; seemed like seven or eight), he set an NFL record for all-purposes yards in 2011 with 2,696, with 603 rushing yards at 6.9 yards per rush, 86 catches for 710 yards, 29 punt returns for a 10.1-yard average, 40 kick returns for a 27.2-yard average. His humility and his 21 touchdowns in his thirties as an Eagle made him beloved in that locker room too. There can’t be an NFL player in this era who got more out of his body, at 5-6 and 190, than Sproles did.
Forrest Gregg (1933-2019) dies. The Hall of Fame Packer tackle was famous, of course, for being the player Vince Lombardi called the best he ever coached. But in his second life, as a coach, he did something historic too: While 14 NFL teams flunked USC left tackle Anthony Munoz on his pre-draft physical because of a bad knee in 1980, Gregg, the Cincinnati head coach, went to Los Angeles to work out Munoz—for two hours—and came back to Cincinnati swearing by Munoz. The Bengals picked him third overall in 1980, and Munoz turned out to be one of the best tackles in NFL history. Lots of lessons he learned from Gregg too. “After I got selected to the Pro Bowl [in 1981], he called me into his office,” Munoz told me. “He put his arm around me. He said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been selected to the Pro Bowl. Now you have to understand that every player you play in practice is going to measure himself against you because you’re a Pro Bowl player. Every player who plays you in a game is going to do the same thing. You’ve got to play every play like a Pro Bowler. You can’t relax.’ So I thought, okay, I’m going to hold myself accountable every play I ever play, for the rest of my career.” Just as his mentor did.
Sonny Jurgensen retires. Hard to imagine any single person who had a more varied and more influential run in a town than Sonny had in Washington. He watched football from the couch this year at 85 for the first time in forever. “It’s been a great 55 years in Washington,” he said when he retired last summer. Jurgensen played the final 11 years of a Hall of Famer career at quarterback for the team from 1964 to 1974, stayed close to the team till being named one of the club’s radio color men in 1981, advised owner Daniel Snyder more recently, and stayed a beloved radio partner till age 84, in 2018. I’ll always remember him with an unlit cigar, in the booth and in so many locker rooms post-game.