Football at any level is a tough sport, but it’s especially brutal in the National Football League. The average length of an NFL player’s career tells the story. The NFL Players Association says the average NFL career lasts 3.2 years. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell begs to differ, saying that for players who make their first opening day roster, the average career is six years. Either way, for players entering the league at age 22, that means that somewhere between ages 25 and 28, they’re out of the league (and hopefully ready to put their college degree to good use). Then there are the players who defy the odds, and keep playing and playing, past the age of 35, past the age of 40 … and in rare instances, several years past age 40. Here are 10 players who not only played, but also excelled, in the NFL years after most of their contemporaries had retired.
10. Marcus Allen
Most running backs begin to slow down in their late 20s. Most never make it past age 30. Allen played well beyond that point, and his longevity might be part of the reason he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps surprisingly for a back generally regarded as a superstar, he had only three 1,000-yard seasons in his career. Yet he hung around long enough, 16 seasons, to finish with 12,243 career yards. Hello, Canton. In his final season, which wrapped up a couple of months before his 38th birthday, Allen posted a 4.1-yard per carry average, with 11 touchdowns. One can only wonder what more he might have accomplished had he not openly quarreled with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
9. Warren Moon
Moon spent six seasons in the Canadian Football League before joining the Houston Oilers in 1984 at age 27. Moon still parlayed his late start into a Hall of Fame career, thanks in part to his role in Houston’s prolific Run and Shoot passing attack. He made nine NFL Pro Bowls, including the one following the 1997 season, when he turned 41, making him the oldest quarterback honored with a Pro Bowl appearance. Moon played until age 44. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only three other position players in the NFL’s post-1969 modern era have played as long.
8. Jackie Slater
Rare is the offensive lineman who makes it past the age of 35. Slater is one of only two offensive linemen in post-1969 modern NFL history to play past age 40. And it’s not like he was just hanging around occupying space in his latter years. Beginning at age 32, he played in six consecutive Pro Bowls, and was an anchor on the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams teams of that era. He retired at age 41.
7. Morten Andersen
Since they don’t experience the physical punishment faced by position players, kickers are more likely to play — and play well — past the age of 40 than other players. No one did it better, longer than Morten Andersen. Andersen played 26 seasons, mostly with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, and kicked until the age of 47. He remains the NFL’s career scoring leader with 2,544 points.
6. Darrell Green
It’s one of the great arguments of all-time among armchair quarterbacks: Who’s the fastest NFL player of all time? Most arguments don’t progress too far before Darrell Green’s name pops up. Green once reportedly ran a 40-yard dash in 4.09 seconds, although even he disputed that figure, saying he thought his personal best stood at around 4.15 seconds. That’s incredible, even if those times are off by a tenth or so. Even more remarkable is the fact that, as Green aged, his speed remained. Most cornerbacks are done by their early 30s, unable to keep up with quicker receivers. Green played 20 years with the Washington Redskins, playing his last game a few weeks shy of his 43rd birthday, and his speed remained to the end. The story doesn’t end there — in 2010, at age 50, he reportedly ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, a time that would be the envy of most skill players entering the NFL draft today.
5. Jerry Rice
One of the common themes on this list of players who excelled in their later years is the fact that they were, for the most part, standouts in their younger days; as their considerable skills eroded with age, they were still better than most other players. So few were surprised that Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game, still got the job done near the end of his career. At ages 39 and 40, playing in Oakland, Rice averaged 88 catches, 1,175 yards and 8 TDs. In his final season, in 2004 at age 42, he still averaged 14.5 yards per catch, right at his career average of 14.8.
4. Brett Favre
Is there a football fan in the United States who didn’t get tired of hearing Favre talk about possible retirement? Favre began pondering retirement at age 33, and yet played another eight years. And while he looked rusty at times in the latter part of his career, he still posted some gaudy numbers — he had the highest completion percentage (68.4 percent), 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns at age 40 with the Minnesota Vikings. He was selected for the Pro Bowl three times after his 38th birthday.
3. John Riggins
Running behind the vaunted “Hogs” offensive line of the Washington Redskins, Riggins seemingly got better as he aged. From a statistics standpoint, his two best seasons came when he was 34 and 35 years old. In 1983, he rushed for a career-best 1,347 yards and 24 TDs. He followed that up with 1,239/14 the next season. He played one final season at age 36 before retiring.
2. George Blanda
Blanda first suited up in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1949, but was a placekicker and backup quarterback for 10 seasons in the league. After his 10th season, he retired. That might have been the end of the Blanda story, if not for the upstart American Football League. Blanda signed with the Houston Oilers, and found superstardom at age 33. The veteran led the Oilers to two league titles, and earned a spot on five all-AFL teams. But a few months short of his 40th birthday in 1967, the Oilers released him. Enter the Oakland Raiders, who signed Blanda as a kicker and backup quarterback. Blanda’s big moment as a geriatric star came in a five-game stretch in 1970 when he filled in for the injured Daryle Lamonica. Blanda threw three TD passes in one game, threw the tying TD pass and then kicked the game-winning field goal in another game, and threw a late-game TD pass to win another game. In the AFC title game that year, he tossed two TD passes and kicked a 48-yard field goal. Blanda would play five more seasons, retiring after his 26th year of competition at age 48. He remains the oldest player to play in an NFL game.
1. Bruce Matthews
As noted with Jackie Slater (No. 8 above), Matthews is one of only two offensive linemen in modern NFL history to play after turning 40. Not to belittle Matthews’ talent and hard work on the field, but genetics probably had something to do with his longevity — his father, Clay Matthews Sr., played in the NFL in the 1950s; his brother, Clay, played two decades in the league at linebacker; and his nephews, Clay III and Casey, also play in the NFL. Despite playing one of the most physically demanding positions in the game, Matthews never missed a game because of injury. And Matthews excelled at his position until the end of his career, going to four of his record-tying 14 Pro Bowls after his 35th birthday. He played his entire 19-year career with the Houston/Tennessee franchise.
The author is a former professional sportswriter who has interviewed numerous sports legends and has covered stories or gone as a fan to dozens of the top events and venues in sports.