On Tuesday morning, after days of retirement speculation, Tom Brady officially called it quits. After 22 NFL seasons, he’s going out as the easy choice for greatest quarterback of all time. One of the most astonishing aspects of his superlative-filled career is the fact that he didn’t appear to be getting any worse with age; he was throwing for more yards and more touchdowns at the age of 44 — 44! — than he was in any other season. That Brady could be an All-Pro — that he could be as good as he has ever been — as the second-oldest non-kicker in NFL history (George Blanda, the record holder, played until he was 48 and looked it) is truly remarkable and unprecedented in NFL history. It makes you think he could have played forever. It makes Brady feel ageless in a way no one ever has.
But look around the rest of sports, and you’ll see a lot of old athletes doing spectacular things, too. (“Old” is relative here, of course; these players are all younger than most of your friends who are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives.) Rafael Nadal won his 21st major at the Australian Open this past weekend at the age of 35. Thirty-seven-year-old LeBron James, for all the struggles of his Lakers, is third in the NBA in scoring, averaging the second-highest total of his career. (And James joined the league out of high school, so he’s been playing pro ball for 20 years now.) Three of the top-ten pitchers in baseball last year were 36 years old or older. Sue Bird made her 12th WNBA All-Star Game at the age of 40. The most marketable athlete at the Winter Olympics this week — seriously, those start this week — is Shaun White, who is somehow 35 now. And the NFL MVP this year will almost certainly be Aaron Rodgers, 38. Brady is, by some margin, the oldest of the bunch. But he’s hardly alone.
Analytics, sports science, and advances in training techniques keep pushing the limits of what the human body can do. For instance, dozens upon dozens of MLB pitchers regularly throw harder than 100 miles per hour, which hardly anyone did a few decades ago. Most of the truly eye-popping physical feats are reserved for a younger cohort. You run faster, throw harder, carry more weight, and get less tired in your early 20s than you do in your late 30s. I’m not telling you anything, reader, that you and I do not already know all too well.
But those innovations work both ways. The same advances in training and sports science that allow 22-year-olds to be their best selves also allow those in their late 30s to keep their bodies more toned and durable than they ever have before. The difference between, say, LeBron James at 37 — where he looks as chiseled as a bronze statue — and Michael Jordan at 37 — who was still in good shape, but bulky and slow compared to everyone playing against him and to his old self — is so striking that Jordan might as well be playing in black-and-white. Brady always credited his (super-shady) trainer Alex Guerrero and his famously weird eating habits to his longevity, but there are countless training regimens available to him that were never available to, say, Favre. (Who probably wouldn’t have used them anyway, but still.)
But it’s not just scientific advances helping older players thrive. With so much of the focus now on optimization of speed and strength, nuance sometimes gets lost. And that works to the advantage of crafty veterans. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, who had one of the best years of his career at the age of 40, has said that pitching is in some ways easier now than it used to be. In his telling, hitters are so focused on trying to hit 100 mph fastballs as far as they possibly can that his Bugs Bunny curveball and ability to change speeds fool batters more frequently than they once did. Being cerebral as a player has simultaneously become rarer and more important. LeBron is a perfect example of how to take advantage of that dynamic: He has kept himself healthy and strong physically while steadily becoming even smarter about the game over the years. Younger stars may be speeding past him on the court — though just barely — but that’s okay, because in many ways, he’s already steps ahead of them.
This era could be just the beginning for older athletes. After all, science doesn’t tend to go backwards. And the definition of “performance enhancers” is evolving, with medicine and supplements now providing some of the training-recovery benefits PEDs did back in the day without any of the harmful side effects. Brady used to say, before apparently changing his mind, that he wanted to play until he was 50. That seemed absurd at the time, and still improbable now. But I bet it won’t in 20 years. I bet we see this sort of thing all the time. So if you love what Joe Burrow, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kofi Cockburn, and other stars of right now are doing, I have good news: You’re probably going to get to watch them do it for a long, long time.