August 21, 2014
There’s something stunning happening on Michael Vick’s head.
You can’t see them from far away, but up close, tiny gray hairs are starting to emerge — color-sapped reminders that the New York Jets quarterback is no longer the speedy youngster fresh out of Virginia Tech.
He turned 34 in June, making him “old” in today’s NFL. During minicamp in June, Vick even had a young fullback address him as “sir” in the huddle.
“That baffled me a little bit,” Vick said at the time with a chuckle. “I’m not that old and I have to reiterate that over and over again.”
But in the time-warped world of professional sports, anything past 30 opens conversations about players being past their prime. If you get to 35, well, then the geriatric jokes start flying.
Rocking chairs and walking canes. “Grandpa” and “Graybeard.”
“I think so much of it’s a mindset,” said 35-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “If I tell myself I am 25, I’m 25 and that’s honest to God. That’s my mindset. I can play for another 10 years. That would be my goal, but I’m taking it one year at a time. There’s no reason why I couldn't do that.”
He would be a rarity in the NFL, where the average age ranges between 25 and 27. The lifespan of most careers in the league lasts somewhere between 3 1/2 and almost seven years, meaning retirement comes at an age when people in most other professional fields are just getting started.
For several players, though, age is an opponent to defy.
The Colts’ 41-year-old Adam Vinatieri is the NFL’s oldest active player. While he might not have the leg he did while leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles and another with Indianapolis as “Automatic Adam,” he’s still one of the league’s most reliable kickers.
“As long as my body’s feeling healthy, I can’t see why I can’t continue to play,” Vinatieri said when he re-signed with the Colts for two years in March.
It's likely no one will ever get close to George Blanda, who was still kicking at 48 for the Raiders in 1975. But there are plenty of other kickers and punters who are nearly right there with Vinatieri.
San Francisco’s Phil Dawson (39), Atlanta’s Matt Bryant (39), Arizona’s Jay Feely (38), Buffalo’s Brian Moorman (38), Houston’s Shane Lechler (37) and Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski (36) are among those booting away Father Time.
There are plenty of other big-time stars at the so-called “skill” positions who are also still thriving. Just look at Denver’s Peyton Manning (38) and New England’s Tom Brady (37), who are still setting passing records, along with Brees, nearly every season.
“Peyton Manning was what, 37 years old last year and arguably (had) his best year in his career,” Brees said. “Brett Favre arguably had his best year of his career when he was 40. There have been perfect examples of the near history that prove that you can continue to play at a very, very high level. I think there are lots of things that go into that.”
Preparation, training, strict diets and consistent sleep habits are among them.
“I look forward to driving over here every day,” Manning said. “I think as soon as you go, ‘Golly, I do not want to go over there today,’ that’s when you’ve got to get out.”
Even at positions that require top-notch speed, some veterans are competing with the youngsters. Washington’s Santana Moss is 35 and still a valuable part of the Redskins’ offense.
“I still can play,” said Moss, entering his 14th NFL season. “I told myself I’m not going to count myself out. I’m going to go as long as I can go. I didn’t have this dream as a kid to say, ‘OK, one day I’m going to put it up.’ I’m going to go until I can’t go no more.”
Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith knows the feeling. He’s also 35 and feels rejuvenated after spending his first 13 seasons in Carolina.
Some defensive backs, such as Charles Woodson (37), Champ Bailey (36), Terrence Newman (35), Adrian Wilson (34), Ike Taylor (34) and Ryan Clark (34) could all be going up against some players 12-15 years younger than them this season.
When you last as long as a guy such as Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, who’s 33 and in his 12th season, coaches come and go, and so do teammates. It’s a strange experience, especially when you’re the only one still there.
“There’s new guys coming in filling up those numbers and those lockers,” Briggs said. “That’s life. That’s the way it is. It’s business.”
Experience, though, is important to helping a winning franchise. Woodson says it only takes looking at the NBA’s champion San Antonio Spurs to know that veteran leadership is key, along with strong play.
“I look at the NFL, every team wants to get younger,” said Woodson, entering his 17th season. “They push a lot of the older guys out, guys who can still play the game. I don’t think there’s any question that it’s undervalued. ... Our best days are not behind us just because other people say our best days are behind us.
“We’re going out there to play good football and win games, and that's what we intend to do.”