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.
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.”
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.”
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&