Being older in NFL possible, mixing skill with sacrifices
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Titans linebacker Cameron Wake knows he’s not the best friend, drinking buddy or wing man.
Forget asking the Tennessee Titans linebacker to grab a cheeseburger altogether. Don’t hand him a bag of chips or fries for a quick snack, either. He’s been eating cleanly for so many years that tuna with sunflower seeds sounds so good Wake can imagine wanting that meal even in retirement.
“It’s a decision you have to make to say, ‘I decide to do this and give up that,’” said Wake, now 37 and going into his 11th NFL season. “Could be nights out, could be drinking, it could be food. Whatever you decide is going to benefit you in your journey. I’ve had mine. And again, I know guys that aren’t playing now ... household names back when I was coming out of college and I’m still here doing it.”
The NFL isn’t exclusively for the young. From fortysomethings Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri to those nearing a fourth decade (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Terrell Suggs), there’s still a place for the aged in football. Sticking around the NFL long enough to celebrate big birthdays requires plenty of skill along with sacrifice, the right mindset, and a commitment that never ends.
Wake, who’s also been a personal trainer, does what he told clients wanting to get in shape to do. He eats lean meats and vegetables, avoiding fried food, processed food, candy, chips and cheese. The menu doesn’t change once the season ends, an approach the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker has followed for at least the past 13 years.
It’s simply a smarter business model for the man who spent a year as a mortgage broker after being cut as a then-rookie free agent by the New York Giants in 2005.
“I’m going to choose long term over the here and now, delayed gratification, all those things,” Wake said.
Eating better has helped Los Angeles Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who turns 38 on Dec. 12, going into his 14th season. He also sleeps better than during his early years with Cincinnati.
“I probably sleep less, but I at least get quality sleep,” Whitworth said. “I tailor my schedule way more than I used to when I was young. Offseason, too. I don’t really take any break at all. I just kind of continuously work out year-round.”
Celebrating a 40th birthday in the NFL isn’t easy. An Associated Press survey in January found the average amount of playing experience on an NFL roster had shrunk from 4.6 to 4.3 years between 2005 and 2018. Quarterback, as always, remains the position where experience is most valued, with the average experience rising from nearly 4.8 years to 5.8 years between 2005 and 2018 — in large part due to the current crop at that position.
Brady turned 42 last month and is going into his 20th season, while Drew Brees will become the 21st quarterback 40 or older ever in the NFL this season. The Patriots quarterback, who abstains from alcohol, detailed his diet and exercise approach in “The TB12 Method” in 2017, a diet that has the six-time Super Bowl champ believing he can play until he’s 45. Brees, who turned 40 in January, follows his own regimen for sleeping, eating, training and recovery.
Saints coach Sean Payton says today’s players know so much more about health and nutrition.
“When you’re seeing players play later in their career at the level that they’re playing, we’ve come up a lot further along than we would have been 20 years ago,” Payton said. “All the things that he does relative to preparing for a season that go unnoticed — there’s so much that goes into it. He’s in great physical shape. He spends year-round on training, so it’s not just take the summer off. ... There’s a lot that goes into what you’re seeing on the field.”
This season will be the 16th for Manning (38), Rivers of the Chargers, who turns 38 in December, and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (37). Rivers says he still feels good both physically and mentally. Young teammates help a bunch.
“They keep you energized and excited and fired up, so it’s been fun,” Rivers said. “I’ve really enjoyed not only the young, young guys, the guys born in late ’98 when I was in high school, but the guys that are the six- seven- eight-year guys. The Keenans (Allen) and all those guys that you’ve gotten to see be rookies and now be All-Pro players. So it’s been a lot of fun.”
Kicker is the second-best position to play and be in the NFL at 40 or older. Vinatieri is one of 16 kickers to play at 40 or older in league history. He turns 47 on Dec. 28 and is poised to become the third-oldest player in the NFL after only George Blanda and Morten Andersen at the end of this season. Both of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Vinatieri has learned one thing in becoming the league’s career scoring leader over 23 seasons.
“There are no guarantees, and when you get to my age, you’re absolutely right, your days are numbered,” Vinatieri said.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells and AP Sports Writers Michael Marot, Greg Beacham, Joe Reedy and Brett Martel contributed to this story.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker