This is when you’ll want to watch and listen to Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers most closely. It’s the point at which you might actually take something useful from them, as opposed to just awe.
Older athletes are the most interesting. That conviction comes from 40 years of watching prodigies become champions, and champions become veterans, and veterans become retirees. It comes from a long-ago conversation with Nolan Ryan back in 1989, when the pitcher was 42, and the Houston Astros had insulted him by demanding he take a $200,000 pay cut despite nine years of service, which led him to consider quitting before he jumped to the lowly Texas Rangers.
“I don’t know about this growing old gracefully,” he said to me in the clubhouse one afternoon. “It’s a hell of a lot of work.”
Ryan went on to lead the league in strikeouts and inspire the Rangers to such an unexpected winning season — they’d finished below .500 in seven of the previous eight years — that the team’s new owner, George W. Bush, told me, “It’s like Disneyland every day.”
Ryan went on to pitch four more years, recorded his 5,000th strikeout and threw a record seventh no-hitter at 44. And at 46, he put an elbow around the neck of the mound-charging Robin Ventura, two decades his junior, held the younger man like a roped calf and gave him two fat lips with a flurry of fists for his insolence, and then returned to the mound with his jersey disheveled to go hitless the rest of the way and beat the White Sox.
Please Don’t Tarnish Your Legacy, that’s what everyone says about an aging great — and if they listened, how many third acts would never happen? That’s not to say it will happen for Rodgers, who at 38 has lost three in a row with the Green Bay Packers. But when he’s asked if his team can still go on a run, he says, “You’re goddamn right.” The armchair analysts are already suggesting he shouldn’t have sought a contract extension, but there’s a light in Rodgers’s lantern eyes when he talks about how Sunday night they’ve got to face the Buffalo Bills with the elastic-legged, shock-armed 26-year-old Josh Allen. “Might be the best thing for us,” Rodgers remarked. “Nobody’s going to give us a chance, going to Buffalo, chance to get exposed. Might be the best thing for us.”
A game such as that a player ought to see not as a threat but an opportunity, he said. “It should be, unless they don’t think they’re the right person for the job,” he added. “I think I’m the right person for the job.” What’s more, he suggested harshly during his weekly spot on “The Pat McAfee Show,” other jobs could be at stake. Clearly, if Rodgers is going out, he intends to go with his butt-kicking boots on.
When Ryan finally quit at 46, he did so only because of a torn ligament in his arm, and he could still hurl it 98 mph. That was partly thanks to his mechanics coach, a then-obscure guy named Tom House. Whose name you may recognize for his work in extending the arm of one Thomas Edward Brady.
You could read Brady’s decision to unretire last spring as a kind of neediness, or you could see retirement as he apparently does, an impossible demand that he abandon his “authentic” self to become a mundanity-uttering booth announcer with a thickening middle. The assumption is that Brady surely repents of the decision to return and that he is “a shell of himself,” as commentator Rex Ryan hazarded, and indeed he seems thin to the point of sickness.
But as with Rodgers, whatever tension Brady is feeling is accompanied by defiance. Brady made it clear in his weekly podcast with Jim Gray that there “is no immediate retirement in my future. … I never quit on anything in my life. I’ve never had any quit in my body, I’ve never quit on anything.” Fact is, Brady is throwing well and with velocity — with eight touchdowns to one interception, despite playing on an injury-pocked team with a new line that has yet to coalesce.
“When you have a car crash, there’s people who run to the car crash and people who run away from the car crash,” Brady said on his podcast. “And really, when it comes down to it, you want to be with the people who run to it, that are trying to fix it and solve it. And the last thing you want is the people who run away. Everyone can be there during the parades. Everyone can be there when everyone is telling you how great you are. Who are you when things aren’t great? Who are you when things don’t go your way?”
Those who are certain they know how the narratives will end for Brady and Rodgers don’t understand the influence true greats, even when they are irascible and confrontational, can have on a team.
Nobody knows what these two old boys will do the rest of the way. What I do know is, the only thing that tortures a great more than losing is the idea of quitting when there might be something left. Watch Brady and Rodgers, and you may not see their old triumphalism. You certainly won’t see a willingness to age gracefully. What you will see is an absorption in craft even in the face of intense pressures and excruciating circumstances, and an interest in what they might be able to call up in themselves even in the deepest-trough seasons of their lives. Above all, you’ll see the determination to be actors rather than spectators in their own lives. And that’s worth watching, and even imitating.