WHEN 79-YEAR-OLD Joe Paterno and 76-year-old Bobby Bowden faced each other in the Orange Bowl, not even the retirement capital of America--South Florida--could seduce the two most retirement-shy men in America.

Another guy who's not the retiring type is Bill Parcells. The 64-year-old Cowboys coach was offended last week by questions about his rumored retirement, as if those questions were instead about a rumored penchant for cross-dressing.

And then there is 68-year-old "retiree" Lou Holtz, who took 27 round-trip flights in October, spent the last couple weeks analyzing bowl games in an ESPN studio and readily admits, "I'm failing retirement."

Retirement, it seems, has become a dirty word--not a richly deserved reward for a full work life but a hideaway for layabouts. To investigate this turnaround, I retired last week to Florida, 26 years shy of my 65th birthday, in the ultimate Early Bird Special. I spent a week in a retirement community in a state in which 18% of all citizens are 65 or older. And I can now attest that life gets more competitive (and more sports-addled) after 65--a daily, Darwinian, dog-eat-dog turf battle. And that's just the salad bar at Sizzler.

Where's the first place you go when you leave the rat race? To the dog races, to judge by the crowd at the Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Track, the redoubt of retired Twins manager Tom Kelly, where it immediately becomes apparent why ticket sellers bring their own supplemental oxygen. From his broken trackside lawn chair, my 71-year-old father pointed to a unique figure standing at the rail and said, "Someone should report that guy. He's not smoking."

The dog track is a different kind of retirement community, part Sun City, part Sin City. Here you'll find none of those traffic-light blazers favored by Florida retirees, Masters champions, Monday Night Football announcers, Century 21 agents and former A's owner Charles O. Finley. Instead, a man wearing the logo of the Renegades Motorcycle Club--an ax embedded in a skull--is one of many bettors sporting what is a tonsorial rarity in the rest of the world: The gray mullet.

For those 10 endless minutes between posts, the dog track provides a poker room and simulcast horse racing, in case the jai alai, casinos, bridge, bingo and $2 Nassaus omnipresent in South Florida prove insufficient for the retiree's round-the-clock wagering needs. (America is literally gambling with Social Security.)

Competition is everywhere down here. It isn't just the college banners hanging, like consulate flags, outside every condo during bowl week, identifying the owner as a Rust Belt refugee from Columbus or South Bend or Happy Valley.

Nor is it only the relentless rounds of golf, though golf and tennis are the two polestars of retirement. Condo communities on the Gulf Coast are divided between those that revolve around golf and those that revolve around tennis. (It's an upscale apartheid.) Which sport my father chose is evident by the tasteful decor in his Bonita Springs condo, where visitors are greeted by a ceramic monkey playing golf in plus fours. Out his back window is the 17th fairway of his course and man-made lakes stocked with fish, so that members of AARP are casting for carp while others use telescopic ball retrievers to fish for Titleists. In both cases it's catch and release. My father always returns his golf balls to the wild, usually on the next tee.

The real competition in South Florida is on the roads, where a trip to the grocery store becomes a harrowing Grand Prix. The jocular golf license plates--I PRESS and 2ND TEE and GOOD PAR--belie the fact that in the Sunshine State nine motorists a day die in accidents.

One of those license plates--AA52 from Indiana--belongs to Bernie Flowers. It does not identify him as a recovering alcoholic, but rather as a 1952 All-America receiver at Purdue who went on to play for the Colts in Baltimore, where his two front teeth were broken by Big Daddy Lipscomb. (Bernie's dentures fell out of his shirt pocket in the locker room, and Big Daddy crushed them while stepping out of the shower.) At 75 Flowers still looks as though he could snap you in half like one of the breadsticks I've begun stealing from restaurants. He still plays golf, with titanium hips and a titanium driver.

These guys are tough. And so I applaud Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, a two-time retirement recidivist, for having the courage to retire for good last week. Not retiring--that's the easy way out. After a mere seven days of retirement, I was so exhausted I had to return to the workforce, having learned the truth of Bette Davis's assertion: "Old age ain't no place for sissies."

• If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Life does get more competitive (and more sports-addled) after 65--a daily, Darwinian, dog-eat-dog turf battle. And that's just the salad bar at Sizzler.


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