Athletes Whose Careers Lasted Into Their 40s and Beyond

Source: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images Sport via Getty Images

The old saying goes “life begins at 40.” For some athletes, their livelihoods didn’t stop at 40. 

Drawing on statistics and data from the family of professional sports reference sources and including material from various professional sports websites and other media sources, 24/7 Tempo has put together a list of athletes in a variety of sports whose longevity extended into their 41st year and beyond. (How long will the careers be for the 40 most successful athletes of the 21st century?)

There are many reasons why many accomplished athletes aren’t able to extend their careers past 40. Injuries are a major reason why athletes such as Joe DiMaggio, Gale Sayers, Bo Jackson, Yao Ming, and Bobby Orr were unable to play into their 40s. For Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, whose teams won 11 NBA titles during his tenure, he chose to retire at 34 years old because he said he had lost his competitive edge. Jim Brown, who ran roughshod over opponents in the NFL for nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, decided to leave football the year he turned 30 and pursue a movie career. Hockey goaltender Ken Dryden called it a career in 1979 at age 31 after winning five Stanley Cups to continue his law studies.

Athletes on this list were not only blessed with exceptional ability, they were lucky to have avoided injuries. Some of these athletes reached the apex of their sport after a late start, such as boxer Eillen Olszewski, who became a professional pugilist in her 30s. Quarterback Warren Moon didn’t arrive in the NFL until he was 28, and eventually led his league in passing yardage twice and played into his 40s.

Athletes such as receiver Jerry Rice and pitcher Phil Niekro had some of their greatest seasons after they turned 40. Tom Brady has become the poster child for 40-year-old-plus athletes turning the clock back. He led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the 2021 Super Bowl victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at age 43. (These are the oldest players in the NFL today.)

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