Hope I Retire Before I Get Old: The Problem with Longevity

Sports fans are suckers for the old guy. Whether it’s Jamie Moyer nearly continuing his career into his fifties, Jimmy Connors reaching the semifinals of the 1991 US Open at age 39, Dara Torres medaling as an Olympic swimmer at 41, or Barry Bonds breaking rec- wait, nope, not that one. But you get the point. We commend the old athlete for remaining successful long after his or her body was supposed to have broken down. It’s captivating to watch someone keep going long after everyone else of the same era has traded in their jerseys for lapel microphones or a coach’s headset.

It’s not just their ability to defy time and biology that makes old athletes so popular. Most of them have to rely on their intelligence, craft, and experience to counterbalance their diminishing physical returns (Moyer’s 80-mile-per-hour “fastball” always had to be perfectly located). The story goes that old athletes are more mature and level-headed than the young hotshots who hope to supplant them on the depth chart (thanks for keeping us honest on that one, Brett Favre). The main conflict in ESPN’s god-awful but somehow popular and critically acclaimed football soap opera “Playmakers” concerned thirtysomething running back Leon Taylor’s attempts to fend off a depth-chart challenge from do-rag-wearing, posse-having, heroin-shooting rookie Demetrius Harris (Leon Taylor also happened to be a wife beater, but she shoved him first, so it was okay, I guess? That show really was terrible, but that’s another column for another time).

When I was a kid, I idolized football players who played until age 40 or later, a benchmark that now seems unattainable for everyone except kickers and punters. But Jerry Rice, Warren Moon, Ray Brown, Darrell Green, Bruce Smith, and Vinny Testaverde, among others, all did it. I’m not Facebook friends with any of them, but they’re all doing okay, as far as I’m aware. Others aren’t, though. Brad Johnson, who played 17 seasons in the NFL and quarterbacked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl in the 2002 season, is still suffering the debilitating effects of his NFL injuries (one has to wonder why someone with such an extensive injury history – and no apparent financial duress – hung around in the league for so long, but again, another column for another time). Another is Junior Seau, whose 2012 suicide is thought to have been the result of chronic brain trauma.

This brings me to David Wilson, the 23-year-old former New York Giants running back who retired from the NFL earlier this week. After a spine specialist (a type of doctor that no human being should have to see, ever) advised Wilson that repeated spine and neck injuries posed a threat to his continued health and safety, the former first-round pick stepped away after just two professional seasons. He’s part of an increasingly large cadre of players who have decided to call it quits in their twenties, though his professional fate was more of a medical mandate than a decision.

Wilson is nothing like those players who played into their forties, but his story is one that also tends to be appreciated. He probably could have ignored medical advice and pushed through years of rehabilitation and recovery, if he really wanted to. There could have been a Disney movie about him, and he could have written a book with a foreword by TD Jakes. But he chose to forgo all that and walk away while his body was still a body, instead of a gelatinous blob. His retirement is a real retirement, unlike the drug-test-evasion circus that Ricky Williams went through in 2004, or the temporary farewell that legally embattled linebacker Rolando McClain ended last month. In making the smart move rather than taking a risk for further glory, Wilson has struck a chord with the growing number of NFL fans who are sensitive to the sport’s injury risks, and tired of the league’s gladiatorial, play-til-you-drop culture.

As much as I admire players like Doug Flutie and Jerry Rice, I can’t help but wonder if, when they enter their sixties and seventies (Warren Moon is 57 already, holy crap), they’ll wish they’d taken a more Wilsonian approach. I also wonder if the thought of walking away early – or at least deciding not to hang on for so long – will permeate other sports, even the ones without elevated safety risks. Who, exactly, has benefitted from Jason Giambi’s post-40 baseball career?  Is there someone out there, whose favorite movie is Bubble Boy and whose favorite band is Semisonic, who burned all of his Indians memorabilia when the team released the .128-hitting, 43-year-old former slugger earlier this year? Competing at an advanced age is great for those who can do it safely and at a high level, but it’s not for everyone, and I hope David Wilson has made that clear to more than just the injured and at-risk.