The realities of aging can be tough on an athlete

09/02/2010 12:00 AM |

My son is 8 years old, and as such doesn’t have an appreciation of how much pain his 40-something father’s body is in the day after a softball doubleheader. He doesn’t know or care that Thursday is a garbage day, which means the pails have to be taken to the curb the night before, and doesn’t get why I have to spend any time clearing the dishes after dinner when there are games to be played.

Wiffle ball in the backyard. Baseball in the front. Hockey in the driveway. “Tackles” on the living room rug. It’s always go time.

It’s just that as I get older, it’s tougher to get going.

Knee surgery in May didn’t help, although I take great pride in the fact that I made it back onto the field before the Mets’ Carlos Beltran. Then again, we are talking about over-40 softball, where the conversation over post-game libation is as much about everyone’s various aches, pains and pulls as it is about the games themselves. If you’re playing, you’re hurting. We’re old.

The soul is willing but the body is weak.

It’s not easy to concede to the realities of aging. A few months ago a few of the men in our office challenged a group from another department in a game of touch football. Other than my colleague’s 10-year-old son, I was the only one on our team under 50. But it didn’t matter, this was just going to be a fun game, a chance to throw the ball around and maybe briefly relive some past glory.

Then the other team showed up.

We knew that there would be a couple of younger folks on the other side, but when I saw three dudes just out of college — all athletes, all young, strong and fast — geared up and ready to go, cleats on their feet, I knew we were in for a long day.

I suppose at that point we should have acknowledged the age disparity and offered to choose up fairer sides. But we forged ahead with the original plan, us versus them, pride overriding common sense.

We got hammered.

The competitor in me thought the younger guys were enjoying it a bit too much, running a no-huddle, hurry-up offense to take advantage of the fact that we were having a tough enough time catching our breath, let alone catching a pass or catching one of these guys running down the field. This was supposed to be for fun, right? It was all I could do not to wait for one of these fellas to run a crossing pattern over the middle and, like Chuck Bednarik (or Ray Lewis for you young folks) just lay him out.

Whoops! Sorry, my depth perception isn’t what it used to be. Are those your teeth?

That didn’t happen, of course. We shook hands and said “good game,” and that is probably the last touch football game we will play for a long time.

I remember high school football practice, running quarter-half-quarters (timed quarter-mile, rest for a minute, timed half-mile, rest for a minute, timed quarter mile) and up hills with a teammate on my back, or endless laps around the athletic fields and thinking it was hell.

Now, I look at the local high school athletes getting ready for the season and feel nothing but envy. To be able to do all that again, to run, to play, where a sports practice was the toughest thing you had to face all day? Not to mention the fact that athletes these days have a lot more than we had. We didn’t have performance clothing, or three kinds of Gatorade, or the variety of elite sports camps there are today. My son, in elementary school, can currently attend any number of sports training schools to improve his speed and agility. That kind of stuff used to be reserved for the top-level athletes, the college prospects.

Now? Kids who used to spend hours on the playground are spending hours at a facility getting measured and clocked, or training indoors and out year-round for one sport instead of whatever they felt like playing that day.

Progress? I’m not so sure.

I hope at least they recognize the opportunity they have, not just to win or even play at the next level, but to enjoy sports while they have the physical tools and ability (and time) to enjoy them to the fullest. Because in a few short years, time will be precious, the tools will get rusty, the speed will be gone and their kids won’t care.

They’ll just want to play. And you will.

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