When Ivan Drago lines up opposite my spot on the soccer field today, his mood appears bleak. It’s not actually him, of course, Dolph Lundgren’s character from Rocky IV—the hit-me hair, the Scandinavian lantern jaw, the oddly robotic accent as he tells Stallone, “I must break you.” My opponent is a well-known local club regular, but he’s highly Drago-esque, with an I-used-to-be-cool way of walking, speaking, and handling his business on the pitch. I say “bleak” because he glowers, grimly. He stands about six foot three with a blond high-and-tight has-been haircut, and he’s using his size to intimidate, even during warm-ups. It’s more amusing than it is alarming. No fans watch from the stands, in part because there are no stands. No money or glory is up for grabs today; this match means only whatever it means to those of us on the scrubby turf. It’s a game for the remaining joys of the game. On a breezy autumn Sunday afternoon at a public park in Charlottesville, Va., this is the over-40 league.
Once the ball is moving and we’re all trotting around, my guys are just trying to maintain the shape of our squad on the field, playing short-touch passes, working the ball in triangles up the wings. We’re mostly laid back and relaxed: definitely playing to win, but without anything in particular to prove. All of which reminds me how deeply unpleasant Ivan Drago can be—this oafish, over-large, aggressive man-child, elbowing and banging his way to the promised land. To play against him is to get hit over and over again by a guy with power aplenty but lacking speed, agility, and skill. I’m a defender: center back, a yeoman. My first responsibility is to protect my goalkeeper from the opposition’s fast breaks, preventing quality opportunities for shots. Drago is playing striker—designated scorer, camped out in front of my goal—which means I’m marked up on him as tight as I can legally get, contesting any passes that come his way, containing, pressuring. I try to force him to shoot poorly, pass unwisely, or possess the ball just a touch too long on the dribble, to make a choice he’d rather not.
He’s got a bad attitude and a physique hazed over with the residue of half a life’s pizza, chips, and beer.
I’m a clean player. It’s a point of pride for me never to regret in the real world anything I do out there in footy-land. My kids are watching; they’re going to do what they see me do, though they’ll eventually do it a lot faster and smarter than I can. On the other hand, I’m physical and tough. I’ve got respectable size—6'1" and 185 pounds—but I use it only within the laws of the game. I don’t back down, I don’t complain, and I don’t apologize. I tend to win possession of loose balls, of which our loosey-goosey league has many, because I’ve stayed light, limber, and fast—fast, at least, for my age and build. Ivan Drago has taken a different approach to the game, because he’s too big and too slow to get where he used to be able to get. His feet don’t converse with the ball as they probably once did. He looks like he parks them in front of a sofa in his off hours, instead of letting them drift and sprint up and down the field at practice or in pickup games. He’s a guy with a much bigger frame than mine, a bad attitude, and a physique hazed over with the residue of half a life’s pizza, chips, and beer.
I can count on beating him to the ball, cleanly, by a step, sometimes a little more or less. Also on his late hits, which arrive with perfect consistency. It’s intentional: a style of play, and a tactic. When I collect the ball, I already know he’s going to hit me high and hard between my shoulder blades. It’s just a question of whether it happens before or after I release the outlet pass, and whether I’ll land on my knees or my face. By game’s end, my bell has been well and painfully rung. At one point I have to pause, down on all fours, to pinky the packed dirt out of my ear. The next day, I can’t turn my head to either side. I’ve got a mild case of whiplash, I can’t drive safely, and I walk with the stiff-hipped caution of a convalescent. It’s a world of hurt.
Training for a competitive soccer season at age 41 is a lot like maintaining a car that approaches 100,000 miles on the odometer. The sheet metal shows its age here and there, and the frame and chassis creak and tremble a bit, but everything works fine, pretty much, under the hood. And hell, this rig has character; the merest glance confirms that it’s had a good and happy life, used hard and put up wet: little dings and scratches if you look in the right places, but the whole package has been broken in right. At the same time, gearing up for game day is the equivalent of packing for a longish road-trip: If and when this thing breaks down, where exactly will it leave me stranded? Being a competitor in middle age is different from the practice, habit, and self-conception of youth; there’s little or nothing left to prove. I no longer have any practical need to be flexible or strong, and I’ve done my share of winning and losing where they really count. But the pleasures of the body remain: power, elegance, balance, proportion, surprise. Less by degrees with each passing year, but still: enough. Plenty.
There’s a strong tendency to perceive ourselves in this period as diminishing. The abdominal muscles, for example, will only reluctantly still sculpt themselves into a six-pack. They’ve lengthened and become less dense, more ropey, and no number of crunches will make them 22 again. Moreover, little snippets of age begin to appear. Hairline wrinkles start to look like aging, instead of healthy weathering; what used to look tough now looks simply worn; the skin heals more slowly, and scars more readily, than it used to.
And perhaps we decide to feel OK about all this. (After all, it’ll keep happening, even if we don’t.) Perhaps it’s better simply to abandon the aura of youth—being attractive to those we once hoped to attract, being virile—as our priorities evolve. We’ve made our choices, made our happy lives, and progressed chronologically and practically beyond the time when it’s appropriate to care about such things. But instead we resist, since to give up is to begin to be used up, sort of like a tube of toothpaste with all the toothpaste squeezed out of it.
John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote recently for the New York Times that attempts to beautify oneself in middle age might let linger what he calls, perfectly, “sexual plausibility.” And that seems right. It’s not the sexual pursuit, a Walter-Mitty-meets-George-Clooney puerile/pathetic fantasy, that attracts us. It’s that we would like, in the abstract, still to be desirable. Not desired, necessarily, but to be someone to whom an anonymous, hypothetical other might conceivably be physically attracted. It would be nice. It doesn’t need to go anywhere, really, at all. But it would be nice.
So it’s a challenge not to become a type: the guy who’s the last to notice his own decrepitude, who feels he’s anything but invisible to people he notices in that way, who dresses like a frat boy so he can pretend he still is one. Many of the men against whom I play soccer become this type. (See above: Ivan Drago.) They’re too aggressive, and they lack conditioning, discipline, finesse, and self control. They compartmentalize a very obvious resentment and rage about their workaday lives into 90 minutes of abusiveness each Sunday afternoon. For which they pay a fee. To wear a goofy uniform, to compete against men with graying hair, to glance to the sidelines and see absolutely no one there waiting for their next Kodak moment. If it means anything to be a competitive athlete in middle age, it has to mean steering well clear of this sad, dangerous cliche.
It’s eleven o’clock on an overcast Wednesday morning now, one recovery day and one flexibility day after my regular Sunday afternoon match. Those two early-week days are always heavily scented with eau de Advil, the middle-aged jock’s fragrance of necessity. I’m just finishing my usual workout: a conditioning run with the ball on my foot, 10 minutes of juggling, agility drill for lateral movement dribbling cone-to-cone, and some wind sprints to keep my hamstrings from blowing out on me next weekend. While the rest of the world is doing something useful, I’m listening to the grass whistle under my cleats, peeling off layers as I get warmer and need to get lighter, and focusing on each nuance of touch on the ball. Each corner, each directional shift, ought to be just a little crisper and a little faster than the last, a little sharper. And a little sharper, too, than an imagined opponent, similar to me in many ways, but struggling less to make his next Sunday game better than mine will be. Between now and lunch lies a warm-down, a full cycle of stretching, floor work for strength, and a gradual, intentional recalibration to focus on my work and my family.
My wife would love me no more and no less if my body were different, were more typical of most men my age. My children would find exactly the same sustenance from my emotional presence in their lives.
When I step from a too-hot shower and casually regard myself in the mirror, two contradictory questions flicker across my mind simultaneously. The first, asked frankly and without vanity, is, What 41-year-old man is built like that? The second, quickly rendering the first ridiculous, is, Seriously? Who the hell are you trying to fool? My wife would love me no more and no less if my body were different, were more typical of most men my age. My children would find exactly the same sustenance from my emotional presence in their lives. My colleagues at work would find me just as sane, professional, and productive. My students and the kids I coach would get the same benefit out of their interactions with me, regardless of my level of fitness. I know that. I do. And still.
Pure athleticism in middle age is an end in itself, for the self—health, vitality, staving off one’s inevitable decline—but it’s also a means to an end: the potential of appeal to others. The pure athlete keeps a mainly health-oriented approach: the runner, the cyclist, the elliptical gym rat who measures cardio recovery and elapsed time. Competitive athleticism, on the other hand, involves going well out of one’s way; it’s the difference between running to have run and running to have trained. To compete is to assert that health alone is not the point. After all, no one’s trying to keep the treadmill jockey from making his mileage; the only opponent is the prospect of poorer health or schlumpier looks. Fitness makes possible what the competitor cares about more than fitness alone: winning. Which is, of course—like youth, and unlike such durable goods as love, friendship, and compassion—always, and for absolute certain, a passing thing.
I didn’t understand very much about middle age until I found myself, well, in the middle of it. My poorly considered assumption was that we are young for a while, after which we become old. “Middle age” struck me as a brief period when anyone else could see that one was trying too hard. But I was wrong. My teammates and I are not young, and we’re also not old; we occupy a liminal and hard-to-define middle. (That hot-from-the-shower moment is leavened significantly; we’re all old enough to know better.) I didn’t see it coming, but it’s clear to me now that the not-young-not-old interim may stretch as long as 15 or 20 years, actually, perhaps in a range of ages from about 35 to about 55.
Those decades are a time of profound change, physically, for people of both genders. At the outset of my middle age, I had the body of a workman, because I was one. I built furniture and cabinets, so my physique was that of one who lifts heavy objects on a regular basis, but whose job does not require him to haul ass for any considerable distance. Now that I’ve left the shop and embarked on a life in academia, I could easily sag into the soft, comfortable body of a professor: either the reedy, slightly atrophied version, or the pot-bellied, sack-coat, yes-certainly-I’ll-have-another-doughnut-in-the-faculty-lounge version. No one would blame me, and probably no one would notice. I would ably fulfill my type’s low expectations.
So it would be useful to know why I pursue this foolhardy, risky, absurd, and incredibly pleasant way of life. I assume, as usual, that my friends share my feelings, but that they’re more intelligent about it. One teammate of mine is an anthropologist, maybe a buck-fifty with a roll of quarters in each pocket—and his uni shorts have no pockets. He has an amazingly productive, ferrety way of sprinting into open space near our opponent’s goal, just when the ball is ripe for a good knocking-in; he has speed, resilience, and feet like hands, and he’s also a very thoughtful and self-actualized guy. He says there’s a tremendous difference between using the body for work—for him, the exercise of skill for the purpose of producing income or a tangible good—and for play. Play posits many of the same skills, but in an unstructured environment, with no particular purpose other than enjoyment of the moment. Play allows a group of grown men to be creative and fluid, and to take and express joy in the body. It’s play, not work, because it produces only an intangible good: pleasure.
He plays to narrow the gap, gradually and against the gravitational pull of time, between what he used to be and what he can now become.
Another friend, but not a teammate, is an architectural historian. He comes only in size large; he’s got two inches and 30 pounds on me, and there’s not an ounce of fat on him. He lifts weights; he should own stock in protein supplements; his workout includes at least two evolutions targeted specifically at something called a lat. On the other hand, he’s as smart and as kind as they come, and funny, wise, and self-deprecating. He says he trains in a competition with himself. He has intentionally sculpted and fueled his body into an imposing presence. His size lets him accomplish in midlife a physical state that answers the weak and un-self-reliant way he felt during the most vulnerable time in one’s life: early adolescence. He now has the expertise, time, and drive to build for himself the body he longed for back in middle school.
Compensation, though, is only one way of competing with the past. Another teammate of mine—who, incidentally, needed rotator cuff surgery after a close encounter with one Ivan Drago—was a star player in his youth, earning a spot on the U.S. Men’s Under-20 team and a scholarship to play for a top Division I soccer powerhouse. In his first year there, though, he suffered a compound fracture of his lower leg. His strength was compromised, he experienced severe and debilitating body-mechanical issues, and he eventually drifted into engineering school instead of the fledgling ranks of American professional soccer. When we finessed him onto our roster, he was reluctant, because he hadn’t played in 10 years and was out of shape. He found, though, that even in pickup games, he felt an emotional need to regain as much of his former skill as he could. He said it was as though he knew what his body ought to do with the ball, and he’d give it permission to make the move, but the move wouldn’t happen. He plays to narrow the gap, gradually and against the gravitational pull of time, between what he used to be and what he can now become. It’s a thing of beauty to watch; even at 40 years old, and notwithstanding the effects of injuries, time, and long periods away from the game, he plays a different game than the rest of us. His footwork is fluid and intuitive, his shots are lethal, and no defender in our league can consistently dispossess him of the ball.
So the rationales are probably as many as the players in the games. The fact that we four happen to be employed in academia puts us face to face with our more youthful foils, day in, day out. In the classroom, where we engage most directly with other people in the life of the mind, we’re perennially gazing out at a sea of those who look the way we used to look, who perceive their lives—as we ourselves once did—as boundless, unfettered, and always about to begin. Their sense of becoming, not just being, is infectious. It’s a truism that teaching keeps a person young. As does sport; there’s a connection. Maybe it’s wish fulfillment. Maybe it’s health-as-compensation. Maybe, to riff on Thorstein Veblen, for guys like me, it’s just the leisure of the theory class.
I used to drive a pretty rugged-looking truck for work and pleasure. Four-wheel drive, a big rough-running power plant, carpentry tools and fishing rods and camping equipment sloshing around in the back. It never took a bath, and when I once wrapped it slightly around a tree on a snowy mountainside, I didn’t even bother to smack the dents out with a hammer. When I’d pull up to a stoplight in town, I’d often notice brief but happy looks from women my age or younger in their own cars, waiting for the lights to cycle. They’d smile a little—not flirting, not anything really, but seeming to say to themselves something like, That guy probably has a cool life. A little glimpse, not a gaze long enough to mean anything but a glance bright enough to signify appreciation. Once I left the shop and found my way into college teaching, I found myself increasingly—and happily—on call for kid ferrying, and acquired the first new car I’d ever driven, a Honda Odyssey. It had leather seats—heated!—tinted windows, aluminum wheels, the whole nine yards. I was afraid the stoplight ladies would think I was putting on airs, like, Who’s the arriviste with the power sliding doors? They didn’t. They looked over blankly, then looked away, noting without bothering to note: Middle-aged guy in a minivan.
The car doesn’t matter, of course. Even the body doesn’t matter, except to the person living in it. Desirability, youthfulness, victory—these things do not matter. The mind matters, and the spirit, and loving well and fully those people one loves. In the end, I have only a tentative and porous understanding of the motivations of the midlife competitive athlete. It seems, at worst, a self-indulgent fantasy, a victimless crime against normalcy. I don’t know how long I can keep it up; five more years seems too little to strive for, but 10 years too much to expect, realistically. And eventually, when my ankles give out or my hips need replacement or I’m stoned on ibuprofen seven days a week, I have no idea what I’ll do to replace this way of life, this relationship to the body and to others. For the moment, though, it’s the rhythm of the season, the anxiety of game day, the warding-off of involuntary retirement, and hoping my no. 4 jersey walks off the field today with me, fully alive, heart thumping along happily inside it.