This is 40: Tom Brady Leading the Way for Athletes Aging Over the Hill

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The case for Tom Brady as best NFL player ever
Monday July 24th, 2017

This story appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

On Aug. 3, Tom Brady will turn 40, and if that doesn’t make you feel old, consider how he’ll “celebrate.” Oh, Brady has big plans: to receive a soft-tissue massage from his body coach, pop bottles (of water, which he’ll mix with electrolytes) and perhaps savor a single coconut macaroon. What he’s most looking forward to is his 7 a.m. football practice on what will be the eighth day of Patriots training camp. “Everybody else is going to make 40 a big deal,” Brady says. “I just want a normal day.”

When Brady begins his fifth decade, 179 days will have passed since New England mounted its Feb. 5 comeback victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI. He took the rest of the month off, but in the ensuing weeks he reviewed and critiqued every offensive play from the Patriots’ 2016 season—twice; worked out daily while on vacation; and traveled through Asia promoting his athletic lifestyle brand, for which he also wrote a book, The TB12 Method, that will be released worldwide in September. But Brady didn’t just monetize his avocado-ice-cream ethos. He lived it.

Brady’s body coach, holistic fitness Svengali Alex Guerrero, describes the Asia sojourn as their version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (a reference best understood by those who are Brady’s age and older). The quarterback sampled local delicacies, like Peking duck, and walked some streets in Japan and China without being mobbed. But let’s be clear: “Day off” here is relative to Brady’s standards. On their working vacation, the duo conducted two-hour practices, ate mostly their own prepackaged food (organic, high in protein, no dairy, no sugar) and hawked their health program, in all its trace-minerals-recovery-pajamas-vibrating-foam-roller glory.

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That wasn’t by accident. Everything Brady does is calculated, and he and Guerrero have eyes trained on futures both immediate and long-term. They’ve devoted more than a decade to these routines so Brady can simultaneously throw touchdowns, crush souls and prepare for his next career, for when he does retire—he plans to play until age 45 and isn’t ruling out playing at 50—and becomes something of a lifestyle guru. Picture Brady onstage, with Guerrero beside him, the TB12 logo splashed everywhere while they wax philosophical on Eastern medicine and biometrics. Think flowing white robes, headset microphones, neatly trimmed beards. “Something like that,” Brady says, laughing.

This season marks Year 13 for Brady and Guerrero, a pair who spend more time together than most married couples, swearing to remain faithful in health and in better health. They opened their TB12 Sports Therapy Center up the hill from Gillette Stadium in 2013 and started selling products last year, peddling lemon protein bars made with Himalayan pink salt, resistance bands built with “surgical-grade dipped latex tubing” and athlete recovery sleepwear that fits “next-to-skin without the squeeze.” (Guerrero’s work has drawn controversy: In ’03, for instance, the FTC sanctioned him for marketing a beverage he claimed cured cancer. Brady himself, however, has consistently backed Guerrero and his methodology.)

The pair’s entry into the wellness-performance market seems perfectly timed, given the way the sports world has been changing. Athletes aren’t just reforming their diet and taking up yoga; they’re wearing energy medallions, meditating and employing body coaches. “We look at it as a movement,” says Guerrero.

As Brady refined his process through his 30s, he looked specifically at how he could not just play at 40 but also dominate in the years beyond. That’s why he focused on muscle pliability, designing an elaborate stretching routine and receiving soft-tissue massages after each workout. That’s why he played brain games on his computer—12 birds flash the screen, find the one with dark wings, and click on that area as fast as possible—to boost his cognitive function. And that’s why he obsessed over preventing injuries rather than responding to them.

History suggests that time will eventually hand Brady a defeat, as it has for every quarterback who approached 40 thinking he could play forever. He remembers watching his childhood idol, Joe Montana, plod through two solid but unspectacular seasons with the Chiefs at ages 37 and 38. He saw Brett Favre come within an interception of going to the Super Bowl while starring for the Vikings at 40 but then decline so quickly that his career ended after the next season. But the only history Brady is interested in is the history he’ll make. “We always talk about the difference between just playing and performing,” Guerrero says. “I mean, look at Peyton Manning. He won a Super Bowl at age 39. But that wasn’t sustaining peak performance.”

In his quadragenarian pursuit to play longer and longer and longer, Brady is not alone. Athletes across sports are eating better, stretching more, training smarter and downing water as if their Brita pitchers pour out filtered youth juice. They’re not retiring when they near or pass 40, not hanging around to simply provide “leadership.” They’re winning Super Bowl MVPs at 39 . . . and fighting inside steel cages . . . and schooling teammates half their age on soccer fields . . . and punishing fools on hockey rinks . . . and smashing home runs off millennial pitchers . . . and steering cars around tracks at dizzying speeds.

 “It’s just evolution,” Brady says. “To evolve, to do things better, that’s in our DNA. Think about the sneakers a guy like Bill Russell played in. Imagine the floors.”

“Everything evolves,” he says, “and you’re seeing that everywhere in sports.”

THE FIGHTER (AGE 38)

As a lifelong Saints fan, Daniel Cormier watched giddily as the Patriots carved up New Orleans’s division rivals in the Super Bowl. But Cormier paid more attention to the older athlete who held the knife. He doesn’t know Brady, but he could relate to him. Having transitioned from two-time Olympic wrestler to mixed martial arts light heavyweight star when he turned 30, Cormier often listened to Brady’s interviews, mining them for tips.

Cormier won his first 15 UFC bouts, despite grappling with some opponents in their early or mid-20s. Like Brady, he assembled a support staff. Team Cormier grew to include a head coach who handles kickboxing, a jujitsu coach, a ground-game coach, a strength coach and two boxing coaches, along with a nutritionist, a chef and three friends or relatives who round out his support team. That’s at least 11 people who get one man ready for a fight. “I don’t do anything except train,” Cormier says. “I don’t drive myself to practice. I don’t do laundry. I don’t have to mix my own protein shake.”

He didn’t truly understand what he needed, Cormier says, until he turned 37 and his body started to break down. He expanded his team then. The chef and nutritionist introduced salads into his diet—he swears he never ate one until he was 36—and swapped out fast food with snacks like kimchi and raw spinach. His coaches shortened his training camps, from 13 weeks to eight, and cut the rounds he sparred weekly before fights, from 15 to around 10.

Cormier first experimented with this training regimen before UFC 200 in July 2016, and while he defeated a fading legend, 41-year-old Anderson Silva, by decision, he felt unsteady in the ring, as if he had changed too much. In his next bout, a submission victory in April over Anthony Johnson, he found a better balance. “For a 38-year-old guy to win, everything has to work together,” he says. (Johnson retired after their bout—at 33.)

Like all older athletes, even Brady, Cormier is starting to look ahead. He has to. “I try not to think about the end, but it’s natural,” he says. “I mean, sitting at the desk at Fox Sports seems way better than getting punched in the head for a living. I’m starting to look forward to it.”

This is what 38 sounds like now in sports. “I’m not done,” says Cormier. “And I believe my desire to fight will run out before I’m not able to.”

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THE STRIKER (AGE 39)

At last year’s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, a soccer star met a kindred spirit from the NFL on the infield. Didier Drogba, the fourth-leading goal scorer in Chelsea’s storied English Premier League history, former captain of the Ivory Coast national team and two-time African Footballer of the Year, extended a hand toward Brady and started a conversation.

Formula 1 cars zipped past at more than 200 miles an hour, but Drogba hardly noticed them. He and Brady were getting deep on . . . muscle elasticity. They were comparing notes on how often they . . . stretched. (For Drogba, it’s two to three hours a day). “We really got on,” Drogba says. “Because we were speaking the same language.”

Drogba needled Brady for the strict nature of his diet. Brady asked Drogba about endurance training, and Drogba told him the key was counterintuitive, that what he needed most was enough rest. They laughed about their young teammates who think they know everything and actually don’t know much. “Our bodies are like the race cars we were watching,” says Drogba, who competes for and co-owns Phoenix Rising FC. “You have to treat them the same.”

This is what 39 sounds like now in sports: “If I decide to stop, it won’t be because my body is tired,” Drogba says. “It’s because mentally I’ll be tired. If I’m not mentally tired, I think I can play forever.”

A quick word from the sensei, who thinks that teams throughout sports will eventually use body coaches like Guerrero. Brady believes they’ll look to Eastern medicine and alternative therapies they now avoid.

“Why don’t teams take a more holistic approach?” Brady asks. “That’s like the debate on climate change. Why haven’t we done anything about it? Well, there’s a lot of money on the other side of it. But I do think more athletes are asking, how can I take care of my body? And we know what to do.”

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THE DEFENDER (AGE 40)

Zdeno Chara met Brady once. Chara wondered if they would have anything in common, given his height (6' 9'', five inches taller than the quarterback), his sport (hockey), his birthplace (Slovakia) and his hobby (learning languages; he knows seven total). But he found they had much to talk about. They both have starred for more than a decade with professional teams in Boston (Chara as a defenseman and captain of the Bruins, his team since 2006). And they both changed what was considered possible in their sport. Before Chara, athletes who stood that tall rarely played hockey, much less won the Stanley Cup (as Chara did in 2011) or the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman (’09).

After comparing notes, Brady signed a jersey for Chara. He framed and hung it in his children’s play room, where it serves to remind Chara of his quest—to play deep into his forties, same as No. 12. In recent years, Chara has also sought out elite cyclists and Greco-Roman wrestlers for advice. He believes experience is what sustained athletes as they aged. He began cycling, which cut down on the impact on his knees, helping him to play 75 games this past season and averaged more than 23 minutes, an amount that’s similar to his average the previous four seasons.

He also studied Jaromir Jagr, the 45-year-old free-agent forward who never seems to age. Jagr lifted fewer weights as he got older, to ease the load on his joints. He lost 10 pounds as the pace of professional hockey sped up. He favors resistance stretching, naps, cryotherapy chambers and energy chakra medallions. Once, while playing for the Panthers in the last three seasons, Jagr loaned a medallion to the team's strength coach, Tommy Powers. The coach can't say for sure that it turbocharged his energy but he admits he didn't sleep that night. Like Brady, Jagr cannot separate the sport he plays from the person he is. They’re not the kind of athletes who say things like hockey doesn’t define me. It does. It always will. “A lot of his teammates have families, and he doesn’t yet,” Powers says. “It’s all hockey, like all in. I’m not saying he doesn’t want kids or hasn’t thought about that. But he is hockey and hockey is him.”

This is what 40 sounds like now in sports: “I watch Jagr, and I watch Brady, and I could see myself playing at 46,” Chara says. “I really want to.”

THE SLUGGER (AGE 40)

Carlos Beltrán’s personal training evolution started slowly, several seasons after he debuted for the Royals back in 1998. Early in his career Beltrán relied on natural ability, scarfing down favorite foods from his native Puerto Rico (high in sugar, gluten and salt) and placing little value on sleep. By 2010, when he was 33, he had made five All-Star teams. But he also needed microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Like Brady, who had missed most of the 2008 season with a knee injury and came back to throw 28 touchdowns, Beltrán trained smarter, cutting down on his track workouts, replacing them with pool exercises. Like Brady, he ate more fish and vegetables and cut out carbs at night.

Many athletes take the same approach as Beltrán. They make better choices when they’re forced to, in response to injuries or declining production. That’s part of what Brady, with the TB12 Method, is trying to change. Beltrán too.

The slugger made four All-Star teams after undergoing surgery, all at age 34 or older, the last in 2016 while playing for the Yankees and the Rangers. Now in his 20th major league season he’s contributing mostly as a designated hitter. He’s 18 years older than the youngest Astro, shortstop Carlos Correa, a star Beltrán advises to take care of himself now, before he’s older or injured.

On May 9, in a rare instance of quadragenarian-on-quadragenarian crime, Beltran stepped into the batter’s box to face Bartolo Colon, the portly hurler nicknamed “Big Sexy” who was pitching for the Braves (he recently signed with the Twins’ organization). Colon hurled a fastball that caught too much of the plate and Beltran drove the pitch into the stands, sauntering around the bases, trotting smoothly and slowly, as if to say This is what 40 looks like.

And yet Beltrán also has three young children he wants to see grow up. He visits them in Manhattan as often as possible, like for his 40th birthday in April, when the family celebrated with dinner and a cake (don’t tell Brady). The kids don’t care that Dad passed Ted Williams on the all-time hit list this summer or that he will soon overtake Lou Gehrig. They just want him home, and that means Beltrán must weigh his physical skills, which diminish a little more each season, with his other responsibilities, which have long fallen below baseball on his priority list. He is like the other athletes in that he’s defined by baseball. He’s also the only who says—for now, anyway—he may not be able to play as long as he wants.

This is what 40 sounds like now in sports: “I look at a guy like Rickey Henderson who played forever, and I think that I can do that,” Beltrán says. “But it depends on my production and how long I want to play for. I’ll know when it’s time to move on.”

“Sometimes people compare me to Brady,” Johnson says. “That’s great. I’m fanatical about my fitness, nutrition and hydration. So is he.”

THE DRIVER (AGE 41)

“Everyone always wants to talk about the old guys,” says Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion. He’s telling the story of his 40th birthday and the epic, all-night party he threw in September 2015 in Aspen at the Belly Up tavern. Hundreds of his friends flew in from all over, and the musician G. Love performed for a packed house. On the track he may race like a young driver, but “I definitely felt 40 the next morning,” Johnson says.

In between songs and rants about old age Johnson kept hearing one question more than any other: How could he keep racing? He made jokes about how he’s not an MMA fighter, marching into combat, or a certain NFL quarterback who spends his Sundays getting crunched by 280-pound defensive ends. Sometimes he shared the surprise key to his longevity: triathlons.

Johnson shatters the idea that drivers aren’t athletes, though he spends as little time as possible inside a gym. Instead, he bikes, hikes, skis, runs and swims—exercises he can do outdoors and often early in the morning before his kids get up. All of that helps Johnson keep his heart rate as low as possible (around 140 to 150 beats per minute) during races, while he wrestles a 3,300-pound car around the track, with temperatures inside creeping above 100° Fahrenheit.

This NASCAR generation, Johnson says, is the first that has taken its collective fitness seriously. The drivers who won well into their 40s before, relied only on their experience. Johnson wants to drive forever—and because of his training he believes it’s conceivable he will. He sounds like Brady when he says it’s “definitely possible” he’ll still be racing at age 50. He has the same experience as drivers from previous generations, and he’s in better shape. Of course, so are many of his competitors. Maybe they’ll start a senior circuit, requiring AARP membership. Or maybe they’ll just beat the younger generation until long after their hair turns gray.

This is what 41 sounds like now in sports: “Sometimes people compare me to Brady,” Johnson says. “That’s great. I’m fanatical about my fitness, nutrition and hydration. So is he.”

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THE COACH (AGE 42)

As DeLisha Milton-Jones delighted in Brady’s comeback against the Falcons, she felt as if his performance validated what she knew in her heart at the end of her career: that there is value in experience, that old athletes may not run or jump or throw like they did 10 years ago, but that one could erase a 28–3 advantage in the Super Bowl. “I had to throw up an O for the Oldies while I watched that,” she says. “One time for the vets! All these coaches have to do is give us an opportunity to let our greatness show. And that’s what Brady did.”

Milton-Jones played more games than any player in WNBA history. She survived 17 seasons, won two championships and scored 5,571 points because of a man she sees every day and a man she has never met. The first is her loving husband, Roland. The second is Kobe Bryant.

Bryant is Milton-Jones’s favorite player, and after she tore the ACL in her right knee before the 2004 Olympics, she decided to copy—borrow, she says—every single last part of his routine. He played for the Lakers. She played for the Sparks. She read that Kobe used a nutritionist, so she hired one who showed her how normal blood moves under a microscope (like cars on a busy freeway) compared to how her blood moved (like glue). She cut Hot Tamales, Now and Laters and Laffy Taffy from her diet and hired a chef to precook all her meals, at the cost of $75 a day.

Kobe did platelet-rich-plasma (PRP) treatments. She did PRP treatments. Kobe received acupuncture work. So did she. Kobe wanted massages after every practice, so Milton-Jones paid for massages after every practice, and she also shelled out for cortisone injections, sleep specialists, yoga classes and a hypobaric chamber. Sometimes, she even sat in his locker at the practice facility. “I did cryotherapy, too,” she says. “I would do all three minutes, always. Gotta get that money’s worth.”

All told, because the Sparks didn’t provide all the services that the Lakers do, her maintenance program cost Milton-Jones more than $10,000 a season. That didn’t bother her. She wanted to play for as long as she could regardless of the cost. What did bother her were the teammates who started to call her Momma D, a compliment to her longevity wrapped in an insult about her age. In Russia she once played with a 17-year-old teammate. “I really could have been her mom,” Milton-Jones says. “These young ones are looking at me like, when is she just going to die?”

Instead she hung on until 40, but only in supporting roles. In 2015, she played in 18 games for Atlanta. That August she retired after playing in 499 contests, the most ever. But she still felt as if she was being pushed out, as hard as that was to accept.

In 2016, Milton-Jones took an assistant job with the women’s team at Pepperdine, transitioning, like Brady will eventually transition, into civilian life. The conversion wasn’t easy, not after she spent 17 years obsessing over how to play basketball, directing every minute to obtaining the slightest possible improvements. Sometimes in “retirement” she’d catch herself running around at practice in four-inch high heels, sweat dripping from her face. She had to learn how to “express my energy better, rather than looking like a darn fool.”

Would she come back? “I would definitely Brett Favre–it,” she says. “I don’t know if anyone would want to open that door. But I promise you, if somebody brought me back, I’d give them five good minutes every night, easy.”

The competitive nature that defined her career, though, will never fully be extinguished. She has talked with her husband about creating a health line for older competitors—her version of TB12, titled Forever an Athlete, which is what she is.

This is what 41 sounds like now in sports: “I always just want to compete,” she says. “That’s in me. I could see myself being in my 80s at a 24 Hour Fitness, still trying to give somebody buckets. Matter of fact, you can tell Tom Brady if he wants some, he can get some too.”

Taylor Ballantyne

THE FUTURE

Brady hasn’t considered what the end will look like yet, although it’s safe to say he’d like to go out like John Elway: win a Super Bowl and drop the mic, hit the talk-show circuit, maybe even indulge with a vodka soda (with electrolytes!) at the parade. That’s how every elite athlete wants to retire, on his or her terms.

The former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield remembers what that felt like, to be filled with hubris and think that he would fight forever. He spent years cutting weight and sculpting a chiseled physique that led to his nickname, Body Beautiful. Then he got older and it was even more critical to avoid the Burger King drive-through. Sometimes he wanted an apple pie and a strawberry shake. Then, at 46, he sparred with a 21-year-old who stunned him. “Ain’t nobody ever hit me that fast,” Holyfield says. “I started asking myself, you’re a four-time world champion, what are you doing?”

Holyfield kept thinking about how he didn’t want to spar with kids anymore. He wonders sometimes about Brady and the other athletes, who no matter how long they stretch or how many kale-chia-seed-protein-powder smoothies they down will sooner or later ask, What am I still doing all this for? They’re this good at advanced ages because they’re fixated on the routines that sustain them. But sometimes it’s not an injury, or a general manager, that ends a career. It’s an internal compass that tells him, Sleep in, watch a movie, eat that goddam cheeseburger.

So what happens if Brady captures seven Super Bowl titles? Eight? He’s already won five. He already ranks fourth in NFL history in passing yards, completions and touchdowns. How much is enough? Holyfield can’t say, but he knows what all athletes come to realize: When it’s time, they know. Everything evolves, remember?

With additional reporting by Ben Baskin.

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