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Is birthday boy Tom Brady the greatest middle-aged athlete ever?

The Bucs quarterback, who turns 45 Wednesday, has few sports peers in his age bracket.
Quarterback Tom Brady, who led the Bucs to a world title at age 43, will become the first quarterback to start an NFL game at age 45 when Tampa Bay opens the season Sept. 11 at Dallas.
Quarterback Tom Brady, who led the Bucs to a world title at age 43, will become the first quarterback to start an NFL game at age 45 when Tampa Bay opens the season Sept. 11 at Dallas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 3

TAMPA — The NFL’s resident ageless marvel seems 45 only in dog years.

Or is it GOAT years?

Tom Brady will spend part of his birthday Wednesday in the swelter of Bucs training camp, taking snaps alongside players who were still on the bottle when the Patriots drafted him with — all together now — the 199th overall pick in 2000. That cauldron of inner fire, combined with a meticulous diet and training regimen, have converged to make Brady a chronological outlier.

When he takes the field for the Sept. 11 opener against the Cowboys, he’ll officially become the first quarterback to ever start an NFL contest at age 45. Precious few athletes have continued performing at an elite level in their mid-40s, and the Bucs’ Canton-bound quarterback arguably is the most accomplished of them all.

Last year, he passed for 5,316 yards, the highest single-season total of his career. Since turning 40, he has thrown more regular-season touchdown passes (168) than Roger Staubach did in his career (153). Of the 12 playoff games won by a quarterback older than 40, Brady has 10 of them.

Does that make him the greatest 45-year-old athlete ever? Judge for yourself. Here are some other most prominent athletes who spent most of their careers belying their birth certificates, with a look at what they achieved at age 45 and (in some cases) beyond.

George Blanda

Ageless Raiders kicker/quarterback George Blanda attempted 15 passes (with a touchdown pass) for Oakland in 1972, when he was 45.
Ageless Raiders kicker/quarterback George Blanda attempted 15 passes (with a touchdown pass) for Oakland in 1972, when he was 45. [ Associated Press (1971) ]

The oldest player to appear in an NFL game had some shining moments behind center in his 40s but was no longer a starting quarterback. He had been relegated almost solely to place-kicking duties by 1972 — when he was 45 — but did attempt 15 passes that season for the Raiders, throwing for a touchdown. A 27,000-yard passer in his 26-season pro career, Blanda remained Oakland’s kicker for three more years but attempted only seven passes during that span.

George Foreman

Heavyweight boxer George Foreman regained the world title in 1995, two months shy of his 46th birthday, with a 10th-round knockout of WBA and IBF champion Michael Moorer.
Heavyweight boxer George Foreman regained the world title in 1995, two months shy of his 46th birthday, with a 10th-round knockout of WBA and IBF champion Michael Moorer. [ CHARLES REX ARBOGAST | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

The second act of Foreman’s surreal boxing life reached its culmination two months shy of his 46th birthday. Trailing badly on all three scorecards to WBA and IBF champ Michael Moorer, Foreman floored Moorer with a short right hand to the chin in the 10th round, regaining the title he had lost to Muhammad Ali 20 years before. Foreman would win three more fights over the next 2½ years before retiring after a controversial split-decision loss in 1997 to Shannon Briggs at age 48.

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Gordie Howe

NHL legend Gordie Howe played professionally into his 50s, helping lead the Hartford Whalers to the playoffs at 52.
NHL legend Gordie Howe played professionally into his 50s, helping lead the Hartford Whalers to the playoffs at 52. [ DOUG GRIFFIN | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

Mr. Hockey’s NHL career essentially was over by the time he turned 45, but he enjoyed a prosperous rebirth following wrist surgery in the World Hockey Association. He led the Houston Aeros to consecutive WHA titles in 1974 and ‘75, winning league MVP honors in 1974 at age 46. He totaled 174 goals in six WHA seasons, including the last two with the New England Whalers. When the Whalers joined the NHL and based themselves in Hartford in 1979, Howe played a final season, totaling 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) and leading the team to the playoffs. When that postseason run ended, Howe had just turned 52.

Jaromir Jagr

At age 42, Jaromir Jagr became the oldest player to score an NHL hat trick. He played in the league until age 45.
At age 42, Jaromir Jagr became the oldest player to score an NHL hat trick. He played in the league until age 45. [ DAVID ZALUBOWSKI | AP ]

The second-leading scorer in NHL history (behind Wayne Gretzky) still had some quality shifts in his legs when he was traded to the Panthers in February 2015, at age 43. The following season, he led Florida with 66 points to earn another one-year deal, then totaled 46 points in the 2016-17 campaign. Jagr was 45 when he signed a one-year deal with Calgary in October 2017 but managed only seven points in 22 contests before injuries prompted the Flames to waive him. He then went back to his native Czech Republic and played until age 50.

Martina Navratilova

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles at age 46 and teamed with Bob Bryan to win the U.S. Open mixed doubles crown three years later.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles at age 46 and teamed with Bob Bryan to win the U.S. Open mixed doubles crown three years later. [ KATHY WILLENS | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

The gold standard of women’s tennis in the 1970s and ‘80s, Navratilova had long since won the last of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles when — at 46 — she teamed with Leander Paes to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon mixed doubles titles in 2003. Three years later, a month shy of her 50th birthday, Navratilova won the U.S. Open mixed doubles crown with Bob Bryan. She even won a Wimbledon singles match at 47.

Phil Niekro

After turning 45, knuckleball specialist Phil Niekro posted consecutive 16-win seasons and won his 300th career game with a complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays in 1985.
After turning 45, knuckleball specialist Phil Niekro posted consecutive 16-win seasons and won his 300th career game with a complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays in 1985. [ RICHARD DREW | AP ]

After turning 45, baseball’s knuckleball extraordinaire posted consecutive 16-win seasons (1984-85), capped by his 300th career win, an 8-0 complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays on Oct. 6, 1985. Barely using his trademark pitch, Niekro allowed only four hits en route to becoming the oldest big-leaguer (46 years, 188 days) to pitch a shutout. He’d pitch two more seasons, totaling 18 wins before retiring with a three-inning cameo for the Braves in 1987.

Jack Nicklaus

At age 46, golf legend Jack Nicklaus blistered the back nine at Augusta on the final day to rally for an improbable triumph at the 1986 Masters.
At age 46, golf legend Jack Nicklaus blistered the back nine at Augusta on the final day to rally for an improbable triumph at the 1986 Masters. [ AP ]

While Phil Mickelson’s triumph at the 2021 PGA Championship — shortly before his 51st birthday — made him the oldest golfer ever to win a major, Nicklaus’ surreal comeback at the 1986 Masters still seems to resonate more. The Golden Bear, then 46, hadn’t won a major in six years when he blistered the back nine at Augusta (6-under-par 30) on the final day en route to a 7-under 65 and one-stroke win. Still three shots behind the leaders after 12 holes, Nicklaus eagled the par-5 15th, birdied the par-3 16th, then drained an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 17. Verne Lundquist’s call of the putt for CBS (“Yessirrr!”) remains iconic.

Satchel Paige

In this Aug. 17, 1961 photo, pitcher Satchel Paige is shown during the Negro American League 29th East-West All Star game at New York's Yankee Stadium. Segregation kept Paige out of the majors until age 42, but he still made two all-star teams.
In this Aug. 17, 1961 photo, pitcher Satchel Paige is shown during the Negro American League 29th East-West All Star game at New York's Yankee Stadium. Segregation kept Paige out of the majors until age 42, but he still made two all-star teams. [ HARRY HARRIS | AP ]

Because baseball remained segregated for more than half his life, Paige — arguably the greatest Negro leagues pitcher ever — didn’t make his big-league debut until he was 42. Nonetheless, he made two all-star teams and helped lead Cleveland to a world title in his 1948 “rookie” season (6-1, 2.48 ERA, two shutouts). In 1953, when he turned 47, Paige went 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA for a St. Louis Browns team that lost 90 games. He kept pitching, either in the minors or on the barnstorming circuit, until his mid-50s, and pitched three scoreless innings in a game for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965, when he was 59.

Nolan Ryan

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh big-league no-hitter in May 1991 at age 44 and continued pitching for the Rangers until age 46.
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh big-league no-hitter in May 1991 at age 44 and continued pitching for the Rangers until age 46. [ BILL JANSCHA | Associated Press (1991) ]

The velocity that once got Ryan into the Guinness Book of World Records had dissipated by Ryan’s 45th birthday. His 157-1/3 innings pitched and 157 strikeouts in 1992 were his fewest in a year since the strike-shortened 1981 season. The numbers were even worse the following year (his last in the majors), though he registered a triumph for all middle-agers when he headlocked and pounded away at the noggin of Robin Ventura after the White Sox infielder’s misguided decision to charge the mound upon being hit by a pitch.

Kelly Slater

Eleven-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater, pictured prior to competing in Heat 3 of the opening round at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach on April 11 at Bells Beach, Victoria, Australia.
Eleven-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater, pictured prior to competing in Heat 3 of the opening round at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach on April 11 at Bells Beach, Victoria, Australia. [ WSL | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

This Cocoa Beach native essentially is Brady with a board. Widely regarded as the greatest surfer of all time, Slater won the triple crown of surfing (the last three major events of the pro season) for the the third time in 2019, when he was 47. This past February, days before turning 50, he won the Billabong Pro Pipeline, one of the sport’s most esteemed events. After that triumph, he said he texted Brady — a good friend — for advice on retirement. Needless to say, Slater’s still surfing.

Honorable mentions

Bernard Hopkins: Won five of nine fights, two world titles after turning 45.

Phil Mickelson: Golf’s oldest major championship winner (PGA Championship, age 50).

Jamie Moyer: Pitched in majors until he was 49, going 16-7 (3.71 ERA) with Phillies at 45.

Pete Rose: Became baseball’s all-time hits king at 45, then played another season.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias: May still have been winning golf titles into her 50s had cancer not taken her life at 45.

Contact Joey Knight at jknightsr@gmail.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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