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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Basic Biittner: Over the hill at 30

Thursday, March 4, 2010

While many of us enjoy watching professional athletes do their thing on the playing field, those athletes also elicit another response from many fans . That response is one of the so-called 'seven deadly sins' - envy.

Many people envy the athlete's considerable skills, many envy their lifestyle, and MANY envy the money they make.

There is a downside for those athletes, of course. Number one is that most pro athletes are "on the road" for a good part of their adult lives. Again, many people might be envious of that, too. Imagine traveling around the country, even around the world, and seeing all the sights of New York, L.A., Paris, etc.

Yeah, right. From what I read, most of their time is spent in hotel rooms (please, no Tiger Woods comments), which can get old pretty quick, or in the visitor's clubhouse or locker room (which can get smelly pretty quick). And for every New York, L.A. and Paris, there are a dozen Pittsburghs, Cincinnatis and Detroits. If you're a baseball player and come up to the majors after a few seasons in the minors, you also get to visit such glorious cities as Visalia, Lodi and Binghampton.

For those athletes who have a spouse and children, of course, another major downside of all the time on the road is that they miss out on an awful lot of things at home - like watching their kids grow up. I've often read about athletes who seldom, if ever, got to watch their own children participate in sports - or any of their other activities - because they weren't home.

No it's not ALL wonderful. Much of it is, of course, but recently, it struck me again what an unusual - and sometimes cruel - life the professional athlete lives.

For most pro athletes, their time in the "big leagues," be it the NFL, NBA, MLB or another league, is pretty short. Most have retired or otherwise left the game by the time they are in their mid-30s. In other words, at about the same age that most of the rest of us are just getting our chosen careers moving upward. Occasionally, you'll see a baseball player hang on into his early 40s and NASCAR's Mark Martin is over 50 now, but, by and large, it's a young man or woman's game.

But of all the pro athlete "jobs," the toughest - at least as far as longevity goes - has to be an NFL running back. The great ones get a lot of glory and yes, money, too, but they earn it and their "window of opportunity" is very brief.

Last week, two of the best NFL running backs of recent vintage met an eerily similar fate. Both men are just 30 years old, and as recently as two years ago they were the toast of the league - winning rushing championships, setting records, you name it.

Yet last week, the Chargers' LaDanian Tomlinson and the Eagles' Bryan Westbrook - both of whom were not only great NFL players, but also, by all accounts, great teammates and much - loved community-minded citizens - were released by the teams for which they had played their entire eight or nine year pro careers. The problem? Both had suffered injuries the last two seasons and their production dropped off. Time to move the "old" guys out and get some new fresh legs in there, I guess.

Both players say they hope to continue playing in the NFL - somewhere. But in all likelihood, their careers are over. The life of an NFL running back is very short.

Jim Brown, the outstanding running back (called a fullback at the time) - who, I think, remains the best RB of all time - shocked many people when he retired at the age of 29, after "just" nine NFL seasons. Jim Brown led the league in rushing in eight of his nine years, including his final season. He also never missed any time due to an injury. I think Jim Brown got out at the right time, on his own terms. You can't that for many of the great runners who followed him into the NFL.

Gale Sayers, who was a rookie during the same 1965 season that was Brown's last, had a spectacular career his first two seasons. He was injured in his third and fourth seasons and made a comeback in his fifth, but was then injured again and played only four games during his sixth and seventh (and final) seasons. "The Kansas Comet" retired at age 28. He was the first great running back to have his career shortened by injury, but he wasn't the last.

Do the names Terrell Davis and Shaun Alexander (among others) ring a bell?

Sayers, Davis, Alexander, Tomlinson and Westbrook - all out of their chosen profession by the age of 30 - are all examples of some of the reasons that NFL running backs are well compensated. No need to be envious.

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner