Anyone who has enjoyed a lifelong love of sport will have had childhood dreams of playing professionally in front of cheering fans. For the vast majority of us, we know by the time we are teenagers that those dreams will remain unfulfilled. Pro sport is, after all, for young people at their physical peak. You need to be on the pro circuit radar at youth level, and be ready for a career that will blossom and then fade away once you are in your 30s.
Except that is not always the case. Experts will tell us that it’s all downhill from our mid 20s onwards, but in some cases, guile and experience count for more than being at your physical peak, as the following cases show.
Gary Player (golf)
The Black Knight turned pro in 1953 at the age of 17. Over the next 25 years, he won nine Majors, placing him joint fourth on the all-time list. But that is only half the story. The last of his nine Major wins came in 1978, but he continued to play pro golf for another 31 years, making his final appearance at the 2009 US Masters – it was his 52nd Masters appearance and although more than respectable for a man of 73, his rounds of 78 and 83 were not quite enough to make the cut.
Doyle Brunson (poker)
Poker has evolved dramatically over recent decades. There are thousands of pro players on the circuit and many more who play for fun. If you are among the millions of new players struggling to come to terms with all the jargon and poker terms, it’s worth noting that a good many of them were invented by Doyle Brunson. When Brunson learned to play poker in Texas in the 1940s, it was not considered a sport. By the time the World Series of Poker changed people’s perceptions on that point in the late 1970s, he was already an elder statesman of the game. Brunson officially retired in 2018 at the age of 85, but following the events of 2020, he concluded that sitting at home is over-rated. Now approaching his 90th birthday, he still participates in occasional pro tournaments and loves to take on the younger players.
Jimmy White (snooker)
Over the past 20 years, snooker pros have levelled up dramatically, especially with the influx of young talent from snooker-mad China. Jimmy “the Whirlwind” White has seen it all. He has competed in six world championship finals and was in the sport’s elite top sixteen for more than 20 years. Despite dropping down the rankings over the past decade, he has remained on the pro tour every year since 1980. In February 2023, he became the first player aged over 60 to make the last 16 of a ranking tournament in more than 30 years.
George Blanda (NFL football)
Finally, with news of Tom Brady’s retirement echoing around the sports media for the second year running, it’s worth noting that if he should “un-retire” again, he would still have a way to go before breaking George Bland’s record. The Grand Old Man spent 25 seasons at the top as both quarterback and occasional placeholder for the Bears and the Raiders.