A triple-threat of athletes in their late 30s—the NFL's Peyton Manning, the MLB's R.A. Dickey and the NBA's Steve Nash—have all put up historic numbers in their respective sports, but they still have much to prove to skeptics of the athletically-aged.
Peyton Manning may have the least amount of doubters. He is also the youngest of the three.
The 36-year-old QB carries mile-high hopes for the Bronco nation.
When Manning entered the NFL in 1998, Tim Tebow was 11 years old—marking perhaps the last time when Manning could out-bench-press the muscle-bound Florida native. In 2011, around the affable (but controversial) Tebow, the Bronco fan base swelled across North America; he led a series of improbable regular-season comebacks, and a stunning upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of playoff action.
There is no question that Manning can out-throw Tebow, though, and it is his pinpoint accuracy that had the entire Bronco ownership tripping over themselves (and Tebow) on the way to signing one of the most coveted free agents in NFL history.
Manning has many analysts predicting that the Broncos will repeat as AFC West champs.
More importantly, with Manning at the helm, expectations have escalated to Super Bowl heights. For the Broncos it would be their first since 1999. Manning won a Super Bowl in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts—the only professional team he had played for before signing with the Broncos.
With the Colts, Manning racked up undisputed Hall-of-Fame numbers, including four Most Valuable Player awards. But after Colt management watched him sit out the entire 2011 season with an injured neck—one that he has undergone four surgeries to repair—they decided to move in a new direction.
And thus some doubts remain about whether the aging Manning can regain his younger form.
Back when Manning was grooming his QB skills in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee, a fellow-UTK athlete had visions of a different kind of throwing glory.
Nashville's own R.A. Dickey was throwing heat for the Volunteers, and he was expected to have a prosperous professional career.
The Rangers selected Dickey as the 18th pick in the first round of the 1996 MLB Draft, but after an MRI revealed he was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, they shrunk their $810,000 signing offer to a paltry $75,000.
Shaken but not destroyed, Dickey continued to chase his dream, spending years in the minors with only brief and unsuccessful call-ups to the Big Leagues.
As Dickey's fastball faded, he turned to the knuckleball, and in 2010 with the Mets, he finally found consistency on a Major League mound. No one, though, expected the mastery he has exhibited thus far in 2012.
The 37-year-old hurler is now the ace starter for the Mets. Besides an occasional fastball that tops out in the mid-80-mph range, Dickey more often confounds hitters with velocity-varying knuckleballs that dart and dip with unpredictable vigor.
Dickey has a 12-1 record heading into the All-Star game, and for the first time in his career, he will appear in that hallowed contest.
The honor is due to a stunning first half of this season in which he broke a franchise record for pitching 32 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. He also threw back-to-back one-hitters, the first Major League pitcher to achieve that feat since 1988.
If Dickey can mirror his torrid start in the second half, he is a legitimate candidate for the National League Cy Young Award, an honor given to the best pitcher in the league.
Even so, there are naysayers who claim that Dickey's Midas touch on the mound is fools gold. The knuckleball, they claim, is a gimmicky pitch for washed-up pitchers that couldn't make it with a conventional style.
Still, no one has thrown the wily pitch with as much pop or variation as Dickey; a Cy Young would not only be validation of the aging veteran, but a legitimation of the knuckleball.
In Phoenix, point guard Steve Nash already achieved the highest possible individual accolade in the NBA, the MVP award, and he did it on back-to-back occasions.
An NBA championship, however, has eluded the 38-year-old Nash in much the same way that those Dickey knuckleballs have fooled batters. Every time Nash got close to the NBA Finals with the Suns, there was a sudden and vigorous bad break.
But Nash recently agreed to a sign-and-trade deal that sends him to his once bitter rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. Coming off another All-Star season, Nash will seek to facilitate an offense that includes the 34-year-old scoring juggernaut Kobe Bryant.
Which is most likely to transpire?
Like Manning, there are some questions about Nash's health. He has a notoriously bad back that he has been able to manage with the renowned training staff of the Phoenix Suns. They are thought to be so adept at their restorative trade that the Suns' staff is credited with revitalizing broken bodies and sagging careers (at 39, Grant Hill has been a testament to that work).
Nash, of course, will be leaving those healing wonders behind on his way to L.A. Still, he is adamant that he can go another three years with his own resplendent repertoire: he penetrates defenses with head-spinning dribbles, throws impossible passes with laser-like precision and drains dagger three-point shots at big moments.
And he can also make you laugh.
The Lakers obviously think Nash has plenty of life left since, as reported by ESPN.com's Marc Stein, they will pay him $27 million over the next three years.
The sports world waits, then, with a mix of emotions: awe that these veteran athletes have been able to persevere in such physically-demanding professions, and a touch of skepticism about whether they will be able to continue to excel at an age far beyond most players' prime.
Time will tell, and it is time that Peyton Manning, R.A. Dickey and Steve Nash will seek to defy.