A League of Their Own

They shoot, they groan but, as Ian Harvey discovers, older athletes cling to team sports for camaraderie and immortality

It’s Sunday morning, and the dew floats on the emerald green fields of Sunnybrook Park in the heart of Toronto as the congregation gathers for a weekly ritual. Just past 8:15 a.m., the Bimmers, Mercs, Fords, Audis and work trucks arrive, and the occupants limp and shuffle to the field, laughing and wincing. Boots are laced, shin pads
slipped in place, knee braces and ankle braces strapped on as the unmistakable scent of liniment hangs thick in the air. Yes, we’re geezers and we’re here because we’re too stubborn and too passionate to quit the game we love: soccer.

At 53, I’m almost a kid among the 128 players of St. Andrew’s League, whose oldest are edging over 70 with many in their 60s. Only the goalkeepers are allowed to be under 40, given the difficulty of playing the key position with stiffened bodies and delayed reactions.

It’s a scene repeated across the city, province, country, continent and world. It could be hockey, basketball, even rugby. We’re not ready to pack it in for Pilates, yoga, spinning or any other fitness flavour of the month. The knees may be weaker but the spirit is strong. Just ask rock crooner Rod Stewart who, at 64, is reportedly still kicking with a senior soccer league in Palos Verdes, Calif.

On the pitch, trash talk is omnipresent: “Hey, George, you gonna have a heart attack this week?” It’s friendly joshing, however, coupled with a comparison of injuries and wounds: “Yeah, the Achilles, that’s bad. I did mine a few years ago. I was out six weeks. You should rest it.” We don’t rest, of course, not unless the pain is crippling or we’re hospitalized. “We’ve had a few strokes and, last week, a player had a heart attack while
driving home from their game,” muses the softly spoken Dr. Willie Black, who has played in the league for more than 20 years since joining as a 42-year-old.

“The thing is, though, all those guys are chomping at the bit to get back playing again. It’s a risk-versus-benefits thing. If you ask them to run five kilometres around the field, they wouldn’t do it. Put a ball in front of us, and we’ll run for hours. If you want to create a drug to fight aging, this is it.”
Given the demographics, heart attacks and strokes are inevitable, but chances are most of us will have avoided them simply by continuing to exercise. Add in the dopamine, endorphins and the boost in testosterone, increased muscle mass, lower blood sugars, and the benefits outweigh the risks.

Some last stretches before the whistle blows and legs spring into action as the years fall away. Voices are raised,
and eyes sparkle. It’s game on, and age has nothing to do with it. We’re a motley crew of Scots, Brits, Irish, Greeks, Macedonians, Russians, Bulgarians and Canadians, a veritable United Nations of geezers with one thing in mind — to keep playing.

And play we do. Some touches are deft and precise. Each, for the most part, knows where the other will be, and
the ball moves smoothly until there’s a snap shot and the keeper dives to his right and palms it away. There’s a round of applause from both sides. We’ve been playing for years, some professionally or semi-professionally back in the old country. Of course, there’s also more than a few missed balls, clumsy tackles (slide tackles are banned here) and whiffed chances, but the point is to keep playing, age be damned.

There are no statistics on how many over-45 players there are in Canada but, overall, soccer has the largest number of registered players with 873,032 total registered players of which 132,959 are adults. Take out the kids, however, and soccer plummets in the ranking as golf leaps to the forefront with 1.5 million adult players. Anecdotally though, soccer rules in cities like Toronto and Vancouver with several over-35, -40, -45 and even -50 leagues.

The sun burns away the clouds, and the sweat pours off our receding pates. Substitutes bolster the ranks as tired
players rotate off, and the game rages on. The shouting is louder now, more urgent and faces redder: “Come on, you gotta run for that ball, Tony! Make the tackle, make that tackle! Geez, Chris, for keerist’s sake, pass the freaking ball, man! Come on, ref! He got the ball —it wasn’t a foul. That’s bullshit! Ela, ela [Greek for here, here].”

It’s not just that we want to play; we have to play. It’s a primal ritual. Our ancestors hunted in packs and those genes are wired into our DNA. Team sports are not merely about physical prowess; they’re about being a man among men, part of the pack. We press on because we fear stopping means we might never start again.

Ask John Ashwood, 71, a whip thin man with generous grey curls and a matching beard, who credits soccer with keeping his arthritis in check. “My doctor — and he’s an old-timer hockey player — is delighted I continue playing,” says Ashwood. “The endorphins are natural pain killers.” There’s only one drawback, jokes the semi-retired transportation planner, and that’s staying fit enough to play. “I work the treadmill and do some light weight training,” he says. “And Feldenkrais classes [aregimen based on awareness through movement] at the local community centre with eight grey-haired old ladies. I have a massage therapist and a chiropractor.
In fact, I spend so much time trying to keep fit for soccer that I soon won’t have time to play it.”

Part of the drive to play is the risk of shame. In team sports, no one wants to look bad, so we learn that as we age, our bodies take longer to recover from injury and need more work to stay in tune. For some, it’s a hard lesson.

“The second biggest reason baby boomers go to the physician is sports injuries,” says Colin Milner, CEO of the Vancouver-based International Council on Active Aging, himself now 48, and still playing — yes, you guessed it— soccer. Those who want to play do have to work at it, he says, and in the long run, it’s worth it because playing once a week backed by a general fitness program has undeniable benefits. “The benefits are huge just in terms of healthcare costs,” he says, since doctor’s office visits for strains are cheaper than hospital stays and rehab for strokes and heart attacks.

Keeping a passion for sport is critical because it drives interest and participation, he also points out. “Eighty-eight per cent of boomers are dissatisfied with their fitness routine,” he says, noting that the biggest complaint is boredom — something team sports obviously alleviate. Still, the game itself is only part of the attraction, he allows. The social aspect is just as important; it helps counter depression.

Indeed, the post-game banter and beer is a major part of our “Sunday church meetings.” Between talking about Manchester United, Liverpool, Olympiakos, World Cup, Euro and MLS, there’s barely time to rehash the game we’ve played. That first beer, incidentally, tastes like nectar from the gods, and it goes down oh-so-quickly even if it is 10:30 in the morning on a Sunday.

Beer and soccer is a social thing and a big part of playing and sometimes just watching. A week later, I drop by to catch up with old friends Rob Benyi, 56, and Raymond Perkins, 52, who are grinding out a 1-1 draw in the Toronto Services Soccer League at Eglinton Flats. Back in 1991, we cofounded the Media League (a division of the TSSL) and while I’ve long since moved on to play in other leagues, Ray and Rob and some of the core players are still there. At some point they too will move on to an over 40s league because the body doesn’t go on forever in open age competition. We all move and adapt. I’m playing open division only midweek, mostly because my son
Jon, 19, is playing with us, making him the youngest player on Betty’s Boys F.C. (named after the downtown pub) and me the oldest. Unlike Rob and Raymond, I don’t play a full game anymore unless we’re shorthanded, but I make my mark and try not to embarrass myself — or Jon. Sundays I play in the St. Andrew’s League and rack up more game time. It’s easier on my ego and body that way.

Rob and the guys go back to the pub where attendance is de rigueur since there’s usually a sponsorship deal in
place and indeed it’s the first thing Benyi, aka the Silver Fox grills me about. ““What, you’re not coming back to the pub?” he asks incredulously. “Really? But you have to come for a beer.” I make my apologies and wish the guys well. Beer just doesn’t taste right unless you’ve earned it and besides, I have a game the next morning and I have to stay fit.