Once James Pallotta took over the reins from Thomas Di Benedetto as the heart and mind of Roma 2.0, financial independence and simple fiscal solvency became the club's top priority. It didn't take Uncle Jimmy long to realize the lynchpin in that plan was a privately financed, club controlled, Lazio-free stadium (can't under emphasize that point). Once the plans for the Stadio della Roma were unveiled, Pallotta and company spoke effusively about what this stadium would mean for the project, for the club and for the city itself.
But because this is business in Italy we're talking about, not to mention altering the footprint of a city that has stood since time immemorial, you would've been forgiven if you greeted the plans with a healthy dose of skepticism. That's just the Roman way, nothing is ever all okay until it is. However, now that the Stadio della Roma has cleared the penultimate bureaucratic hurdle and seems all but a formality, we're left to ask the most pressing question.
If the SdR (you heard it here first, remember) opens for play in 2017 as expected, will a then 41-year-old Francesco Totti be on the pitch as anything other than a resident dignitary?
While this is ultimately an academic endeavor, the prospect of Roma (finally) having a home of their own, one that will be the envy of the peninsula, if not the continent, without Francesco Totti in tow just seems a bit empty, sort of like eating generic Nutella; yeah, its pretty much the same, but you can't shake the feeling that you're being cheated out of something.
So, since the holidays are upon us and since many of us are, you know, actually out doing things, indulge me in a brief exercise if you will, as we examine the history of 40+ year olds throughout the sports world to gauge what, if anything, Totti would have left in the tank two years from now.
We'll start with my other love, basketball. On the surface, basketball and calcio are quite similar. They both require quick bursts of agility and speed buttressed by marathon-like endurance. There are some subtle differences therein; no timeouts in football, but the pitch is (obviously) much bigger, so you have more opportunities to catch your breath, so the differences even out to an extent.
Point being, both sports, due to their pace and very nature, are very taxing on one's joints and cardiovascular system, so careers don't often last until the fourth decade. Even the inimitable Michael Jordan's ill-fated spell with the Washington Wizards came to an ignominious halt during his 40th year on earth.
There is, however, one sterling example of a man over 40 not only playing, but thriving in the NBA during his golden years, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, who terrorized opponents with his patented sky hook until he was 42-years-old, averaging 18.2 and 15.9 points per game in his last two seasons, respectively. Not only that, Kareem only missed a total of 35 starts since turning 30-years-old. Jabaar not only persevered as he aged, but he excelled, right up until the moment he finally retired.
While John Stockton, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd each played (or are playing) as the approached 40, by and large, the NBA's oldest players are generally its tallest. After all, you can't teach height, so players like Jabbar, Robert Parrish or Kevin Wills are able to hang on simply because their best attribute, their height, doesn't diminish with age.
So, perhaps if Totti were a hulking target man he could hang on through 2017, but his position and importance to all things Roma make this a less than certain prospect, but Jabaar's career proves that legendary players can still be remarkably effective against men nearly half their age, particularly when they have one unwavering skill. For Jabaar this was scoring the basketball, for Totti, it's his playmaking, which has shown precious little decline.
The shape and form of my favorite sport is drastically different from football, of course, but the travel, the schedule and the simple fact that hurling and contorting a baseball through the air is an unnatural act makes the elder statesmen of America's national pastime an interesting case study.
The most extreme example is one Satchel Paige, who pitched until his was 59 years old...59! Can you believe that? He didn't even break into MLB until he was 42, though there were obviously extenuating and deplorable reasons for that. In four of his six major league seasons, Paige was (based on ERA +) an above average pitcher, making two All-Star appearances along the way. Paige was an outlier in nearly every respect, but he used his skill and an incredible amount of guile to play the game he loved for nearly four decades.
Beyond Paige, baseball history is littered with pitchers hanging on until their early 40s. Some, like Charlie Hough or Phil Niekro, hang on due to their mastery of the knuckleball, while others, like Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson, defy time by continuing to rifle a ball at upwards of 90 miles per hour at 40 plus years old.
In terms of actual position players, the prime examples are baseball's hit king, Pete Rose, who didn't hang ‘em up until he was 45-years-old. Sure, some accused him of hanging on in a desperate and blatant attempt to break Ty Cobb's all-time hits record, a fear some have of Totti's own chase of Silvio Piola, but Rose was an at-or-above-average player in his later years, leading the league in hits at age 40, while playing all 162 games for the Phillies when he was 41-years-old.
The Francesco Files
Can Totti Surpass Silvio Piola's Scoring Record?
Francesco Totti is currently 37 goals away from equaling Piola's mark of 274 goals, we took a look at what this pursuit meant and asked if he could do it.
The Francesco Files
Beyond Rose, Cap Anson also forestalled father time until he was 45-years-young, doing so at a much higher level than Rose, posting up above average seasons (based on OPS+) from ages 40 through 44. Of course, this was in the 19th century when the game, at least from the professional standpoint, was in its infancy, but Anson certainly set an impossible standard for forty year old players.
Once again, baseball is a drastically different sport than football, but a lifetime of playing the game takes an equivalent toll on a players body, particularly their upper extremities, which are to a baseball player what a foot is to a footballer, naturally. However, the examples of Rose, Ryan and Randy Johnson prove that top notch players can still thrive as they approach their forties.
America's most savage mainstream sport makes such mincemeat out of its competitors, that the average career is just a touch over three years, so not many men have the fortitude or luck to make it into their forties; for the sake of this conversation, we'll leave place kickers and punters out of the equation.
While Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are currently lodging bids to play past their fortieth birthday, Brett Favre stands as the epitome of aging excellence under center. Favre not only played but excelled until he was 41-years-old. During the 2010 season, Favre's age 40 season, he accumulated over 4,000 yards and threw 33 TDs against only seven interceptions, his lowest ever total as a full-time starter.
Favre's longevity was attributable to his resilience, as he didn't miss a single start for 17 seasons, a feat we cannot ascribe to Totti, unfortunately.
Beyond Favre, Jerry Rice, Darrell Green, Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon each played out the string until their early 40s, though none quite at Favre's level, but football isn't replete with aging superstars, so I'm afraid there isn't much insight to be gained from soccers barbaric cousin.
Having played the game at various points in my life, I can attest to how brutal it can be, particularly on one's hips and lower back. Whether it's from the equipment, the unnatural notion of skating, the Labatts, or from burly Canadian gentlemen slamming into you repeatedly, a life on skates is by no means easy, so to see the list of men who've played in the NHL well into their forties is quite surprising.
The standard bearer of aging on the ice is none other than Gordie Howe, who was finally dragged off the ice at 52-years-old, after more than two decades lacing 'em up. Gordie wasn't simply tagging along for the ride, either. During his final season with the Hartford Whalers, Howe appeared in each and every one of the Whales 80 games, scoring 15 goals and contributing 26 assists along the way. In fact, from the time he turned 40, Howe never missed more than 20 games in one season.
While Howe is obviously a ludicrous exception to the rule, many great players forged on into their fourth decade. Chris Chelios, think of him as hockey's Rino Gattuso, kept grinding it out until he was 48-years-old, playing in 69 of a possible 82 games as a 46-year-old defenseman for the Detroit Redwings during the 2007-2008 season. Throughout his career, Chelios was a shrewd, physical and effective defenseman, traits which served him well as he damn near made as a pro until turning 50.
Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr, who made his debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990, is still proving to be a useful asset for the New Jersey Devils, for whom he accumulated a team leading 67 points last season at age 41, having played all 82 games.
Hockey is a different animal altogether. Players are cycled in and out of the game in shifts, so in the grand scheme, the endurance game is a bit different, but the minute-to-minute intensity is like no other, so in terms of training methods and in terms of minutes played, hockey has some excellent examples of flourishing after forty.
Francesco in His Forties
The point of this exercise, beyond keeping things moving during the holidays, wasn't to draw strict parallels between Totti and any of his North American counterparts (which we did here), but simply to show that many men have played and flourished into their 40s in sports that are as physical, if not more so, than calcio, and to use that as a shadowy benchmark for the prerequisites of success at such an advanced athletic age.
However, with the possible exception of Gordie Howe, none of these men were held in as high esteem in their respective sports as Totti. None of them had the pressure of carrying the mantle for their boyhood team for more than 20 years, but what these examples do show us is simple...
To play into one's forties, and to play well, requires a little bit of luck and a lot of good health. None of these men took a holiday when they turned 35 then simply showed up five years later. Their track records are impeccable, and in some cases infallible, rarely missing any matches or minutes in their respective leagues. Could be luck, could be better medical care, or it could simply be better genetics, but these men rarely left the ice, court or field from the minute they made their debuts, which appears to be one of, if not the only, conclusion we can draw from this exercise. Great players play early, they play often and, with a little providence and lots of patience, they play long.
For Totti, the story is much the same. Since turning 30 at the start of the 2006-2007 season, Totti has appeared in 74% of all possible league matches (through last week), and while he's not quite on Favre's level in terms of perseverance, aside from his injury marred 2006 season, he's been a mainstay in Roma's lineup.
The problem in forecasting Totti over the next two season, and it's one we've discussed before, is that it is quite literally unprecedented in Italian football. With 572 appearances and climbing, Totti already stands as Serie A's most tested attacking player, trailing only Javier Zanetti and Paolo Maldini for the most appearances ever by an outfield player.
If we look outside of the peninsula, the first name that likely pops in your head is the recently retired Ryan Giggs, who retired last season at age 41. From his age 30 season in 2003 through his retirement, Giggs appeared in 69% of all Premier League matches. While Giggs was a better player than he was a brother, he wasn't fit to carry Totti's jock strap.
Teddy Sheringham, one of Giggs' Manchester United teammates, survived the Premiership slings and arrows until his 40th birthday, making his final top flight appearance for West Ham in December of 2006. From his age 30 season in 1996-1997, Sheringhman appeared in 73% of Premiership matches, though he spent the '04-'05 season with West Ham in the Championship. While Teddy was quite the goal scorer in his day, I don't think anyone outside of England would claim he was Totti's equal in terms of overall talent.
So do you see what I mean when I say what we're seeing with Totti is literally unprecedented? And this is without even factoring in how large a role he still has in Rudi Garcia's Roma side; he isn't merely riding Miralem Pjanic's coattails, Roma still very much begins and ends with what Totti is able to do on the pitch, making his longevity even more remarkable.
The question we have to ask now, much like we did with his pursuit of Piola, is simply this: how much does he want this?
Surely the brass realize what a windfall it would be for Totti's final and the Stadio della Roma's first season to be one in the same, doubly so if Totti is within reach of Piola's 274 Serie A strikes, but the matter isn't that simple.
While other men in other sports have had similar career trajectories, for all intents and purposes, the prospect of Francesco Totti carrying on into his forties is like sailing off into uncharted water. No attacking footballer has done, nor have they attempted to do, what he has: to not only endure the weight, the pressure and the expectations of the city from which he sprang, but to thrive, to excel, and to make history, and to continue doing so as he slid past the wrong side of 35. While he may not be as crisp as he once was, Totti is still available each and every week, still pulling the strings and still standing as one of the game's best playmakers. Totti is as important, as efficient and nearly as effective as ever.
The question of Francesco Totti playing past forty is not one of doubt but of desire; does he want to take down Piola, does he want to stride upon the pitch at Roma's new home, one that might not exist were it not for his excellence, his pride, his passion and his commitment to the city and to the club.
So, until then, we must wait and we must hope. Wait for the shovels to break ground, wait for the turnstiles to open, wait for the anthem to ring out, and hope. Hope that the man behind it all hasn't hung up his boots yet. And no, you won't begrudge him for taking what is rightfully his, a quiet life doing whatever he pleases, but you must wait and you must hope.
Hope that seeing him out there means as much to him as it does to you.