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An age-old question: Who was the best athlete over 40 before TB12?

Tom Brady is rewriting the rules for athletes over 40, but who were the top middle-aged performers before the quarterback arrived in Tampa Bay?
Tom Brady clearly is the best-ever NFL player over 40. But how does he compare to some of his pro peers in other sports?
Tom Brady clearly is the best-ever NFL player over 40. But how does he compare to some of his pro peers in other sports? [ ERIC CHRISTIAN SMITH | Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 2

So where does Tom Brady rank in the annals of major sports stars over the age of 40? Well, he’s clearly the best the NFL has ever seen. With 17,622 passing yards since turning 40, he has topped second-place Warren Moon (7,148 yards) by more than 10,000 yards. As for players from Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, you can judge for yourself.

Barry Bonds

The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds watches a home run, the 755th of his career, during a 2007 game against the San Diego Padres.
The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds watches a home run, the 755th of his career, during a 2007 game against the San Diego Padres. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press (2007) ]

Baseball’s all-time home run king did not play deep into his 40s — he couldn’t find a contract after turning 43 — but Bonds still was a feared hitter in his final seasons. Bonds led the National League in on-base percentage in each of his final two seasons, including a .480 average in 2007. To give you an idea of the respect managers had for Bonds, he drew 71 intentional walks after turning 41.

Nolan Ryan

Nolan Ryan pitches in his final season against the Angels at Anaheim Stadium.
Nolan Ryan pitches in his final season against the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press (1993) ]

Ryan is baseball’s all-time strikeout leader by more than 800, which is what happens when you get 1,437 punchouts after turning 40. The right-hander led the American League in strikeouts with 232 at age 43 in 1990. He was still reportedly throwing at 97 mph as a 46-year-old when he blew out his elbow against Dave Magadan in the final game of his career in 1993.

Roger Clemens

Yankees starting pitcher Roger Clemens throws to a Royals batter during his final season.
Yankees starting pitcher Roger Clemens throws to a Royals batter during his final season. [ ED ZURGA | Associated Press (2007) ]

Like Barry Bonds, his late-career renaissance has been tainted by accusations of performance-enhancing drugs. Nevertheless, Clemens was still a beast in his early 40s. He won the National League Cy Young Award at 41, and led the NL in ERA at 1.87 the following season. Clemens went 61-33 with a 2.99 ERA after turning 40.

Chris Chelios

Defenseman Chris Chelios, left, holds the Stanley Cup after the Red Wings defeated the Penguins.
Defenseman Chris Chelios, left, holds the Stanley Cup after the Red Wings defeated the Penguins. [ GENE J. PUSKAR | Associated Press (2008) ]

The Hall of Fame defenseman played an NHL-record 420 games after turning 40. Chelios led the league in plus/minus as a 40-year-old on 2001-02 and finished second in the Norris Trophy voting as the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Chelios got his third and final Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 at age 46.

Gordie Howe

Hartford Whalers center Gordie Howe (left) and Atlanta Flames center Garry Unger watch as the puck slides behind Unger.
Hartford Whalers center Gordie Howe (left) and Atlanta Flames center Garry Unger watch as the puck slides behind Unger. [ Associated Press (1980) ]

Mr. Hockey had retired from the NHL two years earlier when the upstart World Hockey Association offered him a ton of money and a chance to play with sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros at age 45. Howe won the league’s initial MVP award and two league championships before returning to the NHL for one season and scoring 15 goals for Hartford in 1979-80.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar  is honored during his final season.  He was presented with a replacement trophy of the Naismith Award he won in 1969.  The original was destroyed in a fire at his Bel Air, Calif., home six years before.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is honored during his final season. He was presented with a replacement trophy of the Naismith Award he won in 1969. The original was destroyed in a fire at his Bel Air, Calif., home six years before. [ RON HOSKINS | Associated Press (1989) ]

The list of NBA players over 40 is not terribly long. Only five players appeared in more than 100 games after turning 40, and most of them were role players. Abdul-Jabbar averaged 14.6 points per game as a 40-year-old while winning his sixth NBA title in 1987-88. He averaged 10.1 points per game the following season before retiring.

George Blanda

Quarterback/kicker George Blanda kicks the extra point after a touchdown gave the Raiders a last-second victory over the Jets at Shea Stadium in New York on Dec. 6, 1970.
Quarterback/kicker George Blanda kicks the extra point after a touchdown gave the Raiders a last-second victory over the Jets at Shea Stadium in New York on Dec. 6, 1970. [ HARRY HARRIS | Associated Press (1970) ]

A prolific passer with the Houston Oilers in the AFL in the 1960s, Blanda’s fame grew as a placekicker and backup quarterback with the Raiders while playing until he was 48. Blanda threw for six touchdowns while coming off the bench for the injured Daryle Lamonica in three different games in 1970, then passed for 271 yards and two touchdowns in an AFC Championship Game loss to Baltimore.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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