Friday, July 5, 2024

Insight: Age before beauty II

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

Now that Adam Vinateri and Tom Brady are officially retired from professional football, the courtesy title of the National Football League’s oldest player has been passed on to offensive tackle Jason Peters, 42, who appeared in eight games last season for the Seattle Seahawks. In Major League Baseball, the oldest current player is pitcher 41-year-old Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros and professional basketball’s oldest player still suiting up is LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers at 39.

It tells me that in professional sports, age doesn’t matter if you can help a team win games. It’s a philosophy I developed years ago while watching professional football with my father on television.

Nobody personifies that concept for me more than George Blanda. He started his career as a quarterback with the Chicago Bears in 1949 but by 1959 he was 31 years old and was out of football and wondering what to do next. Then in 1960, a new pro football league was launched called the American Football League and Blanda signed on to be the signal caller and placekicker for a new team called the Houston Oilers.

For seven seasons, he guided the Oilers and was the league’s Player of the Year in 1961, yet at age 39 in 1967, Houston wanted Blanda to become a fulltime kicker and he balked at that, instead signing with the Oakland Raiders as a backup quarterback and kicker. That decision produced immediate results. In his first season in Oakland, Blanda led the league in scoring with 116 points and kicked two extra points for the Raiders in a 33-14 loss in Super Bowl II.

By 1970, Blanda’s heroics during a five-game span for the Raiders at the age of 43 cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players of all-time. Coming in to replace injured starting QB Daryle Lamonica, Blanda threw three touchdown passes against the Pittsburgh Steelers, then booted a 48-yard field goal with 3 seconds left to forge a tie against the Kansas City Chiefs. Against the Cleveland Browns he came off the bench to throw a late TD pass to tie the game and then kicked a 53-year field goal with 3 seconds left to hand Oakland a victory. Against the Denver Broncos, Blanda again came off the bench in the fourth quarter and ignited a comeback win with a touchdown pass and followed that up a week later by kicking a field goal as time expired as the Raiders defeated San Diego, 20-17.

At age 48, Blanda’s last game was in the AFC Championship Game in January 1976 between Oakland and Pittsburgh. He kicked an extra point and a 41-yard field goal in that game as the Steelers beat the Raiders, 16-10, closing out Blanda’s remarkable 26-season career. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

Lefthanded pitcher Jamie Moyer played 25 seasons in Major League Baseball and made his debut for the Chicago Cubs in 1986 at the age of 23. By the end of the 1991 season, Moyer had pitched for the Cubs, the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals, who released him that October. But Moyer persisted and pitched 19 more seasons in the big leagues, winning 269 games and appearing at age 45 in the World Series as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.

Moyer’s final season came in 2012 for the Colorado Rockies where he was 2-5 at the age of 49.

Seven-footer Kevin Willis grew up in Detroit, Michigan and didn’t start playing basketball until his junior year of high school. He started his college career at Jackson College in Michigan and transferred to Michigan State as a sophomore. When he was drafted in the first round as the 11th overall pick in 1984 by the Atlanta Hawks, Willis never dreamed he would establish records for longevity in his NBA career.

He played with the Hawks for 10 years before being traded to the Miami Heat in 1994. Then in 1996, Willis was traded to the Golden State Warriors and signed as a free agent with the Hoston Rockets later that summer. After two seasons in Houston, he was traded again, this time to the Toronto Raptors. In 2001, the Raptors traded Willis to the Denver Nuggets who traded him in September 2001 to Milwaukee. Without ever playing a game for Milwaukee, the Bucks traded Willis back to the Rockets.

Willis signed with the San Antonio Spurs in 2002 and was part of their NBA championship roster in 2003. He returned to the Atlanta Hawks in 2004 as the oldest player in the league at age 42 and closed out his time in the NBA in 2007 at age 44 as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. During his career, Willis tallied 17,253 points, grabbed 11,901 rebounds and recorded 750 blocked shots.

For young sports phenoms such as the NBA’s 20-year-old Victor Wembanyama, 23-year-old MLB shortstop Gunnar Henderson and 23-year-old NFL tight end Kyle Pitts, the future may be bright, but aging does catch up with everyone eventually.

As Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, if doesn’t matter.”

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