Professional athletes represent the modern gladiator class of America. Like those men whose blood, sweat and pain powered crazed audiences into ravenous applause at the ancient Roman coliseum, these men dedicate their lives to entertain the masses while putting all their energy into accomplishing feats of physical wonder, the likes of which most spectators could only hope to achieve.
Unlike those armor-clad men of yesteryear, modern athletes are not only paid millions for their troubles, but they don’t have to worry about death on a nightly basis. Yet the fame is the same, as is the adulation they receive.
Though death on the field of play is rare to the modern day athlete, another kind of death is very common: the one that occurs when they are forced to retire due to the ravages of time.
Basketball players become shadows of their former selves after years of nagging injuries to their lower extremities, while professional football players often suffer shoulder, neck, knee, and chronic head ailments after their playing days are done. The average career span in the NBA is 4.8 years. For players in the NFL, it's a mere 3.5 years. Professional baseball players enjoy the greatest longevity with the career average being around 5.6 years.
The averages fluctuate, depending upon the positions played. Point guards can expect to have more years of productivity than high-flying wing players while the career of the average NFL running back is much shorter than that of a quarterback.
Over time, better nutrition and training methods have been invented and the modern professional athlete has become bigger, faster and stronger. So too have their productive years been extended. Some in the younger generation may look at a boxer like the great Philadelphia legend and current light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, and his amazing feats of pugilism at the age of 49-years-old, and believe what he is doing has been done before. But they would be wrong.
Last Saturday, on April 20, 2014, Hopkins defeated Beibut Shumenov by a split-decision to retain his WBA light heavyweight title in Washington, DC. Hopkins is oldest boxer to ever defend his title.
Former champ George Foreman won the heavyweight title again in 1994 at the age of 45, but he took an extended leave of absence from the sport when he retired in 1977 and was fresher than many of his younger opponents by the time he returned in 1987. Also, there were very few people alive who could take a punch from Big George, ever. His fists were his great equalizer as he preferred to stand in the middle of the ring and slug it out.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is 37 years old and the current WBC Welterweight, WBC Light Middleweight and WBA Light Middleweight Champion. He is undefeated with a pristine record of 45-0.
His keys to longevity? While I’m not certain, I would say speed and illusiveness are prime candidates. Strike that, legendary speed and illusiveness. It’s rare that opponents are able to lay a glove on him. If you can’t touch him, you can’t hurt him. If you can’t hurt him, then you can’t beat him.
However, for an individual to maintain his hand speed and foot speed at such an advanced age is nothing short of incredible.
In the NFL, the oldest players are more often than not kickers, with Adam Vinatieri of the Indianapolis Colts reigning as the oldest current player. But there are a few position players who are doing the dang thing at an advanced age as well. The record was set by the incomparable George Blanda, who played quarterback and kicker for the Chicago Bears, the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders during a 26-year NFL career.
I’ll say that again, a 26-year career! He retired in 1976 at 48 years old, a record age that stands today. Naysayers will say the modern NFL athlete is faster, stronger and the hits are exponentially harder. For these reasons, they say no offensive or defensive skill position player will ever play past the age of 44 again, and even if he does he’ll likely be a quarterback.
Though human physiology has its limits, there are those players in the league today who are candidates for threatening that record thanks to a clean lifestyle, modern training techniques and advanced medicine.
Last year, retired tight end Tony Gonzalez tallied 859 yards, 83 receptions and eight touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons. He played all 16 games and didn’t appear to have lost single step at 38 years old. There is no reason to believe he could not sustain that level of production past 40, barring injury. Who’s to say he could not have been a fourth passing option until his 44th birthday?
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is 37 years old and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos is 38 yet, sans each other, they are without peer at the quarterback position.
The NBA has a long tradition of athletes who contributed at a high level until they were well within the shadow of their 40th birthday. Names like Michael Jordan, who averaged 21 points per game at age 39, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who averaged 17 per game at 39, are stamped in the lure of professional American sports for their production in the twilight of their careers.
Though Jordan’s athleticism was far less than it had been in his younger days, he was still able to outsmart and outmaneuver many of his younger opponents. Kareem was once known for graceful precision in his younger years and continued to use the legendary skyhook in his latter days to great avail.
At 37, Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs is the modern standard bearer for senior citizens who continue to sizzle on a game to game basis. He’s averaging 15 points and 9.7 rebounds per game and is still the defensive catalyst for a San Antonio Spurs team that has a puncher’s chance at a fifth NBA Championship this season.
During Game 1 of their playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Tim Duncan scored 27 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in a dominating performance against Dallas center Samuel Dalembert, a very good defensive player. While some of his contemporaries continue to produce in the twilight of their careers, such as Derek Fisher of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Jermaine O’Neal of the Golden State Warriors, none is asked to do as much as Timmy.
Baseball has many players who are still getting the job done after 35. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox is picking up right where he left off last year, a season in which he led Boston to a World Series title with a .309 batting average and 30 home runs. Raul Ibanez of the Los Angeles Angels is 41-years-old, as is LaTroy Hawkins of the Colorado Rockies. Bartolo Colon of the New York Mets is 40.
MLB players play into their 40's more often than other sports because the physiological trauma is less than in other sports. However, it is rare for a 37year old to put up the numbers Ortiz did.
As I type this, my feet are elevated. I played pickup basketball with a group of young men half my age four days ago, and my feet are still throbbing, knees still aching and my back stiffens up if I sit down for too long. These aches and pains make me appreciate the magnificent feats of longevity and productivity that I have been blessed to witness and any fan should appreciate them as well. You never know when you’ll see the likes of a Duncan, Hopkins or Big Papi again.