From Tom Brady to Kieran Donaghy, age is just a number for some athletes

Christy O'Connor looks at the elite players across all sports who defy Father Time to keep delivering
From Tom Brady to Kieran Donaghy, age is just a number for some athletes

Kieran Donaghy, seen here for Tralee Warriors and Pau Cami Galera of Tradehouse Central Ballincollig, is still an impactful player on the court and in GAA. Picture: Domnick Walsh

IN January, 53-year-old striker Kazuyoshi Miura entered his 36th season as a professional soccer player after signing an extension with J-League club Yokohama FC.

Miura only played in a handful of league games in the last two years, but the player with the longest professional career also holds the distinction of having played in five separate decades.

In March 2017, Miura became the oldest player to appear in a professional match at the age of 50 years and seven days, catching global media attention by surpassing England great Stanley Matthews’ longevity record.

Miura, who represented Japan’s national team 89 times, is a freak of nature but he isn’t completely unique either; Ezzeldin Bahader from Egypt, currently holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest professional football player at the age of 74, after playing in a third division match in October 2020.

Bahader broke Israeli goalkeeper Isaak Hayik’s record, who had become the oldest professional player in April 2019 at the age of 73.

Goalkeepers do have an advantage when it comes to longevity. In 2014, Faryd Mondragón became the oldest professional soccer player to appear in a FIFA World Cup match at the age of 43. Yet his record only lasted four years before being broken by Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who played in the 2018 World Cup at 45.

In September, Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarter-back, and most successful player in American football history with seven Superbowl titles, caused a stir when saying he could play until he was 50.

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is star an NFL star in his 40s. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is star an NFL star in his 40s. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

At 48, George Blanda is the oldest player to appear in an NFL game, but he was a kicker late in his career. At 44, Brady is the same age now as the oldest quarterbacks in NFL history, Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde, who were Brady’s age when they retired.

It’s seems crazy to think that the player most targeted by the opposition could play until he is 50. Yet researchers who specialise in aging believe that, if Brady maintains his maniacal devotion to fitness and (most importantly) avoids major injury, he actually could become the NFL’s first quinquagenarian.

Male athletes typically peak physically in their mid-to-late 20s, and then incrementally lose V02 max capacity for the rest of their lives. But Brady isn’t a sprinter. He doesn’t need to jump out of the gym. And rigorous, smart conditioning can prevent a significant drop-off in performance.

“Cardiorespiratory function tends to decline in the late 20s and early 30s and declines at about 1% per year,” said Miriam Morey, a professor at the Duke Aging Center.

“Factors that contribute to variability in rates of decline include genetics, environment, and lifestyle. At age 26 you probably haven’t begun to experience too many declines in strength or speed, but at 36, you have.”

Brady is now within shouting distance of 46, but there’s no steep decline in his performance. It’s pointless trying to compare professional multi-million-dollar sportspeople with amateur inter-county GAA players, but there is a tendency within the GAA to categorise players once they pass a certain age threshold.

Kieran Donaghy was 34 in 2017 when he committed to Kerry for another year in 2018.

“I still feel I can do a job for Kerry and I still enjoy it, so why would I retire?” asked Donaghy.

“Because society thinks I should retire? Because when you get over 30 in the GAA they all think you should retire.”

Some of the GAA’s great servants have all walked off the inter-county stage in the last few years in their late 30s; Ryan McCuskey (Fermanagh), Dermot Brady (Longford), Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh (Waterford), Brendan Murtagh (Westmeath), Mark Breheny (Sligo).

A month before his 38th birthday last November, Ross Munnelly spoke about his two-decade stint with the Laois footballers.

Ross Munnelly in his early days with Laois. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger
Ross Munnelly in his early days with Laois. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

“I don’t like to dwell too much on how long I’ve been playing because it’s possible to get caught up in that,” said Munnelly.

If I’m being honest, I’m looking at those games and pieces of play and am thinking, ‘Is there a way that I can reinvent myself even further here’?”

It gets harder to reinvent when a player goes over 40, but some have tried and succeeded; in 2019, Darren Mulhearne made his championship debut with the Waterford footballers at 46, some 29 years after first being called up to the senior squad.

For players who are no longer able to play at the elite level, there has always been the Masters (Over 40s) competition. When Tyrone defeated Dublin in the final last weekend, Stephen O’Neill became the first inter-county footballer to win All-Ireland titles at minor, U21, senior, and masters.

O’Neill was joined on the squad by three-time All-Ireland senior winners Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley, and Ciaran Gourley.

The Masters has always been a brilliant outlet for players who want to keep playing, but some will always want to keep going at the highest level they can for as long as possible; Enda Sheridan was 52 when he played for the Cavan hurlers in 1999.

Players over 40 with the top counties though have been a complete rarity. When the biggest name in football — Stephen Cluxton — walked away from Dublin this year, Cluxton never officially retired. So, nobody is fully sure if he will return to the inter-county game.

“Whether Stephen comes back or whether he retires,” said Dublin’s Brian Howard recently, “it’s completely up to him and to management to make that decision.”

It’s extremely unlikely but, considering what Cluxton has achieved, returning to the inter-county game as the first elite GAA player over 40 cannot be fully ruled out.

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