The Aging Athlete & The Plight of the Elderly

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Whether or not you are a sports fan, I’m sure we can all recognize that there exists a heartbreaking end date, which all professional athletes are hurdling towards, and is perhaps unfairly abbreviated, in contrast to the average lifespan of an adult. It is a date etched into the minds, and perhaps more suggestively, into the bodies of those who earn their living in pro sports. Anyone who is familiar with professional athletics knows that there is a relatively tight window of time with which an athlete is in their prime fit condition, and able to compete at the high level demanded by their respective fields. The athlete on the verge of retirement must contemplate a life after sports and the uncertain abyss of a life devoid of what they had prior to worked their entire lives towards. There are economic factors to consider, health concerns, and feelings of grief at how much they truly stand to lose. In much the same way, the elderly face their own troubling retirements and increasing physical impairments, as well as the existential grief which often accompanies end of life and depleted purpose. Like their civilian counterparts, aging athletes must also grapple with an often abrupt and unceremonious end to their careers, and surprisingly many of the same challenges found in the elder population. Although it may seem unusual to draw comparisons between a vitally young athlete and a senior citizen, surprisingly, both face similar voids of despair, deteriorating health, uncertainty, and the perception that neither is wanted or useful anymore. Indeed, in many ways, the end of a vibrant and celebrated sports career must seem like the end of one’s life, and for some, it is. For the rest, it’s at least symbolically so.

Watching Peyton Manning struggle last night, and indeed, over the last couple years has been rough. The last half of this season, Manning simply did not look like himself — his throwing was erratic, and he was undoubtedly not the Peyton we all knew. Like Tom Brady, Manning has never been particularly mobile in and out of the pocket, but has arguably been the best drop back, in the pocket passer the game has ever known. Many would argue that Manning is the best quarterback of all time. Had he simply retired from Indianapolis after his potentially career ending neck surgery, Manning would have still been a legend. Peyton holds many substantial records, including most season MVPs and most career touchdowns. And yet, despite having been to three Super Bowls, Manning has only hoisted the Lombardi Trophy once, in his win against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Despite having less impressive statistical numbers, Manning’s friend and on-field rival, Tom Brady, has been to the Super Bowl five times, and won three rings. No matter how many stats Manning compiles, there is no getting around the fact that one Super Bowl win is relatively unimpressive, and not commensurate with a player of his caliber. Even his less talented brother Eli has won two Super Bowls! (and both at the expense of Peyton’s nemesis Brady, no less!)

I say all this because it sets the stage for a man so driven by his love of the game AND ensuring his legacy in the history books, that he pushes himself immeasurably — perhaps beyond his remaining natural abilities and limitations. Defying the odds, Manning came back from neck surgery, and was summarily released by the Colts (in favor of a hot, new number one drafter QB in Andrew Luck), and was consequently signed by John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Despite much skepticism, Peyton proved critics and naysayers wrong, and had an impressive first season in Denver, making it to the playoffs, and losing to eventual Super Bowl champs, the Baltimore Ravens. The next season was unprecedented: Peyton broke Brady’s record for most touchdown passes in a season with 51 on a 25 yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas, he finished the regular season with 55 touchdown passes, in addition to throwing for a league record 5,477 yards. His 450 completions is tied for second most all time. The Broncos scored an NFL record 606 points, becoming the first team to ever to eclipse 600 points in a season. They had more 50 point games in a season than any other team in NFL history, with three. Four Broncos receivers recorded at least 10 touchdowns, an NFL record and Manning set the record for most 4+ touchdown passing games in a season, with nine. His 115.1 passer rating ranks fifth all time and he joins Tom Brady to be the only two QB’s to have a passer rating of 110.0 or higher in more than one season. The Broncos went on to win their Divisional Round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers by a score of 24-17. In a satisfying victory, the Manning beat arch-rival Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game by a score of 26-16, advancing them to the Super Bowl, against the formidable defensive-led team, the Seattle Seahawks. Despite dominating the whole season, the Broncos lost to the Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII with a shameful score of 43-8. Perhaps for the first time in his sixteen year career, Peyton Manning looked old, diminished, and helpless. And yet, it also brought back the whispers that had plagued his entire career — that he was an unparalleled regular season quarterback, but couldn’t win when it mattered, and had a long history of being knocked out of the playoffs often and early. Conversely, Tom Brady is renowned for winning in big games, and currently holds the record for most playoff touchdown passes, most playoff yardage, most playoff wins by a quarterback (19), and most playoff games started (27). Tellingly, Peyton Manning holds the record for most playoff losses with 13. His second Super Bowl loss was undoubtedly harder though, after being dismantled and pummeled by a merciless defense. Peyton looked washed-up, and stood in stark contrast to the handsome, young Seahawks QB, Russel Wilson, who managed to make Peyton look even more obsolete, with the remarkable use of his legs and speed. Manning never looked so much like a dinosaur.

Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh on Manning, but I will point out that Peyton is just two short months older than I am, and although my allegiance has always been to Tom Brady, I respect and revere Manning, and perhaps even regard his own struggles with age and diminishing strength with my own fears and anxieties of age. He is my peer, after all, and his necessary fall from favor and triumph is perhaps a metaphor for my own life. Regardless of however else little we have in common, Peyton and I are Bicentennial babies, and generationally linked. If I don’t share the particulars of his collapse, I symbolically recognize a changing of the guard, where aging icons like Brady and Manning are replaced by the next generation of superstars, like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Very soon, I won’t even recognize the old NFL, and we may have a position filled with uber-athletes, taller than 6′-5”, heavier than 250, and yet, as devastating rushing and evading tackles as they are dropping back and delivering bullets downfield. This new breed of quarterback is exciting to watch, and certainly good for ratings, but it begs the question: what kind of longevity can a running QB who gets tackled frequently have? Are we drafting franchise athletes who will have even shorter NFL careers than they already have? Will we ever have passers who reach their late 30s and early 40s, and can still lead teams to the Super Bowl?

Yesterday, Peyton Manning got knocked out of the Divisional Round Playoffs by Andrew Luck and the Colts. It’s hard to deny the symbolism of his losing to a man named ‘Luck’ who no one thought could win that game, and what’s more, being the young QB that replaced him in Indy. This was a sort of symbolic changing of the guard. Much like Wilson had looked like the new face of NFL football in the prior Super Bowl, Luck actually looked like…well…Peyton. Only younger. Stronger. More focused. Meanwhile, Manning decidedly did not look like Manning. He was sacked twice, threw for a measly 26/46 completions, a modest 211 yards, and one single touchdown. All night long, Peyton threw erratic and misplaced balls, and looked like he was hopelessly pushing, as he sent long and inaccurate bombs downfield, invariably out of reach of their targets. In short, Peyton looked much like he has the last half of the season, as he battled injuries and raised more than a few questions about his arm strength and diminishing throwing capacity. It surely was no coincidence that the Broncos were running the game over twice as much as they had been at the start of the season. For one reason or another, the Broncos woes all started somewhere around the time they lost a costly game at Foxborough, to Tom Brady and the Patriots. That game would come back to bite them, as they remained behind New England the rest of the season, and due to that loss, were denied home field advantage throughout. As ‘Luck’ would have it, Denver was unburdened by the true sting of that injury, as the Colts denied them a chilly trip to Gillette next week. Peyton might have missed his last chance to meet his old friend and rival, Tom Brady, and once again try to avenge a bitter regular season loss, as they had in last season’s AFC Championship game. In fact, if you would believe skeptics and naysayers today, you could easily be convinced that Peyton Manning has played his last game of professional football. Perhaps an ignominious last game, but perhaps more merciful than another bright light humiliation in the Big Game. Can Peyton handle much more of that kind of scrutiny and speculation? Manning clearly is tough and resilient, and seemingly immune to criticism after so many high profile losses, but that was when he was a powerful and efficient passing machine. He had the advantage of youth, cockiness, confidence, indisputable athletic prowess, and the support of fans. “This” Peyton Manning got loudly booed last night on more than one occasion. While you can’t pin your worth on the whims of fans or prognosticators, there is something to be said for observable data, and based on what we’ve seen of late, Peyton Manning is compromised as a passer, and may only deteriorate more rapidly next season, and after a long and challenging off-season of camps and training. What’s more, it is likely that the Broncos will lose at least a few key players to free agency, not to mention the greatest blow — the likelihood that Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase moves into a Head Coaching job elsewhere. That would require Manning to become comfortable with a whole new OC and learn an entirely new system. Taking all these challenging factors, it doesn’t seem reasonable to conclude that  Peyton Manning may simply opt to retire, rather than confront this slew of troubles.

And yet….

There is a precedent in sports of athletes who stubbornly refused to accept their limitations, and perhaps stayed beyond their welcome. There have been numerous retirements rescinded, and players re-entering the sport, switching teams, signing compromised contracts, switching sports, or playing in the minor leagues, in an attempt to stage a come-back. Who can forget the end-of-career exploits of Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, and Gordie Howe, to name a few. Some believe it’s time for current NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett to retire. In the case of Kobe, it’s hard to deny that even though he sometimes looks like the best part of that team, he also is what’s holding them back, and not allowing them to redefine themselves as a new Laker organization — post Bryant. But like Peyton Manning, Kobe is a fierce competitor, and in many ways, their respective sport is all their lives. Tom Brady has admitted as much. Sure, he has a model wife and beautiful children, but make no mistake: Tom Brady breathes football and winning ball games. How do you replace that after you retire? What will ever be as fulfilling to these guys as winning hard-fought ball games was? Just last season, Peyton broke numerous records, had arguably his best NFL season under center, and took his team to the Super Bowl. Does that sound like the last gasps of air from a dying animal unwilling to lay down and die? Hardly. As Kobe knows especially, and Peyton knows just once, the ultimate ring and trophy — what it’s all about — is too tempting and addictive to walk away from. Despite being on a hopelessly awful Lakers team, Kobe once hoisted trophies — many — and in his mind, so can once again. Since 2007, Peyton has been chasing that ever elusive second ring, and has been denied twice since then. Tom Brady is blessed to have won his three rings in just four short years, but perhaps that’s also a curse, as it’s been ten years since his last win, and he’s also been denied twice since then. (by the same team no less!) What’s remarkable about the Kobe’s, the Brady’s, the Derek Jeter’s, and the Peyton’s, is that they’ve all tasted a slice of that pie — multiple times, for most — and yet, even as their bodies deteriorate and their skills diminish, they crave that cake even greater, and will do whatever it takes to attain it. It should not be lost on us that Peyton Manning’s own boss, John Elway, lost three Super Bowls before the age of 35, and through sheer force of will, managed to win his last two while approaching 40 years old! You can’t ignore the fact that that’s likely on Peyton’s mind, as he mulls his own retirement and ultimate legacy. It’s often harder to walk away when you’ve come so close just a season before. Like gambling addicts, they are undoubtedly intoxicated by the winning, and find it nearly impossible to walk away, once you’ve been up. Owning a string of Papa Johns or used car dealerships is impressive by most standards, but hoisting multiple Lombardi Trophies is something else entirely. Whatever choice Peyton Manning makes in the coming weeks, you can be assured that it’s a tough one. Whatever embarrassment or uncertainty Peyton may face in returning for another season sure to be fraught with uncertainties, perhaps there is nothing more frightening or intimidating as facing a life after football. Where once you led a charmed life and were a King among men, you most certainly face a humbling future. In some ways, it’s harder to be a has-been, than a never-was. Peyton faces the abyss today, and must certainly contemplate his future, and all its sobering monotonies.

Unlike the law, science, politics, craftsmanship, the arts, and nearly every other vocation on earth, professional athletics necessarily has a finite date of efficacy, beyond which, the average human body cannot be expected to stay competitive and execute the high demands the sport asks of them. And yet, the minds of professional athletes are undeniably sharpest and keenly wise about their sport in those golden waning years — unquestionably surpassing the skill sets and knowledge base of their younger competitors. So then, how profoundly unjust it must feel to have an unparalleled body of knowledge about your sport, and an increasingly weakened and ineffective physical body, unable to execute the acuity of the mind, but not for want of trying. With such an infuriating dichotomy of mind and body, one could conclude that the aging athlete is more acutely familiar with the plight of an elderly person than anyone else. It’s clear to see the parallels, when you consider that both older athletes and the elderly experience heightened feelings of trauma and grief, depression, feelings of hopelessness, despair, feelings of uselessness, isolation from friends, family, and fans, loss of esteem, accelerated deterioration of the physical body, forgetfulness and cognitive degradation, concerns about shrinking economic resources, challenges of retirement, and even struggles with end of life issues!

To understand the mindset of an athlete, you must first consider the ubiquity of sports in our lives — for good and for bad. Regardless of nation or ethnic origin, we humans are practically weaned on sports, and for every athlete that competes, there are thousands who do not play, but are enthusiastic fans. Unlike other professions, sports are with us from an early age, and are arguably more ubiquitous than any other pastime-turned-job, being required in school curriculums, played in organized clubs intramurally and through organized academic organizations, and informally played in the schoolyard, on courts, and on fields across the world. In short, we are surrounded by sports from the womb to the tomb, and it is an inescapable part of our everyday lives. Just as an actor who goes on to become a star in Hollywood once acted with amateurs in community theatre, the professional athlete also likely got his or her start playing organized sports with other children, for the purpose of discipline, distraction, exercise, or what have you. Somewhere along the line, they developed an aptitude for their pursuit, and undoubtedly began to stand out on the field. From there, one can only assume coaches, parents, and teachers helped cultivated their love and skills, and ultimately stepped up their involvement and level of commitment. Personally, I was never really any good at sports, and in fact, I often felt persecuted by gym class and organized team sports. I was the kid who naturally found my way into theatre, where I too excelled, and spent just as many hours honing my craft, as athletes spend in the gym and on the court or field. Although I used to hold most sports in contempt, my opinion changed over time, and I grew to love attending any sporting event live — whether amateur or pro, and became quite an enthusiastic fan of football and basketball. The NFL is one of my greatest passions, and as I stated earlier, I am a devoted New England Patriots fan. But as a kid growing up, I felt pressured to play sports, and then consequently punished for not being any good at them. Although I am now quite an ardent sports fan (as well as theatre, film, tv, and other artistic expressions!), I do acknowledged that our society places too much emphasis on sports and are too quick to praise the athlete over the scholar or artist. I personally believe in a world where the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and I don’t have to choose between liking sport or liking art. Or science, or what have you. Funding for the arts is imperative, and should always be on equal footing and valued as much as sports funding and support. Our society needs to find a better balance, as the ancient Greeks and Romans once had. The citizens of Athens were equally comfortable attending a Bacchanalian Play Festival as they were the Olympic Games. They prized both endeavors of the arts and mind and recognized the value of the physical specimen and games of sport and competition. Both belong in equal measures within our society.

As our society now operates though, it is clear to see how sports become integral to a child’s development — either in support of, or against. Invariably, thess young athletes spend their childhoods playing sports, and so by the time they get to the professional or Olympic level, they have logged years of passionate play behind them. Perhaps it is fitting then, that their careers are cut shorter than their peers, since they began much earlier in life, and inevitably took at least some of their careless childhood’s away, while others were still busy being kids. Those salad days were more than just play however, and coaches of youth no better than anyone that those early years are impressionable, and the best time to instruct and instill lifelong strategies and work ethics. Without a doubt, by the time the social worker and the pro athlete graduate college, the latter has unquestionably logged hundreds, if not thousands of hours into their sport, and is perhaps more ready for their debut than their hopeful counterpart. Writer Malcolm Gladwell posits that one thing that most highly successful people have in common is at least 10,000 practice hours attained in whatever their given field. One can imagine how many lessons and training and practice it must take to take a child from age six and unskilled, to first violin of the New York Philharmonic. Or dominant and legendary shooting guard/ small forward of the Chicago Bulls. It’s not hard to accept Michael Jordan spending hours a day perfecting his jump shot at the local rim. Perhaps you have to be a fan of sports to appreciate how much they are as much an artistic expression as they are about physical strength and endurance. You need only look at Michael Jordan’s masterful ball play and delicate finesse to see that transcendent sporting events are about expression and creating something beautiful far more often than a primitive instinct to pummel and compete. Since most professional athletes essentially started their careers around ages 8-10, but the time they arrive at a franchise, they have spent over a decade training to be the best in their fields. And regardless of how poorly a professional athlete may play or underperform, they beat out thousands of others to get those jobs, and should be considered the finest in their respective sports. Yet still, once drafted, most will not last past year three, and only a finite measured few will make it past five, even less for a decade, and only an infinitesimal fraction will have the stamina, endurance, strength, willpower, and talent to last nearly two decades. These athletes must necessarily be considered elite outliers, and understandably, the greatest of their generation, if not of all time.

Despite the accolades, the money, the respect, and the personal satisfaction one gets from achieving a high rate of success in their vocation over a sustained period of time, athletes also must face the scrutiny their inevitable aging brings. There are generally agreed upon windows of opportunities for an athlete, and outside of that time frame, they are either considered to young and inexperienced or too old and unreliable. For each sport, there is an age range most of the elite last men standing traditionally retire, and are heavily lobbied to do so, for the good of the team, the integrity of the sport, salary cap considerations, or other factors. Perhaps only in Hollywood and the media is our society more obsessed with youth, and putting such a high premium on being young and beautiful. Many in Hollywood bemoan the lack of roles for men and women over the age of 40 or 50, but consider for a moment that there have only been a few dozen NFL players in the history of the league who have played past 40, and none who made it to 50. (George Blanda retired just shy of his 49th birthday). It’s also important to note that longevity is often entirely determined by position, making skilled speed positions like running backs the first casualties of age (typically 30 is considered the end of the road), whereas quarterbacks and kickers tend to be the oldest members of any roster. (Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri is the oldest active player, at 42, and shows no signs of age).

If golf can be considered a top American sport, then far and away, it has the oldest average players. A golfer is often not even considered in his prime until he is at least 30, and it’s not uncommon to see men and women in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s on a PGA tour. The most obvious reasons for such longevity, are the fact that it’s necessarily always played in warm and temperate weather, it is not a contact sport, and injuries are generally self-inflicted from bad swings and back ailments, the range of motion is not prohibitive for most moderately healthy adults, and finally, it is actually good exercise and has potentially healthy benefits for stress, high blood pressure, and other similar afflictions. It also seems to be a sport of finesse and experiential knowledge, where golfers tend to improve with age (to a point). Finally, golf is seen as game enthusiastically played by the retired, and therefore, most friendly to older players.

Of the four major American sports, hockey undoubtedly has the oldest active rosters, with many players playing into their 40s, and some, like Gordie Howe, playing into their 50s. Considering how physically demanding of a sport hockey is, it’s hard to understand how repeated shoves into glass walls and falls on cold, hard ice could be preservative of an athlete’s career, but apparently it is. I also have to give a nod to the toughness and grittiness of most hockey players. I don’t doubt they play through excruciating pain sometimes. (not to mention the endless fist fights!) Perhaps on par with hockey’s elevated median age of its players is the game of baseball. Like golf, baseball is “ideally” a non-contact sport, and most injuries are self-sustained. Although speed is important for base running, and perhaps chasing down balls in the outfield, those skilled players on the infield are far more concerned with skill and precision than being the fastest player on the field. Obviously, arm strength weakens over time, but the distances are far shorter than in football, for example, and more manageable to maintain. That being said, baseball has the most grueling schedule, and players may not be getting as physically pummeled as their NFL counterparts, but they are forced to battle high rates of fatigue, muscle soreness, and the dangers of repetitive motion. Baseball is definitely about endurance and stamina over long periods of time (even the games are long!), but they somehow manage to preserve elite players at higher numbers than in other sports. It is not uncommon to find players in their 40s, especially at certain skilled positions. The oldest players on a baseball team tend to be the catchers, pitchers, and designated hitters.

Of all the major sports, perhaps none is a young man’s game more than the game of basketball. Arguably, only soccer rivals basketball in this regard, and understandably so, since both share similarities in offensive and defensive strategies and methods of play. As much as basketball is about finesse and the technical mastery of repeated attempts at delivering a ball into a finite hoop, it is also about endurance. Like soccer, basketball is about fast breaks and running up and down a court repeatedly, for over an hour. This exhausting sustained effort, paired with a punishing schedule of multiple games per week for months on end, makes for high burnout and frequent injuries. Although not ostensibly a contact sport, it is often quite physically punishing, and especially for those in the “paint,” a constant barrage of assault and contact with opponents. The sheer sustained and unyielding trips down the court understandably tax players, and is not ideal conditions for older players. When players age, they tend to “lose a step” and the game they played as a young player necessarily changes, or becomes untenable. Older players often shift to more defensive modes, and no longer retain the speed to drive to the basket, or attack a defense as they did in their youth. Most players have a u-shaped curve in the NBA. The get better as they reach their 25th birthday, then peak around 25-26, and after that they slowly decline as they approach 30 and after 32 they rapidly decline. Given this trend, most players in the NBA are in their early to mid-20s, with some playing into their 30s. Although there are notable examples of players playing into their late 30s and early 40s (Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, etc.), most are mere shadows of their former selves. Perhaps more important than the points they contribute, is their veteran leadership and ability to inspire and mentor younger players. That being said, most basketball players can expect that over the age of 32, they will see a rapid decline in production, and only the elite make it that long anyway. The average length of an NBA player’s career is about six years.

Inarguably, the sport with the greatest turnover, lowest number of years played, and highest season and career-ending injuries is the National Football League. Whereas the other sports have incidental to no physical contact, the very nature of football is full contact engagement and shutting down an offenses attacks at the end zone. Although there is skill and finesse involved with the game, it is as much about pure and unbridled physical domination over an opponent. For every play of speed and agility, there is a defensive play of aggression to stop and punish such moments of skillful artistry. There is no player immune from attack, and the quarterback routinely gets sacked, hurried, or hit after release, and expected to get up and do it again, about 40 more times. The offensive line is attacked and manhandled by the defensive line, as they try and force their way to the passer. The running backs and receivers (tight ends and wideouts) are expected to catch and/or carry the ball, but are nearly always roughly tackled by the D-line or members of the secondary. Even the punt and kick returner are expected to be clobbered, and though less frequently, the kickers sustain hits themselves. As much as football is about agility, speed, artistry, grace, and finesse, it is also equally about physical domination, endurance, playing through injury, intimidation, and freakish feats of strength. Football is a wonderfully complex game of strategy and skill, but it would be irresponsible to think of it as anything less than brute force and iron willpower. The NFL is a punishing place, and as the last few years have attested, a place where injury is not only common, but expected. Sadly, many of these injuries may lead to longer chronic pain, illness, and even death. The NFL has made great strides to combat its dangers, but there is absolutely no way to completely mitigate injury and pain. It is a fundamentally dangerous sport, and many of its detractors would say, lethal to your health. Even barbaric and unacceptable in a civil society. And yet, the NFL has never known such unprecedented popularity. Some consider football no more ethically acceptable than the gladiatorial fights held in the ancient Roman forum, and gladly cheered on by Rome’s bloodthirsty citizenry. Scholars argue that the idea of  these ancient “bread and circuses” were no more than a narcotic for the masses throughout history, and a way to inflict punishment, without getting our hands dirty. Perhaps football is a barbaric act of aggression, and merely a visceral release for the harms and injustices we bury inside. Whatever it may be, it is unquestionably the most polarizing of sports, and enjoys perhaps as much — if not more — direct animosity as it does popularity.

It’s interesting to note that where most professions place a high premium on the wealth of knowledge and expertise achieved with experience in any given field, sports places much more emphasis on youthful vitality, innate ability, strength, agility, speed, and all the other trappings of youth. Only when athletes are still miraculously competing at a high level even after they’re reached the ‘twilight of their careers,’ are they typically praised for their experience and wisdom, and generally considered formidable for having withstood so many years in an unforgiving line of work. Whereas in most professions, adults are expected to refine their skills over time and improve with age, professional sports offers few analogues. It is a foregone conclusion that politicians and legislators grow into elder statesmen, aged and emboldened with years of experience. Some might accuse them of being unyielding, entrenched, and incapable of the creativity and vitality of youth, and the progressive enthusiasm it injects into politics, but few would choose green rookies over the steady hand of experience. With a few notable exceptions, professional sports proves time and again that it is obsessed with the “next big thing,” and nine times out of ten will choose a high draft pick over a seasoned, albeit less formidable veteran. John Elway knows a thing or two about second and third chances, and winning in your declining years, and that no doubt played a factor in his decision to hire Peyton Manning — fresh off a season ending neck injury that most assumed would end his career. Peyton has brought the wild success, not seen since Elway himself was under center in Denver, but still fell short of bringing the Lombardi back home to Mile High. If Peyton retires this year, was it all for nothing? Empty handed and down one Hall of Fame quarterback. Elway invested in age, experience, and all the baggage that comes with it, and only time will tell if his decision was wise. Most athletes wouldn’t get such a generous second chance. Peyton Manning is not “most athletes.”

So what kind of decision is Peyton, and unquestionably many other athletes facing now, as their careers draw to an end? And how does it in any way compare to the challenges and struggles of the elderly?

As the aged all over the world contemplate their golden years, they must certainly deal with the inevitable challenges that face them today, and since time immemorial. Perhaps the most vexing issue in any senior citizen’s life is the management of their own health. By the very nature of their being old, the elderly are often plagued by a series of diseases and ailments commonly found in those of advanced years. The human body is degenerative, and at a certain age, our systems begin to fail and our immunity is compromised, leading to various infections, chronic pain, and unavoidable sickness. The elderly are the most frequent visitors of hospitals, and in-patient and out-patient care. Due to age, many older patients will experience osteoarthritis, joint pain, diabetes, dementia/ Alzheimers, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, poor vision, hearing impairment, balance and equilibrium problems, poor cardiovascular health and disease, poor kidney function, cancers, low bone marrow, gastrointestinal conditions, urinary disorders, fatigue, general reconditioning, forgetfulness, medication side effects, diminished appetite, weight loss, and falls, to name only some. What’s perhaps most frustrating is that numerous conditions often afflict a patient at the same time, and life becomes overwhelming at times, as seniors must try and manage multiple conditions. That often results in a copious amounts of pills to manage, and doctor’s appointments to schedule and attend. Given the fact that many elders live on their own, they are subsequently overwhelmed by managing their health, while maintaining their home, arranging for transportation, paying their bills, and generally trying to look after themselves. All while faced with impaired mobility and failing memory. Even when the mind is sound, the body invariably fails, and the sad reality is that it is a law of diminishing returns. There are choices and treatments to mitigate poor health, but we all must die, and unavoidably, our body is at the mercy of nature and time.

Although I have not said anything new or surprising, it cannot help to give one pause about their own mortality and future health. I think most of us live our lives purposefully avoiding the inevitability of our own deaths and the challenges we all will face when we’re old. Perhaps it’s life-affirming to remind ourselves, and prepare as best we can. Although we can no longer avoid the destiny of nature and our genetic inheritance, we can take positive steps to improving our current health, and our very futures. For many elders, they must live with the mistakes of their youth, and the choices they made as adults. Years of unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, drug abuse, and other preventable and avoidable vices inevitably catch up with us, and the old and infirm are well too aware of those consequences.

The athlete must also live with the scars of a life lived of strenuous, and often hazardous exercise and exertion, and the ravages of repeated abuse. Although athletes are ostensibly in better shape than the average public, they often punish their bodies with injuries and prolonged behavior that is detrimental to their longterm health. Such injuries include illegal steroid use, legal substances to build muscle mass, crash diets, repeated muscle strain, broken, dislocated, fractured, and sprained limbs, multiple head injuries (including concussions and other brain trauma), various and sundry cuts, scrapes, abrasions, and puncture wounds, cardiac arrest and other convulsions and heart-stress, repeated hits to the torso and body proper, broken teeth and orthodontic trauma, pneumonia, exposure, and other numerous injuries. This is not to mention the long lasting effects of compromised mental health and depression. Athletes at the pro level are subjected to anxiety-inducing scrutiny, personality tests, psychological evaluations, prolonged and sustained stress, the constant threat of being cut, traded, or demoted, the anxiety of failure and pressures of being in the public spotlight, and the very real mentally corrosive realization that one’s capabilities are slipping and that time is deleterious to the athlete. As much as genes play a role in determining who will be plagued by the most serious of post-athletic career ailments, it is inescapable that decades of willful or naive abuse will catch up to every athlete. And the reality: it will happen sooner than later, and the very fact that they played competitive athletics for so long will only accelerate their physical health and well-being. That means that society’s most fit and healthy specimens in their prime are disproportionally more likely to develop health problems after retirement. What’s more: ex-athletes have a higher mortality rate than their contemporaries in the civilian world and are twice as likely to die before the age of 50. Many former athletes let themselves go after they retire, and particularly NFL players suffer high rates of obesity and stroke. There are obviously notable exceptions, and many examples of former athletes living long and rewarding lives, but statistically, the average athlete is more likely to be troubled by lingering pain, disease, and ailments, some of which may contribute to death rates exceeding actuarial expectations.

With the almost certainty of facing a post-play life of compromised health, and the prospect of having to manage their ailments so carefully, it seems reasonable to make the connection between the challenges of elder healthcare, and that of the ex-athlete. Granted, the ex-player has presumably more resources at his or her disposal, including managers and agents, but the parallel still works. It reasonable to assume that the memory and lucidity of the average player is also significantly more stable and reliable than that of the seniors. That kind of autonomy sets these two groups apart considerably. That being said, it is still remarkable to draw the analogy, since both groups are often afflicted by many of the same conditions (osteoarthritis, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, etc.). What’s more, the athlete faces a relatively rapid onset of health problems after retirement, as does the elder, not many years after they retire from their jobs. Both are suddenly faced with depleted senses of purpose, more free time, less structured schedules, less discipline, relatively more sedentary lifestyles, and the reality of depleted energy and the slow onset of age and costly life choices. The striking difference is that the athlete is often facing these same struggles more than 20 years earlier than their peers. The two groups have more medically in common than one might think.

Another interesting parallel to make between the two groups is the dramatic changes in personal fortunes and economic stability that both ex-athletes and retired senior citizens encounter. Although it is obvious the average pro-athlete makes far more money over their lifetime than the average senior from the private sector, the fate of their fortunes are more aligned than one might guess. Whenever someone retires — whether at 40 or at 65, they each have some serious things to consider about investments, managing their money, living within their means, and making sure their amassed income and annuities are sufficiently spread out over time and their expected lives. Regarless of whether someone made a million dollars a year, or forty thousand, the reality is that from that moment on, they are expectedly making significantly less than they once were, and that lifestyle changes must be considered. Retirement may seem like a windfall for some, a much deserved rest for the rest of us, or increasingly so, a terrifying reality for many. When we work, we at least can take comfort in being compensated regularly for our labor, but for those who retire, there is less certainty about how long that money will last, and how to best manage it. Even though most professional athletes go on to work second, third, or multiple jobs after their sports careers are over, they still face their own brand of insecurity. For however many years, they have lived in prosperity, and probably even above their means. Much like many of us, in our own small ways. Yet, once that paycheck is reduced or no longer coming, the pro athlete is no different in his or her concerns about their economic futures. And as it turns out, this fear is well founded. Athletes may boast eye-popping sports abilities, but when it comes to money, their reliably unreliable at managing their bank accounts. 78% of former NFL players are broke or financially stressed after retirement, and 60% of former NBA players go broke five years after retiring, according to Sports Illustrated. Broke athletes are practically an epidemic. Although their fortunes are vastly different, both the athlete and the senior citizen are consistently challenged by economic woes and trying to support themselves after retirement.

But perhaps the most tragic fatality is that of the athlete’s mind, suddenly cast aside and plagued by self-doubt, ennui, and despair. Depression is common in both the former athlete community and among seniors. The thrill and temptation of triumph, fame, and glory come at a price, and nobody knows that better than an athlete at the end of their career, and seemingly at the end of their life. The elderly are shamefully neglected, taken for granted, and left to fend for themselves in an increasingly confusing and complicated world. There are devastatingly high rates of suicide, loneliness, isolation and despair for those over the age of 70. For those athletes just reaching mid-life, but unceremoniously separated from what had been their whole lives for decades, retirement must seem like an end, and a disappointingly anti-climactic way to finish their lives. For both, the world may seem grim, and at times, it may feel like they’re simply waiting for death. Many members of both groups often share a diminished view of life, and struggle with ways to find purpose and happiness.

And yet, there is hope beyond the inevitable. Peyton Manning is undoubtedly mulling over whether it’s his time to retire, and ultimately let go of his dream of another meaningful championship. He is surely facing an abyss of uncertainty and probable disappointment. And yet, he carries with him the knowledge of all he accomplished, and the legacy he will inevitably leave behind. Just as those of us working stiffs can always find comfort in the belief that we’ve lived lives of purpose, raised families, made our mark, and worked hard for all we’ve earned. There is something undeniably rewarding and sustaining in past accomplishments, even in the midst of failure and regret. However affirming it may be to live fondly with our memories, neither the athlete nor the elder can hope of facing life’s inevitable end of life challenges without a renewed purpose in life. History has proven that those whose lives were solely their jobs, statistically died shortly after retirement, unable to redefine themselves and find purpose for carrying on. Whether it’s coaching football or twirling pizzas, Peyton Manning must find what makes him happy, discover what else he’s good at, and dive headlong into a new chapter in his life. Similarly, the 70 year old retired school teacher must also explore her options, and grasp onto to something new to be passionate about. For many, it’s grandchildren and investing in future generations. For others, it’s finding ways to constantly challenge one’s mind, and reinvent themselves as someone who lived to tell about it. For all of us, we must find happiness wherever we can, and live life as though each day were our last.

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