A ging has always been an athlete's most feared oppo nent. It is the invisible tackler that catches you from behind, the wicked curve ball that leaves you standing flat-footed, the unreachable passing shot that makes you realize your sport is zipping by you by.
It may sound obvious, but advancing age simply is the reason most athletes retire from competitive sports.
Unlike most professions, though, athletes are handed a gold stop watch and sent packing to retirement villas--or the real-life job market--much earlier than the rest of us.
For above average major league baseball players, it comes in their mid-30s. Most National Football League players don't make it much past 30, and both the National Basketball Assn. and National Hockey League report that the average career-span for their players is about four years. Women gymnasts and swimmers find that their careers are over about the time of their senior proms, but competitors in other sports such as golf and auto racing can still be productive well into mid-life crisis.
But it seems there always have been athletes who have successfully, if temporarily, reversed the aging process.
Those who think Jim Plunkett, a 16-year veteran, is unique because he was a starting NFL quarterback at 39 might not recall that Y.A. Tittle played 17 years and led the league in passing at 37 in 1963, his second-to-last season. Or they don't remember that Earl Morrall also played 17 years and led the AFC in passing at 38 in 1972, his final season.
Phil Niekro, current master of the knuckleball, may be special because he is still pitching in the major leagues at 47. But Hoyt Wilhelm, the knuckleball precursor to Niekro, was 50 when he finally retired in 1973.
But 1986 seemed to produce more than its share of successful older athletes, all born when records by Glenn Miller sold as fast as those by Bruce Springsteen today.
Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kept making sky hooks with regularity at 39, Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby at 54, Don Sutton proved that longevity can translated into 300 wins at 41. And Sutton's team, the Angels, showed that a club with nine players 35 or older can win the American League West.
There are, basically, three reasons why athletes retire: 1) debilitating injury; 2) burnout; or 3) a loss of ability through age or lack of conditioning.
That's been the same from Jim Thorpe's era to Jim McMahon's.
But today, athletes in all sports seem to be competing longer, and there also appear to be three basic reasons for that: 1) the lure of big money; 2) improvements in training and conditioning; and 3) advances in sports medicine.
Because the study of aging athletes still is in its infancy, experts in sports medicine, exercise physiology and sports psychology are not yet ready to say there is a trend toward longer careers. But they, too, have noticed changes in the last decade.
"I don't think it is so surprising," said Dr. Michael Pollack, director of the center for exercise science at the University of Florida. "We don't have all the answers, but we do know the body can take the wear and tear of a long career if you take care of yourself. Physiologically, we don't know the limits yet."
Dr. Tony Daly, chief medical officer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and team doctor for the Clippers, said: "It turns out now that a lot of the limits and parameters we put on age are just artificial. Who would think that a baseball pitcher could still throw at 50? Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still playing at that level near 40? A lot of athletes used to come into my office and say, 'Hey, I'm 35. I shouldn't be playing this game anymore.' I don't hear that as much now."
Ken Ravizza, a Cal State Fullerton sports psychologist who has worked with the Angels and the University of Nebraska football team, said: "What it really comes down to with most older athletes is that the pain of where their careers have dropped is more than the pain of the changes that come from quitting. These people used to be the best, then they find themselves, at 38, and nothing to do.
"Or you get the players like Reggie (Jackson, age 40) who hang on primarily for the moments of glory that touch their lives. They know damn well that they won't have that exhilaration of turning on a crowd once they quit."
These days, what doctors and coaches hear most from athletes is something to the extent of this: \o7 How can I extend my career? \f7 The key, athletes are told, is to maintain physical conditioning during the offseason, implement a weight training regimen, somehow avoid serious injuries (or find a good orthopedic surgeon if you do get hurt) and keep convincing yourself that you are not too old to play.