Calling it a career because of old age may be the most difficult challenge football players face, and certainly it's the most difficult decision they have to make. All the players listed here played football or some type of sport when they were younger. They welcomed footballs' rigorous lifestyle and the camaraderie that came along with it. The locker-room atmosphere, the sports' demanding schedule, and the highs and lows are only part of what makes football so appealing. The sport becomes ingrained in the athletes' blood, it's a part of their body.
So imagine yourself as a football player, and your body suddenly tells you it can no longer endure the sport you love. Your brain insists you can still run into that offensive line 25 times a game, but your body begins to break down around 15 carries. We see it all time with athletes as they stand on the edges of the sideline with their helmet on and chin strap still buckled, waiting for their coach to call their number. Instead of them jogging onto the field, they watch helplessly as the younger guy steals their career.
Yes, this is all sounds depressing so far. And it is. However, let me lift your spirits with this thought: Even though an athlete's body breaks down, it doesn't mean they are suddenly useless. If placed into the right situation and with the right team, sometimes they have just enough left to help their organization win that coveted championship. Look at Ravens' former linebacker Ray Lewis a few years back. During his last season, the guy wasn't as good as he used to be. He could barely run latterly, let alone make a tackle, but unlike his body, his heart and spirit never declined. And it was the latter that helped Baltimore beat San Francisco in Super Bowl 47.
The athletes listed here are fighting their bodies' desire to retire. These football players are fighting father time who, with each day, grows stronger. Yet, what makes the players listed here different than the rest is just how damn good they've always been. They've not only been blessed with rare athletic gifts, but they've also taking care of their bodies. Both characteristics have helped them prolong their careers.
Eventually they'll lose the battle, but for now they continue the fight. (Side note: This list was ordered from youngest to oldest. Athletes with the same age have been lumped together for ease. It can also include free agents because they are not technically "retired.")
20 Marshawn Lynch, RB, Age 28
Since joining the Seahawks and upon this article's publishing, Lynch has totaled over 1,000 carries for around 5,000 yards and 44 touchdowns. Because he continues to be one of the league's most used workhorses, many critics believe his production will drop off. While Lynch is only 28-years old, the high carry total may have added a few years onto his career. However, so far, the Seahawks aren't backing away from Lynch. In three games this season, Lynch has carried the ball 52 times for 234 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
19 Adrian Peterson, RB, Age 29
Despite his recent scandal, the Vikings' long-time running back is still the Vikings' most talented running back. Despite Peterson's age, running backs Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon, are just not on Peterson's level. Most running backs decline after the age of 27, but last year Peterson totaled 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns. Both stats placed fifth league wide.
18 Frank Gore, RB, Age 31
Time will tell if the young Carlos Hyde overtakes Frank Gore in 2014. At the moment, Gore has shown no signs of wearing down. During the first two weeks of the 2014 season, Gore ran the ball 35 times and averaged 4.0 yards per carry. The 31-year old running back has totaled 10,106 rushing yards and holds a 4.5 yards per carry average in his career. The presence of Hyde may even prolong Gore's lifespan as he splits snaps with the younger runner.
17 Roddy White, WR, Age 32
Along with fellow receiver Julio Jones, Roddy White has been a key cog in the Falcons' passing attack for a number of years. However, last year he recorded only 63 catches for 711 yards and averaged 11.3 yards per pass, which was his lowest total since he first entered the league in 2005. We should keep in mind that he put up these stats without Jones, who ensures defenses don't key in on White. With Jones back on the field, White should put up better numbers.
16 Charles Tillman, CB, Age 33
Tillman has only played in 10 games the past two years because of injuries. In week two of the 2014 season, Tillman ruptured his right triceps muscle, which he also ruptured last year. Presumably, his Bears' career is over after Kyle Fuller replaced Tillman with stellar results. Against the 49ers in week two, Fuller intercepted Colin Kapernick twice in Chicago's 28-20 comeback victory. It is hard to keep Tillman down, and many believe he'll try to make a comeback.
15 Fred Jackson, RB, Age 33
The 33-year old running back is currently the oldest at his position in the NFL. He's certainly on the downside of his career, but his legs keep churning. In his week one match up against the Bears, Jackson only picked up 18 yards in regulation, but his 38-yard overtime hustle helped set up the game-winning field goal. He'll continue to split time with the younger and more dynamic C.J. Spiller, but the dedicated Jackson continues to fight Father Time will full force.
14 Anquan Boldin, WR, Age 33
Statistically, most receivers tend to drop off at the age of 31, but Boldin is bucking the trend. Last year he had his best seasons since 2008, recording 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. He also totaled the most receptions (85) since the 2008 season when he racked up 89. He doesn't show any signs of slowing down, as he's playing in 90.4 percent of the offensive snaps this season for San Francisco.
13 Wes Welker, WR, Age 33
It's hard to tell whether Welker's numbers dropped off last year because of a sudden decline in skill set or because new quarterback Peyton Manning had a plethora of offensive talent to throw too. Head injuries also likely cut into his numbers. In 2012, Welker hauled in 118 passes for 1,354 yards, while last year he totaled 73 catches for 778 yards. This year, things don't look much better for the receiver. Recent concussions have kept him out of action and will most likely curtail any future production.
12 Michael Vick, QB, Age 34
There are two parts to Vick's career. During the first half of his career with the Falcons, he showed promise and athleticism rarely seen in an NFL quarterback. And while he did drag Atlanta to the NFC Championship game, he never totally lived up to his worldly expectations. Then, with the Eagles, Vick finally broke through. He still continues to show the speed and athleticism of his 21-year old self and is a strong valuable backup to Geno Smith in 2014.
11 Larry Foote, LB, Age 34
The long-time Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker signed with the Arizona Cardinals this past off season, and he has made an immediate impact. Along with defensive backs Rashad Johnson and Patrick Peterson, Foote was the only Cardinal to play all 61 defensive snaps in the team's Monday night, week 1 showdown against the Chargers. The Steelers may end up regretting let Foote get away. He is still producing and has been a great leader in the locker room.
10 Antonio Gates, TE, Age 34
Many expected tight end Ladarius Green to overtake Gates this year. Last year, Green started 10 of 16 games next to Gates, and while the former's numbers weren't incredibly impressive, his talent level certainly was. In twelve starts, Green has recorded only 27 catches for 520 yards and three touchdowns, but he also holds a 19.3 yards per reception average. At this point, those stats still don't seem to matter. While Gates' production could drop off at any point, he's still playing at too high a level. Green will have to wait his turn.
9 Tony Romo, QB, Age 34
It's pretty clear that Cowboys' owner and general manager Jerry Jones wanted Johnny "Football" Manziel, if not to become the franchise's future, than at least to be a major publicity stunt. The Cowboys love to be in the spotlight and they clearly are feeling a little 90's nostalgia creeping around the front offices. Romo's massive contract is not making it easier on Jones, who likely wishes the quarterback was about three years older so he could have drafted Manziel without argument. Regardless, Romo's number have been continuously elite, even though he still makes bonehead, game-ending moves.
8 John Abraham, DL, Age 36
Abraham's career is clearly coming to a close and by the time this article is published, it actually may have ended. That is how close Abraham has come to retiring. After week one this season, the 14-year veteran suffered his first reported concussion. However, further information reveals that he's been dealing with memory loss for over a year. Remember, back in the early 2000's, the NFL's concussion protocols were much more lenient than they are now, so it wouldn't be surprising if Abraham's been dinged up a lot more than the records show. When he has been on the field, he's one of the best pass rushers of his generation.
7 Terence Newman, CB, Age 36
Newman is the oldest cornerback still on an NFL roster, but playing like he's much younger. In training camp, he and fellow defensive back Adam Jones had the most pass breakups, and the former still has the knack to stay with receivers. He's a reliable cornerback who rarely misses a game. He's started 162 of 164 games over his career. To begin the season, Newman is listed as the Bengals' number one cornerback.
6 Charles Woodson, CB, Age 37
Woodson will likely end his career where he started it, but the scenery will be a lot different. At least he had a couple of great years with the Raiders from 2000-2002 before departing to Green Bay. This past summer, Woodson thought about calling it quits, but the Raiders resigned him to a one-year contract. In 2013 his game did not dip--he recorded 97 tackles and proved to still be an every down player.
5 Tom Brady, QB, Age 37
Brady struggled last year, and his statically poor season led many to believe he was quickly falling off the charts as an elite quarterback. In June 2014, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote that Brady's decline has more to do with his age than anything. Last season, the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback ranked 28th in the NFL in passes completed when under pressure. However, he also had one of the worst offensive lines in the league and a completely new receiving core, which consisted of three rookies. He faces the same challenges this year.
4 Peyton Manning, QB, Age 38
Manning is only a year older than Brady, but looks about five years younger. While many once called Brady a "product of the system," it looks more like Manning has become a product of the talent around him (aka "the system"). And that is no insult to Manning. His offensive skill players are impeccable, which certainly makes Manning's job much easier. It might even add a few years onto his career, which Brady would certainly appreciate. At age 38, Manning has shown no signs of slowing down. Just last year he won the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
3 David Akers, K, Age 39
The long-time Philadelphia Eagles kicker is now on the free agent market, but certainly a viable pickup for any team in need of a solid kicker. He began his career in Washington before moving onto the Eagles for 11 seasons. Near the end of his career he made stops in San Francisco and finally Detroit. He holds the NFL record for most field goals in a season with 44, which he kicked in 2011. Also, who says old age affected him? He also tied the NFL record for the longest field goal, a 63-yarder that bounced off the cross bar at Lambeau Field back in 2012.
2 Matt Bryant, K, Age 39
Kickers tend to last longer than most other players, primarily because they aren't taking a beating every down. Yet, you still have to give props to any athlete who plays into their late 30s and plays well for that matter. In week one, the NFL named Bryant the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week after he hit a 52-yard game winning field goal in Atlanta's thrilling 37-34 overtime victory.
1 Adam Vinatieri, K, Age 42
I'm not sure what prevents an older kicker from continuing his career, his age or the wear and tear on his kicking leg. Maybe his leg ages as fast as the rest of his body? Last year, Vinatieri kicked a career high 35 field goals. On those 35 attempts, he was 19-23 from 40-plus yards out. You have to be absolutely kidding me with those numbers. He enters his ninth season with the Colts.