Braves Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro is a militant in the war against growing old, which may be one reason he and his butterfly pitch held out past the age of 48.
So, don’t ask him to marvel at New England’s Tom Brady just because he is, at 40, poised to become the Super Bowl’s oldest-ever starting quarterback. You see, the years don’t count if you don’t count the years.
“I don’t believe in ages,” Niekro said. (For those who do, he is 78 now). “If you can do the job, you’re going to play.”
“People think about ages too much. It’s can he do the job or can’t he do the job? That’s the bottom line.”
So, yes, stubborn defiance in the face of the relentless, undeniable march of time may be one secret to athletic survival after 40.
Others might be revealed by those rare few who continued to compete at 40 and beyond. They are members of an exclusive group of athletes who have stretched the bounds of a career that seems measured in dog years. It is a workplace like no other, a youth vampire that sucks its performers dry and discards them at a time in life when they otherwise might be entering their prime.
Think what you will of Brady and his New England Patriots – and they have broken hearts and made enemies from Seattle to Atlanta – but a quarterback playing at a MVP level at 40 is something to be respected, if not celebrated.
“The mental toughness that he has is unbelievable,” said one admirer, Kevin Willis, who played in the NBA until he was 44, his first 11 seasons with the Hawks.
“That competitiveness he has sort of reminds me of Michael Jordan, and Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird. No matter how many times you win a championship it’s gratifying, but there are still more championships to be won. He has that same tenacity, that same mindset. You win five Super Bowls, why not do it again? We’re here, no stopping now.”
Having turned 40 in August, Brady serves as such a handy example for those who would like to believe their best is not behind them, regardless of the mocking calendar. Here, after all, is someone whose definition of a mid-life crisis is trying to win a sixth Super Bowl.
Good news especially for a population of males of a certain age who are being told by every other commercial that they are in need of one supplement or another.
Parallels for what Brady is attempting in Minneapolis next week are not easy to find. For one, there’s NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson, who at 40 won his seventh series championship. As he is quick to admit, “It’s probably more rare for Tom to be in that position than a race-car driver – those guys get beat up so badly.”
But, if there is one thing a NASCAR star should understand, it’s drive.
And that is the where Johnson – who at 42 now must tolerate his younger Hendrick Motorsports teammates calling him “Grandpa” – would find the secret to sporting longevity.
“Over each season of playing or driving, if you’re really committed to your sport, you reflect and try to bring a better product to the field or the track every year,” he said. “I’ve not met Tom, but we do have mutual friends. And his commitment to getting better every year sounds very familiar.”
Brady has made this growing older thing look easy. It isn’t, of course.
Not physically, especially in the more violent undertakings.
Heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield fought deep into his 40s, longer than most thought wise. Upon turning 40, troubled by shoulder issues, he lost his next three fights (he was 6-5 with one no contest in fights after 40).
Even a boxer who took an artist’s pride in staying in shape - and who at 55 still has the body fat of a celery stalk - acknowledges the difficulty in coaxing happy thoughts from grumpy muscles. So, no, Brady’s prowess at 40 is not natural.
“It was like I woke up all of a sudden, I’m 50 years old,” Holyfield said, chuckling. “All of a sudden, it’s like I went from 16 to 50.”
It’s hard work getting older.
Said Holyfield, “It took me more time to prepare myself. I never really had to warm up to run, I just ran. Then I had start doing this and that before. When I stretched it did start to come back, it just took more time. I used to do everything so quick, now it took time.
“You don’t shift the gears like you used to. You got about two gears, that’s it.”
Brady is renowned for his strict diet and workout regimen, and such discipline is an important element to surviving well past the average age of descent.
(Such cutting edge techniques were unknown to an old-school player like Niekro. His approach: “My body told me what I could do and what I couldn’t do. I didn’t have any great exercise program. I didn’t have a strategic diet I had to go on. I didn’t have any problem with the mental end of it. You just wanted to stay healthy and get ready for the next game.
“I ate when I got hungry. I went to bed when I got tired. And I woke up when my eyes opened.”)
The mentality involved in playing all the way through the twilight is a cross between stubbornness and conceit. It is an outlook that never really goes away, even after there are no more games to play. Old lions still know they can hunt.
“Mentally, I’d do what I could do on the court with the minutes that I got. Physically, I felt I definitely could still run the court, I could still score down low. I may not be as quick to the ball but I still felt I could contribute to a team. I still feel that way right now. It never goes away,” the 55-year-old Willis said.
The Patriots are one of the more polarizing teams maybe ever. Keeping them in relevant is a quarterback who won’t act his age. One who said he still has years left yet on his athletic odometer. To which Niekro, the one who doesn’t count birthdays, says, “He can play, why wouldn’t you put him out there? If he can do it four or five years from now, put him out there.”
So, as much as it may hurt to spend some admiration on the quarterback who already has everything, Brady has earned another portion. If only for showing us how to age reluctantly.
“When you look at this guy, you got to love him,” said Willis (who is nonetheless pulling for Philadelphia next week). “I know he’s a Patriot, whatever. But you got to respect what he’s done, what he’s accomplished and the things he’s going to do probably the next two or three years. He’s not done by a long shot.”