Growing old gracefully doesn’t really happen in sports. You get old, then the wheels come off. Which makes a lot of sense considering the toll taken on the bodies of almost all pro athletes. However, occasionally, some men and women through determination, become statistical outliers, owning the game well after most players are retired. Here’s a list of some of the most distinguished players who lasted into their 40s. And I’m not counting golfers ‘cause, come on.
9. Teemu Selanne
At the age of 40, Selanne is currently a free agent, but spent even the latter parts of his NHL days tearing up defenses, having set the active-player record for career hat tricks with 21. He spent the 2010-2011 season looking like a teenager for the Anaheim Ducks, finishing 8th overall in scoring, despite the fact that he was almost as old as the sport itself. Ok. That was dramatic. But he WAS 40, which means he makes the list.
8. Nolan Ryan
Like a fine Texan wine, Nolan Ryan only seemed to bolster his legacy with age. Mixed metaphors aside, Nolan Ryan went from “great pitcher” to “baseball icon” in his “twilight” years with the Texas Rangers, joining them at the age of 42 and finding his 300th win, 5,000th strikeout, and 6th and 7th no-hitters. More could be said, but his takedown of Robin Ventura demonstrated that he was a force of nature that exemplified “old-man strength.”
7. Julio Franco
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Julio Franco was never an elite hitter. He spent much of his career as a DH, which definitely lowers the degree of difficulty in establishing an MLB career. However, the fact that he played until the age of 681 years old (ish) is cause for inclusion in this list. In 2007, Franco was the oldest player in the majors at 49. In fact, he’s the oldest player the majors have seen in almost a century. He played for 10 MLB teams, which may not demonstrate a spectacular career, but does demonstrate a tenacity rarely seen by any athlete of that age.
6. Brett Favre
After a number of false starts, Favre called it a career at the age of 40 for the Minnesota Vikings. His career ended fairly unceremoniously, mired in a mediocre season for the Vikings and a fairly embarrassing sex scandal that tarnished his legacy and currency as an NFL icon. He found himself trending better and better as he aged, but in his final few years, his rough-and-tumble reputation (deservedly earned) caught up with him, leaving him an old man in the league, albeit one with a cannon for an arm. Still.
5. John Stockton
It’s easy to extend your life expectancy as a player when you have a reputation for being one of the dirtiest players in the league. Stockton made a pro and Olympic career out of not only dishing the rock better than anyone else late in his career, but also by setting high picks for Karl Malone that came with elbows, knees, and every other body part that Stockton could muster to hinder his opponents. This guy should have his picture attached to Webster’s definition of “scrappy,” but probably with “dirty” as well.
4. Martina Navratilova
I wasn’t old enough to be familiar with Martina’s work until she was in the tail end of her career. However, no one told her that, so that tail went on. And on. And on. Till she was 49, at which point she was pretty much relegated to the arena of doubles tennis, but she is widely regarded as the best female doubles player of all-time. Lest you think she was just resting on her laurels with another teammate, she took down 18 Grand Slam titles and 9 Wimbledon victories. So…yeah. She took down mixed doubles titles in Wimbledon, Australia, and the US since 2003. She grew old gracefully to say the least.
3. George Foreman
There are few sports more demanding than professional boxing, so when George Foreman reclaimed the heavyweight title at the age of 45, it was deemed an accomplishment for the ages. While there was a drought of talent in the heavyweight ranks back in 1994, the fact that he bookended his career with titles more than 20 years apart after knocking out Michael Moorer remains one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of sport. In my opinion, of course.
2. Gordie Howe
Well, he played in 5 different decades. That’s right. 5. Which meant that he spent at least 31 seasons capturing most every offensive record in the NHL books until some dude named Gretzky took them all away in the 80’s and 90’s. Four Cups, six Hart Trophies, and six Art Ross trophies for most points weren’t all front end loaded. He wrapped up with Hartford in 1980 at the age of 51(!) playing in 80 games and contributing 15 goals. Most old people just whittle or build ships in bottles.
1. George Blanda
This guy took down 26 NFL seasons as a kicker and QB. To give you an idea of exactly what that means, the average NFL career hovers around the 2-3 year range. And he played pretty damn well while doing it, setting records for most passing TD’s in a game (7) and also for most decades played (4). Granted, in his twilight, he was a lowly kicker, but let’s pretend that kickers aren’t kinda lame and just recognize his performance.