Last week, one of England and indeed world cricket’s greatest ever players, James Anderson, turned 40. Yet this truly astonishing feat for a man still at the top of his game was trumped this week by an even more remarkable and, quite frankly, ludicrous milestone. Tom Brady, widely seen as the greatest American Football player in history, turned 45.
Fourty-Five! A man now officially closer to 60 than 30 is still dominating one of the most physical, head-shattering sports across the globe. In February this year, Brady at last announced his retirement. Just 40 days later, on March 13th, he reversed that decision – a sign, seemingly, that he will play the sport eternally.
Yet much though sportsmen can rage against the dying of the light (and Brady has done so very publicly in a documentary entitled ‘Tom vs Time’), these two quadragenarian milestones are a reminder that no sportsperson, however brilliant, lasts forever.
And these two have been brilliant. Anderson: all-time England wicket-taker, holder of the record for most Test wickets by a fast-bowler, undisputed genius in the art of swing-bowling. Brady: seven-time Super Bowl winner, three-time MVP, holder of every playoff record imaginable, on top of the records for regular season touchdowns, yards, and wins. A more just list of his accomplishments is mind-numbingly long. In a sport whose system is designed to stop dynastical success, he is truly unique.
Brady’s career effectively began in 2001, Anderson’s in 2003. In the intervening years, perhaps the greatest generation of sportsmen in history has developed. Record-breakers in football, cricket, tennis, golf, athletics, basketball; names such as Messi, Ronaldo, Tendulkar, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt spring to mind, among many others.
Between this illustrious group, sport has been taken to a new standard in the previous two decades. Bolt, with his enticing motto ‘forever faster’, became the fastest man in history. Messi and Ronaldo have pushed each other to truly laughable feats year after year, sharing 12 Ballon d’Ors between them. While Williams dominated female tennis, the men’s game has been in the continuing thrall of three masters: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic.
Let’s face it, these are names we all know. And perhaps it is interesting to speak of them as if in the past considering they are all, Bolt and Tendulkar aside, still active, professional players. Yet it is undeniable that an era seems to finally be ending.
Nadal, Federer, Williams, while all still brilliant, are racked by injury; Djokovic has his own more self-inflicted issues. Due to his vaccine status, it seems likely he will only play in half the available major tournaments from here on in. Messi and Ronaldo’s incomparable genius has undeniably dimmed, while in America, an all-time great such as Lebron James seems to be closing out his career looking from outside in at the playoffs he once ruled.
For years now, talk of ‘The GOAT’ (Greatest of all time) has dominated the sporting internet and airwaves. Sites such as Twitter have become inundated with constant debates about ownership of GOAT status. Most readers will have surely seen many a ‘Messi v Ronaldo’ or ‘Lebron James v Michael Jordan’ argument lurking on the internet.
Perhaps this simply reflects the hyperbolic nature of the internet, and indeed fandom itself – people always want to assert that the team, player, or country they support is the best, particularly in the competitive spaces that mediums like Twitter provide. Of all time? Can we really claim that, given the legends of eras gone by? Who among us actually saw Pelé, or Don Bradman, or Jesse Owens, compete? It may be stating the obvious, but comparing eras is almost impossible.
At the same time, however, it is possible to view this in a different way. Such has been the domination of certain men and women this generation, perhaps it is almost impossible to not be hyperbolic. Messi, Williams, Brady, to name a few, were bestowed with the status of greats a long time ago – the fact they are still going, deep into their thirties and forties is nothing short of astonishing.
More pertinently, the attention paid to this somewhat pointless moniker reflects another fact – that as they finally age, these sportsmen are becoming quasi-historical monuments to their respective games, and not simply competitors in their own right. Bolt recognised this at the twilight of his career, shifting his catchphrase to ‘Forever Fastest’; an acknowledgement as clear as any that even he knew he could no longer keep shattering records as he had done in his youth.
Goals scored, tournaments won, gold medals secured: the achievements of this generation will stand eternally as reminders of the way they thrilled and astonished crowds the world over for well over a decade. And yet it appears, at long last, that this great era is ending.
So while the news on March 13th may have caused the familiar wailing and gnashing of teeth around the NFL (and perhaps in the Brady household!) that the man is back for one more year, we as sports fans should be thankful. For as his luminous contemporaries across the sporting world finally begin to fade, and this incredible era draws to a close, perhaps the most brilliant of them is all is back. At the grand old age of 45, Tom Brady is returning, to borrow from Jordan, another bestowed with the now ubiquitous GOAT moniker, for one last dance.