Most of us have seen it, not just the photo, but the image of Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle, bloodied and broken, hunched over on his knees in the end zone in the last appearance of his career. It is an indelible snapshot burned into our brains of mortality and sports at their highest level. He was 38.
Also freshly 38, and just off arguably the most successful season of his 15-year professional playing career, is quarterback Peyton Manning. The league’s first five-time MVP led the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl in a year that included breaking records in both regular-season passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns passes (55). Manning, of course, sat out the entire 2011 season after four procedures on his neck that included a fusion surgery and another to repair a bulging disk.
What a difference 50 years of advancements in sports science and financial incentives can make, says Dr. Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who is recognized as one of the foremost experts on human performance and exercise physiology. Because of a handful of factors working together, he says it’s now become almost ordinary for most professional athletes to be capable of playing late into their 30s, many able to extend careers into their 40s.
“I do think it’s increased, especially in the last 20 years,” says Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology. “People used to kind of be done around 34, 35 if they have long careers. The odd person kept going to their late-30s or 40s, but in general people were done then.” Today, he explains, the potential age limit for athletes to compete at a high level in more specific skill-based sports like baseball or hockey is probably their upper-40s. Former pitcher Jamie Moyer, who in 2012 as a member of the Colorado Rockies became the oldest hurler in Major League Baseball history to record a win at age 49, is a prime example. “Things like distance running, sprinting, where there’s this objective, it’s all about either endurance or power or speed or jumping,” Joyner continues. “I think it is more or less 40 or maybe your early-40s, and I don’t see getting much older than that.”
The Steroid Era of baseball, which swept up the likes of All-Stars including Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemons, as an outlier, with the potential effects of human growth hormones in prolonging careers saved for another debate, Joyner thinks one revolutionary surgical procedure in particular was the turning point in sports medicine. The so-called “Tommy John Surgery,” otherwise known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, an innovative elbow operation first performed on pitcher Tommy John in 1974 by the late orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe, led the way and also helped set the stage. Today, knee and cartilage procedures that used to be season-ending are now accomplished arthroscopically and take just a few weeks for an athlete to recover fully and return to competition.
“Somebody like Peyton Manning,” adds Joyner, of the future Hall of Fame signal-caller’s different neck operations, “that certainly would have been a career-ending injury 20, 30 years ago. So he’s going to play two or three extra years. I think there’s a lot of examples like that.”
Meanwhile, as the opening round of the NHL postseason continues, the Western Conference’s top-seeded Anaheim Ducks are guided by 43-year-old forward Teemu Selanne, a Finn recently off captaining his homeland to a bronze medal in Sochi and securing MVP honors in the Olympic tournament.
The venerable Selanne remains a strong offensive threat with a respectable season and more than 1,450 points in his 21 NHL seasons. He’s already announced this one is his last. One month earlier at a stop in Denver to face the Avalanche, he showed he’s still a slippery player who the puck just always seems to find. Positioned as the hub of the Ducks’ first power play unit, Selanne orchestrated countless scoring chances and skated away with an assist in Anaheim’s 6-4 win.
Hours before the game Selanne talked of how he’s somehow avoided too many major injuries and been able to achieve such longevity in his career.
“It has been a long road, and a fun road,” he said in accented English following the team’s morning skatearound. “Obviously, it’s a lot of luck, and you never know, so that’s one thing for sure.
“You have to do the things right and make sure that you look after your body in every each way. A lot of times young players, they don’t get that message that, look after your body and do the right things with recovery and eating habits and drinking habits. The older you get, you start paying attention about recovery stuff and all the things that get you be ready game to game. The older you get the harder it gets, but there’s a lot of things you can do, but you got to be very disciplined about that.”
Whether it’s a secret he holds close to the vest or just plain luck that’s kept Selanne in the game, the feat grabbed the attention of arguably the greatest goalie of all time, Patrick Roy, his former teammate of one season in Colorado and now the head coach of the Avalanche. Roy marveled at Selanne’s shelf life during the pregame press conference.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said Roy. “Not only is he still playing, but he’s playing at a high level, which is something very special. He was a special player. It’s nice to see what he’s been able to accomplish. It seems that the Ducks were a great fit for him and I’m sure we’ll see his jersey one day on top of the building.”
As one veteran’s career progresses in the playoffs at a high level, another’s has recently been less prosperous. Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash, for example, the only 40-year-old in the NBA this season, has reached a crossroads and openly acknowledged as much in the Grantland series “The Finish Line,” in which he is the focus.
The four-part feature chronicles the perishability of pro sports careers and the former two-time league MVP’s potential retirement due to nagging health issues brought on at least in part because of age. Without Nash and fellow waning superstar Kobe Bryant for most of the season, the Lakers were a shell of their former 16-time champion franchise selves and missed the playoffs as one of the worst teams in the league.
Nash faced some backlash when in the third installment, he faced the camera and explained that he would do everything he could to fulfill the final year of his deal next season, to some extent for the $9.7 million owed to him in a guaranteed contract.
“That is a real, genuine affection for this game that I have,” he said. “And on the other hand, it’s just a reality, I’m not going to retire because, you know, I want the money. It’s honest.”
“Think of yourself,” says Joyner as he discusses the incredible financial transformation in professional sports in the last few decades. “I mean, let’s say even if your contract had been a gazillion a year, if somebody offered you a half-a-gazillion to play another year, I mean, would you do it? Who could say no to that? It would be unusual. Even if you had $100 million in the bank, it would be the odd person who could walk away from it.”
It’s perhaps worst in baseball where bloated, guaranteed mega-contracts are only becoming more popular. These include the Yankees locking up the infamous Alex Rodriguez, at age 32, to a 10-year, $275 million in 2007; the Los Angeles Angels signing then-31-year-old slugger Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $254 million contract in 2011; and the Detroit Tigers extending fellow 31-year-old power hitter Miguel Cabrera on a 10-year, $292 million deal this season.
"And I think that’s the other thing,” Joyner adds. “These guys get addicted to the kind of fame. I think participating at a very high level is a bit of a nine-ring circus: You’re making a lot of money, you’re getting followed around by ESPN or whoever, and I think that it’s addictive. There’s a lot more Brett Favres than there are Jim Browns. There’s a lot more people who've been driven out of it than walked away from it.”
As the new baseball season carries on, yet another farewell tour proceeds. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who turns 40 in June and played in only 17 games all of last season, mostly because of a persistent left ankle injury, will—like his former 43-year-old teammate Mariano Rivera before him—make the rounds and be honored at his last stop in each city he visits.
Already having moved into eighth place on the all-time hits list just six games into the season, Jeter, the Yankee team captain and arguably the greatest shortstop of his generation, may limp through his 20th MLB season. At least part of the motivation will come from the fame and fortune provided by the profession, but fundamentally it is possible because of the evolution of sports medicine and offseason training techniques developed to allow such players the ability to even do so.
Not the case for many baseball legends before Rivera and Jeter. Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax is a regularly cited example. An arthritic left elbow pressed one of the most fondly invoked Dodgers of all time into early retirement in 1966 at just 30 years old and off a season in which he won his third Cy Young and led his team to the NL pennant.
"People get kind of get nicked up and then just have aches and pains and just kind of get beat up over time,” explains Joyner, shifting the conversation to Favre, who at one point played in 297 consecutive games. “By the end, he just couldn’t do it anymore. And I think the interesting thing about somebody like Brett Favre is the last, say, three or four years of his career, five years of his career, he typically had about 10 good games, and then it just caught up with him.
“So I think some of these guys could go on forever if—if—they didn’t have to play like every week, or they were able to just play less frequently and recover more. Who is in a position to really sort of budget their efforts and budget the recovery and really manage the logistics of it, and do it on their own terms, versus, you know, playing every week in the NFL, or 81, 82 games in the NBA, or 160-some games in professional baseball?”
Moving into the future though, no major advances seem to be coming down the line at the moment, but really just more of the same as these big-name athletes continue to make one last push to lengthen their careers.
“What I think if you look at this, it’s a whole collection of sort of marginal gains,” says Joyner. “It’s some of this, some of that, a little of this, you know, a little better at this, maybe a little bit better nutrition, people taking a little bit better care of themselves. And when you add it all up, it’s just a little here, a little there … to try to eke out that one little bit more of performance for that one additional year or two.”
Players like Peyton Manning, Teemu Selanne, Steve Nash, and Derek Jeter, even in a system where more and more aging athletes are able to persist in their chosen sport, are still the exceptions to the rule. Yet, because of major progress in sports science and the predictable choices set forth by massive financial motivators, they’re also a far cry from that enduring image of Y.A. Tittle crumpled up on the field in his final game.