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Steve Christilaw: It’s not graceful, but old age happens

We all think about getting old.

It’s an inevitability. Every minute that passes is passed forever. No getting them back.

As Bette Davis once said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”

I’m not immune, but I do rankle at the way we treat classified athletes as “old.”

Aly Raisman is a lot of things, talented and accomplished being two, but at 24 I think we can all agree that she is not old, even for a gymnast.

Seattle media was all over the retirement of arguably the best soccer player the United States has ever produced at the ripe, old age of 35: Clint Dempsey.

Wow. All of 35. Send him an AARP card and buy him a rocking chair.

Dempsey is retiring from the world of soccer and the Seattle Sounders.

And yes, it’s the end of an incredible era for both the United States men’s national soccer team and Seattle soccer.

Just don’t call the man Seattle fans refer to as “The Deuce” old.

Bodies only have so many games in them, and that number is different for everyone. The high-tech methods sports have developed to fine-tune the body can help get the most out of every player on a day-to-day basis, but the price for nearing perfection can arguably come due at the end. Careers, at least for some players, don’t last as long. Unless, like a few players I will not mention who managed to extend their careers through performance-enhancing drugs.

There is a reason why the careers of players like Gaylord Perry and George Blanda lasted well into their fourth decade. It doesn’t require a trainer to keep bodies like that in game shape. A bartender, maybe, but that’s another story.

Kasey Keller, the finest soccer player ever produced by the state of Washington, suggested that we must now judge the wear and tear on players in terms of miles instead of years.

Athletes age differently than the rest of us, and at 35, the player Seattle fans call “The Deuce” and others, when he captained the U.S. men’s national team, referred to as “Captain America,” felt it was time to give his body a well-deserved rest.

Dempsey kept his retirement statement short and sweet: “After a lot of thought, my family and I have decided that this is the right time for me to step away from the game,” the Seattle Times reported.

It’s fitting that Dempsey walks away from a sport to which he has given so much of his life’s blood on his own terms.

For every Deuce there are myriad stories of great players in every sport who tried to stay too long at the dance. Instead of walking away, head held high, they limped off into the sunset, their legacy tarnished by a bitter ending.

“Very rarely in pro sports do you get to control your own destiny,” Keller told the Seattle Times. “Ninety-nine out of 100 times, you’re retired. You don’t get to choose when you get to retire.”

The accomplishments are as spectacular as some of his most impressive goals. After 15 professional seasons, he is tied with Landon Donovan for most international goals scored in USMNT play. He scored more goals than any American player in the English Premier League. And he is tied with Fredy Montero for most goals (47) in Sounders history.

What makes Dempsey’s leaving even more special has been the testimonials from his teammates, who have talked openly about the kind of man, the kind of player Dempsey has always been.

This season has been a difficult one for the Sounders’ star player. Time and injury has diminished his game on the field. His playing time got shorter and shorter.

But where others might have sulked into the sunset, Dempsey continued to shine.

While his body has been unable to contribute, is mind and spirit found other ways to contribute.

“I’ve seen him take young guys aside and help them with their game,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer told the Seattle Times. “Some of the stories he’d been able to relay to young guys, the experiences he’s gone through and what’s helped him be successful in some of those moments, he’s already shared that.”

That, if nothing else, makes him deserving of every accolade. And if he never heads in another goal, the Sounders will miss his presence dearly.

It, too, often feels as though athletes are losing that sense of aging gracefully. The days of the grizzled, wizened veteran are in shorter supply and I blame the star culture that we’ve allowed to develop.

Selfish, boorish behavior is allowed if you can catch a deep ball or score 40 points on any given night. We pamper the star and treat the supporting cast as mere extras. Grooming their own understudy? Beneath them.

The good news is that coaches now work hard to develop a nurturing culture that stresses a form of leadership that puts service to the team ahead of individual accomplishment.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve come across players who find ways to contribute to the team without stepping onto the field or the court.

The movie “Rudy” was a good film and a good story, but what’s remarkable are the number of players out there who have contributed the same way he did, year after year, game after game.

They may not be able to teach a player how to continually find open space in front of a goal mouth the way Clint Dempsey did, but there are countless young players out there dedicating themselves to making their teammates better by working as hard as they can in practice every day, never taking a day off – never taking a play off.

And that will never get old.


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