Top 11: Age-Defying Athletes

The folks at asked me to comprise a Top 11 of the greatest Age-Defying Athletes in sports.  So, I  made it my weekly Top 11 list and here it is.  You can also view this article in slideshow format (i.e. with more photos) by CLICKING HERE.

juliofrancoThey say age is just a number, and these athletes know that first-hand.

While your average athletes calls it quits long before they reach the top of the hill, this group of competitors managed to resist the lure of retirement after cresting the 40-year threshold.

Some have even spanned their playing days into their 50s, 60s, or in one case, 70s.

These aren’t your local YMCA gym rats, either. Not only have these battle-tested warriors suited it up at an advanced age, but they’ve managed to do so while maintaining a relatively high level of play, too.

Whether we can attest their elderly achievements to training, nutrition, or sheer pigheadedness, there’s no denying that the following 11 athletes have done amazing things at an age when most of us are relegated to the La-Z-Boy.

11. Chris Chelios, NHL. The oldest active player in the National Hockey League at 46, Chelios has been playing professional hockey since 1983, when he got his start with the Montreal Canadiens.

Now a member of the Detroit Red Wings, the defenseman has pieced together a memorable, accolade-filled career spanning three decades.

Chelios is an 11-time All-Star, has played in 1640 games, racked up 948 points, is a three-time Stanley Cup Champion (1986 with Montreal, 2002 and 2008 with Detroit), and amazingly has only missed the playoffs once in his entire career (1997-1998).

dikembe10. Dikembe Mutombo, NBA. Like Chelios, Mutombo is the elder statesman of his respective league.  As the resident fossil of the NBA, Mutombo has been around long enough to witness the lengthening of shorts from right around mid-thigh to just beyond the knee.

In addition to the better leg coverage, Mutombo has managed to block a few shots and rile a handful of opponents with his trademark finger-wag along the way.

The 7’2″ Georgetown product ranks second amongst the NBA’s all-time leading shot-blockers, and has won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award on four occasions.

At 42, the native of Zaire isn’t as old as some of the people on this list, but then again no one is quite sure if his 1966 date of birth is entirely accurate, either.

9. Nancy Lieberman, WNBA. Women’s basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman has the unique distinction of being the oldest player in WNBA history on two separate occasions.

The first came in 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, when the 39-year-old Lieberman suited up for the Phoenix Mercury.

The second was less than a year ago, in July of 2008, when the now 50-year-old Lieberman recorded two assists and two turnovers in a one-game stint with the Detroit Shock.  Okay, so not exactly great fantasy numbers.

Nevertheless, the 1996 Hall of Fame inductee carved an impressive legacy in which she transcended generations and gender alike.

Lieberman first came to prominence in 1976 as a member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team.  Later, she would go on to participate in the men’s United States Basketball League (USBL), as well as log minutes with the Washington Generals, aka the Harlem Globetrotters whipping boys.

Most importantly, she helped bring a certain level of respect and accreditation to women’s basketball during her lengthy playing career, an achievement that cannot aptly be measured by any sort of statistic.

8. Julio Franco, MLB. One of the oldest players in Major League history when he retired in 2007, Franco turned a once-floundering career into a testament of longevity over the course of his 29 years in professional baseball.

The Dominican Republic native first got his start in pro baseball in 1978, when he was signed as an amateur free agent by the Philadelphia Phillies.  He spent four years in the minor leagues before making his Major League Debut in 1982.

By 1983, Franco had been dealt to the Cleveland Indians, where he made a name for himself as an All-Star shortstop/second baseman.  He spent the better part of the 1980s with Cleveland, before continuing his success as a Texas Ranger throughout the first half of the ’90s.

It wasn’t until 1998, at age 39, that Franco finally began to decline.

Relegated to a reduced role as a part-time first baseman/designated hitter with Milwaukee, Franco embarked on a three-year odyssey to the nether regions of pro baseball.

He spent 1998 with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League, then returned to the Majors (sort of, he played just one game) with Tampa Bay in 1999.  In 2000, he found his third league in as many years when he ventured off to South Korea as a member of the Samsung Lions.  Throughout this duration, he sprinkled in stints with teams in the Mexican Leagues.

At last, in 2001, Franco returned to the Majors for good, this time with the Atlanta Braves.  He stuck around for seven more seasons with the Braves and New York Mets before finally — FINALLY — hanging ’em up in ’07.  Odysseus would be jealous.

georgeforeman7. George Foreman, Boxing. The man behind the Lean, Mean Grilling Machine, Foreman used to be pretty good at his day job once upon a time.

As a professional boxer, Foreman compiled a 76-5 record over the course of a 29-year professional career that began in 1969, and lasted until 1997.

In addition to being one of the greatest fighters of our generation, Foreman is also the oldest man to ever win a heavyweight title.  That distinction came to light in 1994 when, at the age of 45, Foreman delivered a 10th-round knockout punch to 26-year-old Michael Moorer.

After going toe-to-toe with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in his early days, Foreman dropped a majority decision to contender Shannon Briggs in 1997 in the final fight of his career.  At the age of 48, Foreman finally retired his gloves and ventured into a new field as the master promoter behind his line of cooking devices.

6. Dara Torres, Olympic Swimming. Torres is the youngest athlete on our list at 41 years of age.  If it makes you feel any better, she’ll turn 42 in April.

Not that it matters.  The U.S. Olympian is still swimming competitively, and is fresh off winning three silver medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.  That ups her career medal count to 12, which she’s hauled in over the course of five Olympiads.

Of course, that’s not including the ’96 or ’04 Games, which she sat out due to injury.  In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 1984 to locate Torres’ first Olympic appearance.

To put things in perspective, Torres was the oldest member of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team….back in 2000, at age 33.  Naturally, she replicated that feat once again in ’08.

5. Nolan Ryan, MLB. They called him “Express,” despite the fact that his career was anything but.  The man blessed with a 100-MPH fastball, Nolan Ryan huffed and puffed his way through a 27-year playing career that stretched across four decades.

Ryan got his start during the free love era, donning the orange-and-blue of the New York Mets as a rookie in 1966.  Though he would spend five seasons in Queens, Ryan wouldn’t really gain notoriety until he headed west, becoming a member of the California Angels in 1972.

From then on, Ryan was a force to be reckoned with, spending eight years with California, the next nine with the Houston Astros, and the final five as the ace of the Texas Rangers.  He called it quits in 1993, at the age of 46.

When all was said and done, Nolan had comprised a 324-292 win-loss record and ranked first in Major League history in two impressive stat categories:  strikeouts and no-hitters.  His career marks of seven no-hit ballgames and 5,714 strikeouts remain unmatched to this day.

satchelpaige4. Satchel Paige, MLB. One of the greatest baseball players who ever lived, Paige holds the distinction of being the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history.

Paige’s big league debut came in 1948 when, at the age of 42, the lanky righthander trotted out to the mound as the newest relief pitcher in the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen.

While he posted a modest 6-1 record during that ’48 season, the aging newcomer had already established himself as a baseball legend during his time as a member of the Negro Leagues.  Armed with a blazing fastball and a deceptive hesitation pitch that precursored the modern-day changeup, Paige garnered acclaim as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game.

He spent five seasons in the Majors, retiring in 1953 at the age of 46 while with the St. Louis Browns.  The urge to make a comeback struck him 12 years later, and a 58-year-old Paige returned, making a one-game cameo with the Kansas City A’s in 1965.

3. Ken Mink, College Basketball. Mink may not ever make it into the professional ranks, but it is believed that the 6’0″ shooting guard is the oldest person to ever score in a college basketball game.

At age 73, Mink sank two free throws for Roane State Community College in a November, 2008 contest.  The stats were immediately dubbed historic.

This is no flash-in-the-pan publicity stunt, either.  Just to prove it, Mink knocked down a field goal in a January ballgame, becoming the oldest man to do that, as well.  And that’s not even including the two-a-day practices that Mink has refused to miss.  He’s just one of the guys, in that respect.

Unfortunately for Mink and sports fans everywhere, the feel-good story of the year came to a crashing halt last month when the grandfather was declared academically ineligible and subsequently forced to sit out the rest of the season.  He had failed Spanish.  Most 73-year-olds can probably relate.

Despite his deficiencies as a foreign language student, Ken Mink the athlete did something that no one else his age has ever done.  In the pantheon of sports, that’s muy bueno.

2. George Blanda, NFL. The oldest player in NFL history, Blanda was a multi-positional threat that suited up as both a quarterback and a kicker. The original Slash, you might say.

Blanda first donned the jersey of the Chicago Bears during the Fordist era, way back in 1949.  He wouldn’t quit until Post-Fordism was in vogue, sticking it out until 1975 as a member of the Oakland Raiders.

Over the course of his 26-year career, Blanda established a number of impressive statistics that ultimately helped land him in the Hall of Fame.  NFL records he still holds to this day include most seasons played (26), most PAT’s made (943), most PAT’s attempted (959), and fewest receiving yards in a career (-16).  What?  Nobody’s perfect.

Blanda is also the only NFL player to have a career span across four decades, and by the time he opted to retire he was 48 years old.  Not one to go quietly, Blanda kicked a field goal and an extra point in his final game.

gordiehowe1. Gordie Howe, NHL. If you thought George Blanda’s career was extensive, get a load of Gordie Howe.

Howe, like Blanda, began his professional career in the 1940s.  Only Howe had a three-year head start, debuting for the Detroit Red Wings in 1946.

Howe then went on to play an astounding 25 consecutive seasons with the Red Wings, an unparalleled number in terms of franchise loyalty.  Along the way, the ambidextrous shooter (yes, he really could shoot adeptly with either hand) collected four Stanley Cup trophies, and took home the league’s Most Valuable Player award on six different occasions while manning right wing.

In 1971, Howe left the Red Wings due to a chronic wrist ailment and spent two years away from hockey.  By 1973, Howe had had his wrist operated on and was ready to get back on the ice….never mind the fact that he was 45 years of age.

Howe found a home with the Houston Aeros of the upstart World Hockey Association and spent four seasons deep in the heart of Texas, winning the league’s MVP award in 1974.

In 1977, the now-49-year-old Howe signed on to play with the WHA’s New England Whalers.  After two seasons with the Whalers, the WHA folded and his current club merged with the league he had made his name in, the NHL.

The 51-year-old Howe played in all 80 games of the now-Hartford Whalers’ 1979-1980 season, helping lead his team to the playoffs.

After 32 years on ice, Howe hung up the skates for good in 1980.  That is until 1997, when he signed on for one game with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League.  His brief stay with the Vipers extended his career into a sixth decade, making Howe the only professional hockey player to accomplish such a feat.

Howe was inducted into the Pro Hockey Hall of Fame long before his career had come to a close.  That distinction was bestowed upon him in 1971.  Today, he is remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all-time, not to mention our premier age-defier.

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