Just for kicks and not for long
Thursday, January 5, 2017 4:42 AM
Ladies and gentlemen, after watching the football seasons come to an unceremonious end for the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cincinnati Bengals over the past weekend, coupled with the fact that we have ushered in another new year, I recalled and pondered an offering I penned a few years back that lamented how few pro sports players there were that were my age or older.
Pictured is a young rookie quarterback named Peyton Manning in 1998. (Photo by Steve Roush.)
Well, as you might imagine, that list has gotten quite a bit shorter.
When it comes to the National Football League, there is only one active player who is older than I am – Adam Vinatieri, the kicker for the Colts, who turned 44 on Dec. 28. Speaking of Vinatieri, he’s probably not a happy camper this week after the Colts won a meaningless game on Sunday against Jacksonville. In the 24-20 victory by the Colts, the veteran kicker nailed a 45-yard field goal but missed a 48-yarder.
No big deal, right?
Well, going into the game, the three-time Super Bowl winner had an 89.7 field goal percentage, and if he finished the season with a 90-percent field goal percentage or better, a $500,000 bonus would have kicked in.
Ain’t that a kick in the head?
Speaking of kickers, Phil Dawson (age 42), the longtime Cleveland Brown, is the next oldest current NFL player, followed by punter Shane Lechler (40), future Hall-of-Fame QB Tom Brady (39), kicker Sebastian Janikowski (38), former Bengals defensive back Terence Newman (38), Saints star QB Drew Brees (37) and five-time Pro Bowl WR Steve Smith Sr. (37), who announced after the Ravens lost to the Bengals on Sunday that he would be retiring.
If I remember correctly, Steve Smith wasn’t going by “Senior” back when I was a sports editor at a North Carolina daily newspaper a decade ago when he was playing for the Carolina Panthers and was still in his 20s. Now Stevonne Latrall Smith Sr. is leaving the game.
Also retiring after winning the Super Bowl this past February was Peyton Manning, now age 40, who enjoyed a stellar 18-year career with the Colts and Broncos. (Fast fact: As a rookie, Manning played a preseason game in 1998 against the Cincinnati Bengals at old Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field. I can’t remember who won that game, but I do remember that an editor named Rory Ryan and I were there that August night.)
After I turn another year older later this month, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are just a dozen players in NFL history who played their last season at my age or older – with Hall of Fame quarterback and kicker George Blanda being the oldest player, retiring in 1975 at the age of 48. But fear not, all is not lost for those of us who aren’t in our 20s and 30s any longer. We still have Joe Thomas Sr.
In case you missed it, Joe Sr., the 55-year-old father of Green Bay Packers linebacker Joe Thomas Jr., made his college football debut in November for South Carolina State.
Joe Sr. took the field in a 32-0 victory over Savannah State on Senior Day as a walk-on running back for South Carolina State, where Joe Jr. played from 2010-13. In the opening quarter, Joe Sr. took a handoff and gained three yards. He finished the game with four carries. Afterward, the team presented him with a game ball, and Joe, Sr. said that he “felt like a hero” and that it was “one of the happiest days” of his life. He added that people should “never give up” on their dreams.
I like that.
Speaking of college football, there was some recent controversy and debate as a pair of stellar running backs – Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford – opted not to play in their respective team’s bowl game. Turns out, both LSU and Stanford won, but fears abounded that Fournette and McCaffrey would kick off a troubling trend that might even destroy the sport’s historic bowl system.
Former OSU star and rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott initially tweeted, “All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games. I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray” before backtracking a bit when he learned that both Fournette and McCaffrey had been battling injuries during the year.
Alabama coach Nick Saban hit the nail on the head when he said, “We created this. It used to be to go to the Rose Bowl, when you played in the Big 10, that was the ultimate experience you could have. When you played in the SEC, going to the Sugar Bowl was that same thing, and when you played in the Big 12, it was going to the Orange Bowl. Those things don’t exist anymore. We have a playoff, and everybody is interested in the playoff.
Nobody is interested in anything else. So now that that’s trickled down to the players, how could you blame the players for that? I can’t blame the players for that.”
When Ohio State “settled” for playing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016, you might remember that Irish standout linebacker Jaylon Smith tore his ACL and LCL and suffered nerve damage early in the contest. It was widely speculated that Smith would have been a top-five draft pick prior to the injury – he ended up being drafted in the second round and still hasn’t played an NFL game, and it’s uncertain whether he will ever play again. If he had been drafted in the top five, he would have gotten more than $20 million guaranteed. He got a four-year, $6.5 million contract with $4.5 million guaranteed instead.
And on New Year’s Eve, Michigan All-American tight end Jake Butt tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl. He was considered a potential early- round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Now, who knows?
I certainly don’t blame players like Elliott and OSU All-American Malik Hooker for entering the draft early, nor do I blame players like Fournette and McCaffrey for ending their seasons early and protecting their financial interests. Heck, the NCAA and the NFL both do the same thing.
Just remember, for the majority of pro football players, the NFL stands for “Not For Long.” And when it’s all over, they’re the ones who have to pay the bills.
Steve Roush is a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press.