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It Ain’t the Years, It’s the Mileage

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Here’s a shot of former Packers great Ray Nitschke. I’m not sure of the photo’s date, but the mesh jersey suggests that it was taken late in his career. For the sake of argument, let’s assume it was taken during his final season — 1972.

If that was the case, then Nitschke was 35 years old when the shot was taken.

He looks older, right? Part of it, obviously, is that he was bald, but I think there was more to it than that. He just looked old. And it’s not like he suddenly aged at the end of his career. If you can believe the caption on this Getty Images photo (an admittedly big “if” — dates in Getty captions are sometimes wrong), this next shot was taken in 1965, when Nitschke was only 28:

I bring this up because I’ve always thought that football players of the 1950s and ’60s looked older. They were all in their 20s and 30s, just like today’s players, but many of them looked middle-aged, like somebody’s dad. Obviously, they didn’t have the advantages of modern training, modern nutrition, an ultra-wealthy lifestyle (many of the early guys had to work regular jobs in the off-season), and all the other things today’s players have access to. Also, many of them smoked cigarettes. Still, even accounting for all of that, the difference in their faces is striking.

Take, for example, former quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Like Nitschke, he was bald, but you don’t have to see that in order to see how old his face looked. Check out this shot from 1964, shortly before his 38th birthday:

Even more striking is the famous Sports Illustrated cover shot of Tittle wearing the “kitchen sink” helmet. That was taken in December of 1954, when he was only 28. But look at this face — does it look like the face of a 28-year-old to you?

I could stack the deck by showing photos of Tittle with his bald pate exposed (he looks really old in those shots), but there’s no need. Instead, check out this shot of him when he was in college at LSU and still had hair:

Does that look like a 20-year-old, or like an office worker in his mid-40s?

And if you think Tittle looked old, check out this shot of him sitting alongside fellow Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly. The photo is undated, but Conerly actually played up to the age of 40 (very unusual in those days), so let’s assume that’s how old he was when this shot was taken. I’d say he looks significantly older than that:

When I showed that photo to the Tugboat Captain, she said, “My god, what was his off-season job — coal miner?”

And there are more examples. One of my favorite football books is a 1960 volume called The Pros (highly recommended — Uni Watch’s highest rating!), which I spent hours poring over when I was growing up. It’s full of photos showing players with their helmets off, and most of them look like middle-aged suburban dads to me. Here are a few examples (click to enlarge; and no, the first two photos do not show the same guy):

These guys all look like — I don’t know how else to put this — grown-ups. By contrast, most of today’s players look like boys, at least to me. One reason for that may be that youth culture barely existed in 1960, when The Pros was published. Rock and roll, as pioneered by Chuck Berry and Elvis, was still very new and viewed by many as just a fad, and nobody in America had yet heard of the Beatles. The general way of thinking back then was that you transitioned from boy to man, with nothing in between (a frame of mind that was no doubt reinforced by the military draft, which was in effect from 1940 through 1973). Today, by comparison, early adulthood often tends to be an extended adolescence fueled by various aspects of pop culture. That may explain why the early players looked and felt like grown-ups, while today’s players often seem more like boys with toys.

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Queens Baseball Convention: The 2017 Queens Baseball Convention — essentially a Mets fan-fest convened by Mets Police blogger Shannon Shark — will be taking place on Saturday, Jan. 28, 11:30am to 6pm, at Katch in Astoria, Queens. I will once again be chairing a panel on uniforms, which will run from 2-3pm. Other panelists will include uniform designer/historian Todd Radom, Mets stitcher Russ Gompers, Mets uniform number savant Jon Springer, Mets jersey collector extraordinaire Nick Disalvo, and of course our own Phil Hecken. There will be plenty of other Mets-centric activities, including autograph sessions with Tim Teufel and Bobby Valentine. For tickets and further info, look here.

Meanwhile, a few other bits of news:

• In case you missed it earlier this month, reader Patrick Nance and I have teamed up to create a browser extension that automatically changes corporate-named stadiums, arenas, and college football bowl games to their pre-corporate names. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback and suggestions from you, and that feedback has been incorporated into the latest version of the extension, which is now available for Chrome and Firefox. Enjoy.

• In case you missed it on Christmas Day, here are the winners of the annual year-end raffle. All but four of the items have shipped out, and I should have those four stragglers in the mail by the end of tomorrow, so all you winners should watch your mailboxes.

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The Ticker
By Mike Chamernik

Baseball News: Mike Trout grew up in New Jersey and cheers for Philadelphia sports teams. This week he bought new shoes for every Eagles player that wears Nike (from Brinke). … A Hardball Times writer renamed (almost) every MLB team, based on location characteristics. … Check it out: A retro Padres luchador mask (from @ChrisRichardsPD).

Pro Football News: Back in 1963, Bob Dee of the Patriots had pretty large NOB lettering (from Mark Murdock). … A funeral home made a personalized Steelers NOB for a lifelong fan who passed away (from Brian Cox). … The guy who designed the logo for the Arena League’s New York Dragons is a full-time Star Wars artist (from @LouiseBrooksFC). … This 1965 CFL coin board is really neat (from @TySpace). … NFL Network photoshopped Tony Romo into a few uniforms of the teams he could possibly play for next year (from Phil). … Check out this old photo of Seattle QB Jim Zorn: Seahawks vs. Seahawks! An intrasquad scrimmage, perhaps? They usually wear practice jerseys for scrimmages nowadays (from Gene Sanny).

College Football News: Colorado will wear a memorial decal for Rashaan Salaam in tonight’s Alamo Bowl. Salaam, who died in early December, won the Heisman Trophy for the Buffaloes in 1994. More info here (from Phil). … West Virginia QB Skyler Howard usually wears a clear visor, but David Cline reports that he removed it during yesterday’s bowl game against Miami due to humidity. He had to keep wiping it off early in the game. … Between the ACC patch, TV numbers, and massive bowl game logo, Miami’s jerseys were quite busy last night. “I haven’t watched any bowl games this year, but I don’t remember ever seeing a patch that high up,” says Diego Yanez. … LSU’s police escort for the Citrus Bowl in Orlando had LSU-style helmets (from Samuel Eastman). … Here’s a good slideshow that shows the evolution of Western Michigan’s uniforms (from Jeremy Edom). … Virginia Tech players and coaches discussed the importance of No. 25, which is given to a different special teams player every week (from Andrew Cosentino). … Indiana’s Richard Lagow wears No. 21, an uncommon number for a QB, to honor his sister. Katherine Lagow wore 21 while playing soccer at LSU (from Andrew Smith). … An Indiana player had a helmet decal glitch last night. Some of his teammates had their bowl game jersey patches coming loose or falling off completely. … Here’s what Virginia Tech will be wearing today in the Queen City Bowl (from Andrew Cosentino).

Hockey News: The Penguins wore white at home last night (from Yancy Yeater). … Also from Yancy: The Senators have a logo for Daniel Alfredsson’s jersey retirement ceremony. Retraite means “retirement” in French … Marc-Louis Paprzyca ranked the Blackhawks’ five Winter Classic uniforms. Also, Corey Crawford’s mask for this season’s Winter Classic has been revealed. … A graphic designer mocked up a few Golden Knights license plates. If I were a Nevada resident, I’d choose this one. … The Cleveland Monsters will wear Indians-themed jerseys in January. … USA and Slovakia’s jerseys mirror each other (from John Keleman). … The Flames wear Alberta’s flag on their shoulders, so their AHL affiliate, the Stockton Heat, have California’s flag as a patch on their jerseys (from Alexander Kinkopf). … Interesting idea over on Hockey Reddit: When Avs fans do the wave, they should start at the top of the arena and move downwards, simulating an avalanche. … On a related note, the Avs wore black helmets during their first few games of their first season in Colorado in 1995-96 (from Moe Kahn). … Penguins equipment manager Dana Heinze keeps an old can of Penguins-branded paint in his office and adds a paintbrush decal to it each time the team wins (from Harry Michelson). … Heinze also keeps a “graveyard” of goalie mask cages that have been taken out of service after being bent or dented. He annotates each one with the names of the players who wore it and ruined it.

NBA News: The Rockets will retire Yao Ming’s No. 11 in February. The center will be the sixth Rocket to have his number retired. … Fox Sports ranked every team’s best logo. For fun, the site named each team’s worst logo, too.

College Hoops News: Tulane and UCF went color-vs.-color last night (from @MrCatsPatrick). … A Kentucky high school team wears Indiana-style candy stripe warmup pants (from Phil).

Grab Bag: The New York City police department will now allow religious Sikhs on the force to wear beards and turbans while in uniform, as long as the turbans are blue. … Jordan Brand is releasing the Air Jordan 1s as a golf cleat (from Phil).

Comments (72)

    And the Bills. And the Broncos. The Texans’ jersey is the only one they’re even close on, and even there it’s not quite accurate.

    Charlie Conerly spelled his name with one N.
    The last college football item should add an E to Heinz and become the last item in the hockey section.
    The paint can in the current last hockey item was briefly the token presented to the player of the game. As we’ve seen here since then, that’s been changed to a gold Pirates helmet.


    Let’s please have a year-end round of applause for Jerry Wolper (aka BurghFan), who diligently catches and lists my mistakes each morning. I appreciate his eagle eye, which makes Uni Watch a better place. Thanks, Jerry!

    Great lead today. The prematurely aged look of players from the 60s and 70s has always captured my attention too. One of my favorite examples is Larry Wilson. This photo of him is from 1972. He was 34 but certainly didn’t look it.


    I’ve always thought that everybody looks older in old photos. I paged through my dad’s high school yearbook (1958) once when I was in high school, and I was struck by how if I didn’t know it was a high school yearbook, I’d have thought it was college based on how much older the Eisenhower-era kids looked than my own classmates. I read a lot of history, and in old photos from America, people always seems to look about 10 years older for their age than modern middle-class Americans.

    I always felt this same way when looking at pics of football players. It made sense when I was younger, but now that I’m 45, I’m looking at these and still think “geez, I still look younger than these guys…. what’s going on?!” That goes for quite a few of the early 80’s players I had cards of when I first got into football. Either I have good genes or these guys had it kinda rough.

    Are there ANY “old looking” guys in today’s NFL?

    Most bald NFLers are bald by choice (shaved heads), I think, right??

    What about just old-faced?

    Roman Harper has been gray for at least a few years, so sideline shots of him with teammates makes it look like he’s a dad or uncle hanging with the team.

    Just a theory but I always felt that in some cases, people looking older back in the day (especially men) was attributed to experiencing 10+ years of The Great Depression, followed by World War II military service. That was a prolonged period of stress.

    Good theory for some, but Nitschke would have only been in grade school on V-E day.

    Folks back then spent more time outdoors, didn’t use sunscreen, enjoyed tobacco products and were generally just more likely to carpe diem than to work hard on producing a handsome cadaver.

    Agree. I’m guessing I’m not the only 42 ish guy out there that if I stop and think about it I’ve been using Lubriderm for 20 years after shaving. A lot of times it has sunscreen. Historically this would be wimpy, but it’s more acceptable today to not race to have your face look like Clint Eastwoods in Unforgiven. I think I just an apostrophe catastrophe.

    Plus they just didn’t lead the “pampered pro athlete” lifestyle of current players as Paul alluded to. These guys worked in factories, coal mines, regular jobs in the off-season. Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik owes his nickname to his off-season job as a concrete salesman.

    Thanks for the great lead today! The same thoughts came to me when I was watching the cycling documentary “A Sunday in Hell” about the 1976 Paris-Roubaix. I initially thought everyone looked older because hairstyles and the like but now I’m not so sure.

    FYI, the Bob Dee pic has another player (24 -Dick Felt?) in the lower right corner with the same NOB font.

    Someone tried to start the top-down wave thing at Bronco games around 1990. Even then – with very few years of horizontal wave experience – too many folks reverted to form and it was just a mess.

    A couple of comments:

    I believe a lot of NFL teams used to have a public scrimmage in full game uniforms right before their first pre-season game. In the book Paper Lion that scrimmage was the game that George Plimpton participated in – as one untimed series right before halftime.

    Also a lot of schools used those striped warmup pants; I remember UK wore them in the 1970s; IU is the only school to have kept wearing them through all the years.

    The AHL team of the Flames having the state/provincial flag on their jerseys has been a regular practice since the Flames started to wear the Alberta flag. Their prior AHL teams did this too:

    -Adirondack Flames had the New York flag.
    -Abbotsford Heat had the British Columbia flag.

    As voiced before, I am a supporter of the Calgary Flames going back to original red and yellow uniforms. The present uniform is a dumpster fire. Having a blue flag on the shoulder which does not match the colour scheme contributes to the problem.

    I’m also a Flames fan and all of the AHL teams have had the state/province patch. However I can’t believe people want to go back to the red white yellow. I think the black is nessecary for the jerseys.

    Just want to clarify my words. Full disclosure. I support the Flames going back to the red and yellow originals full time. However, I am not a Flames fan.

    Not certain I understand the statement that all the AHL teams have had the state/province patch. Not all the teams have had a state/province patch. It is not a regular practice.


    The orange-white-yellow is a great occasional throwback but the version they had when they went to the finals in 2004 is (IMO) their best-ever look.

    The extent to which people physically aged faster at that time has intrigued me for quite a while. To take a pair of actors in to mind, George Kennedy was 42 when “Cool Hand Luke” came out and Carroll O’Connor was in his mid 40s when “All In The Family” premiered. Back to sports, Gordie Howe looked and was considered old by the time he reached his early 40s in the late 1960s. Tom Brady will turn 40 before the 2017 NFL season begins and looks considerably younger at the same age.

    Movies/TV are a whole different animal, because makeup can be used to age (or anti-age) an actor. Let’s please keep that separate and stick with athletes. Thanks.

    As mentioned above, I think the shaved head phenomenon has at least eliminated the “balding” aspect in player’s appearance. Similar to hockey players of that era, with no face protection, football players were just more prone to the nicks, cuts, bruises, and broken bones that facemasks and shields protect along with advances in cosmetic procedures to treat facial injuries.

    I think the facemasks are by far the biggest factor. These are mostly pro-shots, the NFL didn’t require facemasks until 1955. So when these players were playing in high school & college in the 1940s they didn’t have any facemasks at all. So their faces definitely got beat up a lot.

    Just a couple of things here.
    For some reason, I went to Google on Mozilla to put in Uni Watch and the top item that came up was indeed UNI watch, but it was for University of Northern Iowa watches – interesting, huh.
    Also, I wonder how the folks at Russell feel about their bowl when one team (Miami) wears Adidas and the other squad (West Virginia) wears Nike, and if the powers that be at Russell secretly wish for a Georgia Tech – Western Kentucky match-up (both Russell attired).

    Interesting stuff, Paul. What about black players of the 1950s and 60s – did they look older than usual? If not, then maybe the cause for the older-looking white players is more wrinkles and skin damage due to a lack of melanin, which protects against UV rays.

    I was going to comment on that as well. Now that the league is majority African-American, and as the old saw goes, “black don’t crack,” some of the youthful appearance may be attributed to the lack of sun damage.

    But as true as that may be, it doesn’t account for comparison of similars – white players of today vs. 50 years ago. In that case, it may be, as remarked by many, a confluence of better training and diet (and much less smoking), not having to work grueling jobs, a singular focus on a football career from childhood, and more care being given to male grooming in general nowadays.

    Is the first photo from The Pros Rick Casares?

    He went to my high school AND my college, so he is a fave.

    My sense is that baseball players from back in the day don’t show that effect.

    I once opined about how many baseball players on cards I collected as a youth looked really old. At the time I associated them as being older than my dad, more like my grandpa’s age. Guys like Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Jerry Koosman and Woodie Fryman may have been “old” by baseball standards but they were pictured on cards at ages younger than I am now. However, my brain plays tricks on me and still pictures them as looking older than I feel I do now now.

    I frequent a restaurant that has the local high school senior pictures up on the walls. Multiple 20×36 framed years and they go back to the 1922 up to this year. Pre-1970 kids look like men and women. Hair, dress and composure and a lot of B&W helps instead of color. As an aside, we are living longer and living better, it makes sense that if Life Expectancy in 1960 was 60 for men,(today 76), 30 looked older in our eyes today.

    Interesting picture of Jim Zorn. I wonder if that was right before their first regular season game in 1976 to get the players used to having logos on their helmets since they didn’t have them during the preseason.

    It isn’t just the athletes who looked younger then either.
    Another factor in people retaining youthful appearance later in life now than they did five decades ago could be the prevalence of various chemicals from food preservatives to less-well-understood biological interventions (e.g. rBGH) that weren’t around in the past.

    Another factor that hasn’t been mentioned is how Nitschke and Tittle – or any of the players pictured here – don’t seem to have any teeth! That definitely contributes to the “old man” vibe.

    Crazy coincidence: I’ve just been informed that today would have been Ray Nitschke’s 80th birthday. I didn’t even realize that when I posted today’s entry. Had this entry in the hopper for about two weeks and just happened to post it today!

    I think a lot of the points have been hit on, but if I had to summarize:

    1. Manual labor. It’s been mentioned a lot of these guys had offseason jobs, but they were likely not businessman-type positions. Being outside a lot and constantly doing manual, strength-based work will take a toll on your skin.

    2. Nutrition. People today are simply better fed, even if it’s junk food. Fat, for better or worse, fights wrinkles.

    3. Smoking. Smoking and wrinkles seem to go together.

    4. Skin care. There’s a big difference between using a skin-drying bar of soap for every shower and a moisturizing body wash. Lifebuoy might have gotten you clean, but it probably dried you out more than it helped.

    5. Water treatment. Our water nowadays is really pure. Water then went through all manner of lead/metal pipes and was probably more abrasive, not to mention polluted.

    6. Stress. These weren’t guys who had guaranteed contracts and had to be relatively uncertain about their future in a very dangerous game when medicine wasn’t as good. Furthermore, we were all just a singular political decision from war and everyone being called to service, and this was a time when the man was likely the lone breadwinner, meaning it was entirely on him to make the money to keep the family afloat. That’s a lot of pressure.

    7. Upbringing. These were kids constantly in fear of a whuppin’, not to mention they played, roughhoused and worked outside a lot more. It kind of filters into some of the other above categories as well (stress, skin care, etc.).

    This is one of those times when, maybe, it’s good for us to take stock and remind ourselves that maybe things are largely better now than they used to be. I know people are loathe to admit that in a lot of ways, but the fact of the matter is that progress generally does good, not bad.

    -By coincidence, I was watching the 1956 NFL Championship Game film last night and they showed a pregame closeup of Charlie Conerly. I knew that Charlie had a mature face but, holy cow, the guy was only 35! As an aside; Charlie was a Marlboro Man back in the day. link

    -The Bob Dee photo is spectacular!

    -The CFL “coin” holder is actually a bottle cap holder for a CFL/Coca Cola promotion.

    -Larry Wilson was the poster child for toothless football players. Nobody chewed gum like Larry.

    First of all, excuse my english i’m french. Very interesting article about players looking older. I just wanted to react because it’s a subject we talked about many times, with a little bit of melancholia, with friends (I think it’s linked in soccer, i’m french again, with a lost of a bit of charisma, or personality). I’ve started with nba in the late 80’s and discovered one by one and by myself all the others u.s sports, because of my love of logos, uniforms, geography when i was a kid so… your blog is a “pure merveille” Paul even more for sports fans around in the world, many many thanks from Paris for the daily pleasure since.. some years now!

    Could the age thing be also attributed to something as simple as air conditioning? Think about it – many of these men had gone their entire lives without it and probably sweat 10x-100x more than people do today. That combined with the less strenuous lifestyles of today has I’m sure a lot to do with this.

    Pro wrestling is another activity, like football, where a lot of guys age rapidly. The constant travel from one place to another adds to the stress. Earlier photography was crude and not very flattering as well.
    The manager Bobby Heenan would say things about guys like the Crusher “That man was born looking 70.”

    What about the young guys who look old yet never seem to age? You can put someone like Verne Gagne in that category. He was balding in his early 20s, but even after 50+ years he looked the same in his 70s & 80s.

    I saw Ray Nitschke in person sometime in the late 1990s, and he looked pretty much the same. Just a little balder and a little slighter. Certainly not as physically imposing as a contemporary player would be. But he was fierce as a player.

    Footnote: I nearly ran into Jim Brown (literally) while doing my job, and he was smaller than I expected him to be. I think he had shrunk from his listed 6’2″, yet he seemed to tower over his opponents in that era.

    Salaam committed suicide, per the Boulder County coroner. Some of his friends suggested CTD as part of the autopsy, but the family declined.


    You’re dead in about Youth Culture. I’ve been saying for years, when I was in high school (late 70s) the senior girls dressed like they were older. The guys grew moustaches. Seniors wanted to look older. Somewhere along the way, everyone decided to dress and style themselves like they’re eternally 12.

    If you look carefully at the Bob Dee photo, you’ll notice Jack Kemp ( no. 15 for the Bills) and several of the Bills linemen are wearing Chuck Taylors. I think Chucks were the go-to in snow games back then

    Ditto with everything that’s been said today, except me it was hockey My first year of watching hockey was 1968 living in Guelph ON. Toronto Maple Leaf games on Saturday night. One of Toronto’s goalies was Johnny Bower.


    Johnny Bower was 44 when he won the cup in 1968. I think he looks pretty good for a 44 year old goalie that played without a mask.

    He’s still alive, by the way, turned 92 last month.

    As a Patriots fan growing up in the late 80s, Steve Grogan was always “old” including the 86 Bears Super Bowl in ’86 *my first real football memory). I just looked him up and he would have been 33 going into that game. Five years younger than me now, and 3 years younger than my father at the same time. He was “ancient” when he retired in 90, one year younger than I am now.

    I always thought the players from the 50’s and 60’s had an old look to them but I never thought I would see a piece about it. In the Super Bowl III highlights many of the Baltimore Colt players looked like old men, especially Billy Ray Smith but like the article mentioned, they were in the same age range as today’s players 20’s-30’s. Tom Brady is almost 40 but YA Tittle looked decades older than him in YA’s prime.
    In 1972 I went to the Colts-Chargers game, Ron Waller took me around the Chargers hotel room to meet some of the players, when he introduced me to John Hadl I thought I was meeting a coach? Hadl was only 32 at the time but he looked like one of my school teachers, he looked so cool in his powder blue Chargers uniform and I saw him in the locker room after the game (they wore white that game)and he just looked like a middle aged guy in a football uniform. The same thing happened to me a year later in 1973 when I saw Johnny Unitas in the Chargers locker room, he looked so old and tired to me, he was in his jock and I was thinking where are his muscles? my father was a heavy weight lifter so I thought all QB’s lifted too, but Unitas had no muscles at all. Also, smoking was mentioned in the article, there are two things I remember being in the Philadelphia Bell locker room, a lot of players smoking before the game, and more than a few throwing up in the bathroom, I thought they were sick? I didn’t know nerves made you throw up back then.

    In the Bob Dee photo, the player next to him (#75) is Jesse Richardson, one of the last (if not the last) player to play without a facemask.

    Ted Williams looked pretty young and so did Mickey Mantle despite hard living. Sparky Anderson always looked old. Bill James was shocked when he wrote in 1984 that Sparky was 50. Wayne Rooney looked really old before he got his hair transplant. Back in the 1990s, Griffey Jr and Shaq did Gatorade commercials that were supposedly from the future. Shaq was a convincing grandfather, while Griffey just looked like he had grey streaked into his hair.

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