Andrew Luck seems like a nice enough guy and a good enough quarterback, but I was pulling for Peyton Manning when the Colts hosted their former star on Sunday night. It had nothing to do with cheering for the Broncos or being anti-Indianapolis. It’s just that when an old legend faces a young star I almost always find myself cheering for the elderly player. It’s not anti-youth but simply about now identifying more with the guy who’s been around forever or even guys who have been hanging around for too long. Does this happen to all sports fans, is it a natural progression? Probably. And that progression means it’s also an evolving view and wasn’t always this way.
Jack Nicklaus’ legendary 1986 Masters victory? Perhaps the greatest golf victory ever, one of the great accomplishments in sports history? I don’t remember a lot from Nicklaus’s final-round charge but I do remember being 10 years old and not wanting the Bear to win. Where was my sense of the moment or the story? My appreciation of history? Instead I wanted one of the younger guys like Seve Ballesteros or Greg Norman to win, someone who wasn’t so…old.
Like most everyone else who watched Jimmy Connors’s amazing run to the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open, I wanted the 39-year-old to win the whole thing, but just a few years earlier that wasn’t the case. In both 1988 and 1989 Andre Agassi — with the relatively tiny denim shorts and the extremely large hair — defeated Connors at the Open. I cheered for Agassi both times, pulling for the teenager to knock off the late-30s bad-boy legend. If a similar matchup occurred today, I can’t see anyway I’d pull for the younger guy and, in fact, just a few years later I did want Connors to prevail against younger players like Aaron Krickstein and Jim Courier. I guess a guy ages and matures between his 14th and 16th birthday.
The cycle always continues in tennis — when a dominant Roger Federer faced an aged Agassi in the 2005 Final I of course wanted the now-bald American to prevail, just as I now pull for the past-his-prime — but still dangerous — Federer when he goes against the younger Nadal or Djokovic.
Certainly this isn’t an across-the-board thing. In 2003, in 40-year-old Michael Jordan’s final season and on his final trip to LA, 24-year-old Kobe Bryant exploded in one of the great games of his career, scoring 42 points in the first half — 55 for the game. I savored the destruction, enjoying the fact Jordan could do nothing to stop it. That’s a Lakers thing, so this year, when a hobbling Kobe is trying to pull off one more miracle against LeBron or Durant or Kyrie Irving I’ll be cringing at the idea they’ll do to Bryant what he did to Jordan 10 years ago.
Again, there are limits. Remember 41-year-old Mark Spitz facing off against youngsters Tom Jager and Matt Biondi in one-on-one showdowns in the pool in 1991, 19 years after he dominated the Olympics? Spitz thanks you if you have forgotten. Maybe it was because Spitz seemed to be trying to steal the spotlight from a new generation; he had been gone forever. He hadn’t aged in the pool over the years, gradually losing speed but trying to maintain his reputation as the best. He simply came back and expected everyone to pull for him again. Or maybe I just have a ridiculous, ill-defined set of standards for which older athletes I can support.
Boxing presents this dynamic all the time but with any match there’s always the risk that the older fighter in particular has embarked on a doomed, potentially tragic quest. Think Ali against Holmes or Holmes against Tyson or Tyson against life. There it’s more about wanting the older athlete to simply survive.
This is probably a fairly common phenomenon. Greatness or dominance can get boring and we want to see the best occasionally act mortal, even if it takes decades to happen. Eventually many of the people currently enjoying Tiger Woods’ struggle to win a major will probably be longing again for Sunday pump fists when he’s making a late run at The Masters when he’s in his 40s.
There’s a fine line between enjoying the exploits of the aging stars and becoming the caricature of a grouchy old man who rails about young players. This isn’t about disliking youth; I love watching superior athletes no matter their birth date and always appreciate just how good they are. It’s just that when they go up against a fellow star who happens to have a bit more grays or a bit more weight or a lot more experience, I’ll usually pull for the old guy. It’s what us old guys do.