October 10, 2009 will be Brett Favre's 40th birthday. Favre -- or as Shaq would call him, "The Big Indecision" -- is having a renaissance year after a disappointing end to the 2008 season. Should he stay healthy, and should his team remain as good as they currently are, Favre will have the opportunity to break two NFL milestones: becoming the first 40 year-old QB to win a playoff game, and becoming the first 40 year-old QB to win a Super Bowl.
40 is a very impressive age in sports -- it indicates not only endurance and perseverance but a tremendous talent that few people in the league possess. You have to be good to play in a league and be 40 -- the middle-of-the-road athletes get siphoned off well before they turn 35, and no one's taking a chance on them when they hit the 4-0.
In the NBA, 40 is a number that you only occasionally see. Right now, there are no NBA players who are that old, although Dikembe Mutombo was 42 when he played with the Rockets in the postseason. Oddly enough, the people who most often reach 40 in the NBA are the same people who usually break down quicker than anyone: bigmen. Shaquille O'Neal is still going strong at age 37, Alonzo Mourning lasted until he was 38, P.J. Brown had a great postseason with Boston at 39, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lasted forever, and even the consecutive games streak is held by A.C. Green -- a power forward. The oldest player in recent memory was Kevin Willis, who managed to get in a few games with the Dallas Mavericks at age 44.
In the NFL, linemen have a rapid turnover rate and almost never get that old. Same thing with running backs, who emerge and disappear faster than any stars in sports. LaDainian Tomlinson is showing his age at 30, and he's already one of the top 10 rushers of all time. You NEVER see running backs make it to age 40; Jerome Bettis stuck around at 33, and even then people were saying he was over the hill. Same thing with wide receivers, though not to the same extent. Jerry Rice, believe it or not, is the only 40 year-old to ever run for more than 10 yards from scrimmage, which he did as a member of the Oakland Raiders. Rice stuck around until he was 42 -- but he was only able to do that because he was Jerry Rice. If he wasn't as phenomenal as he was in his prime, he wouldn't have been good enough to be relevant at 40.
There have been a few 40 year-old QB's recently. Vinny Testaverde played when he was 43, Jeff George hung around for a while, and Jeff Garcia is currently a 39 year-old free agent (close enough). Of course, kickers and punters -- whose physical strain isn't much of anything -- tend to last for an eternity. Morten Andersen last played in the NFL in 2007 at age 48 and had a great year: 25 makes, three misses. John Carney is 45 and Jeff Feagles is 43 -- just to name a few.
In baseball and hockey, players tend to last longer than they do in other team sports. 11 of the last 13 pitchers who reached 300 wins did it at age 40 or later -- Randy Johnson was 45. Phil Niekro was 46 and had more than 100 wins after turning 40. Barry Bonds actually had his best seasons after the age of 35, which I know was influenced by a little bit of steroid use. But the point remains: when you saw Mark Messier and Roger Clemens and Steve Yzerman and Julio Franco playing at their ridiculous ages, it wasn't much of a surprise. After all, Gordie Howe played into his 50's, and Satchel Paige was throwing fastballs in spring training at age 60.
In individual sports, the only sport where you regularly see 40 is in golf. But because golf is a game that regular people play when they get older and can't really play anything else, it isn't all that surprising. Tom Watson was 59 and was one putt away from winning the British Open. Phil Mickelson is 39 and he just won the Tour Championship. In swimming, Dara Torres somehow competed in an Olympic level at age 41 -- but that was an obvious exception.
The bottom line is this: age separates the strong from the weak. Anyone can have 15 minutes of fame in the NBA or NFL as a 20 year-old prodigy. But if you're going to make it to 40, you not only have to have a great career, you have to be good enough to still compete with the guys who are younger, quicker, faster, and stronger than you. Brett Favre: this applies to you. And lord knows you've done some stuff over the past couple years that have irritated the hell out of sports fans. But you're still a great football player, even at age 40. To that, happy birthday.
[Correction appended: Bettis played until he was 33, not 35]