Csonka among generation's sports icons feeling their age
Larry Csonka tells a story about a reunion of his 1972 Miami Dolphins some years back. They spent hours trading stories about their aches and pains and hobbled knees. Then they boarded a bus bound for a night game to be trotted out for halftime huzzahs.
Csonka enjoyed the illusion of time travel as he rode in that darkened carriage. "The same guys who had always jawed at each other were jawing at each other," he says. "The voices hadn't changed. And for an instant it was like we stepped back to 1972 all over again.
"Then the bus pulled up, and the lights came on. And lo and behold" — here he pauses to laugh — "all those young athletic men had turned into old farts again."
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Baby Boomers always fancied themselves as special and different in the flower of their youth. But as Boomers leave middle age for senior citizenry, they're finding that, in one regard, they are the same as all preceding generations — growing old one day at a time.
Csonka's undefeated Dolphins have gone from Super Bowl to superannuated in what seems the blink of a bus light. The generation that said never trust anyone over 30 is on the cusp of being codgers: The oldest Boomers will turn 65 next year.
Baby Boomers are anyone born from 1946 to 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Csonka was born in Stow, Ohio, on Christmas Day 1946, which puts him and his fellow '46ers on the leading edge of Boomerdom.
USA TODAY talked to eight former sports stars who were born during that seminal year. We asked about their health and their histories and their reflections on life as they approach the year in which they'll reach what the Social Security Administration deems their full retirement age. The difference is they retired from their first careers decades ago.
Rocky Bleier (born March 5, 1946, in Appleton, Wis.) is working on a third career. He won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers— and a Purple Heart in Vietnam.
These days he is Rocky Bleier for a living, as a motivational speaker and president of Rocky Bleier Inc.
"For our generation, Vietnam was a big mark on the early part of our adult lives," Bleier says. "It is a part of who we are today, whether you fought in the conflict or didn't."
Bleier was drafted by the Steelers (16th round, 1968) before he was drafted by Uncle Sam.
He served in Vietnam as Specialist 4 in the U.S. Army from May 1969 until August, when a bullet struck his left thigh and shrapnel entered his lower right leg.
"Those four months are forever identified with me — a small part of my life that became a big part of my life," he says.
War has always been a part of who Boomers are: The term refers to the baby boom that followed World War II.
Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers (born Aug. 25, 1946, in Steubenville, Ohio) fits right in.
"As soon as the war ended, my dad got married," he says. "And I was nine months later."
He retired from the Milwaukee Brewers after the 1985 season. The Cincinnati Reds offered him a last chance in 1986, but with a hitch: The owner insisted her players be clean-shaven.
Fingers blistered a final brush-back pitch: "Look, you tell Marge Schott to shave her Saint Bernard," he told Reds general manager Bill Bergesch, "and I'll shave my mustache."
Fingers still wears that finely waxed handlebar, though these days it's gray, as if it belongs to an aging Snidely Whiplash.
"People walk up to me and say, 'You've got a mustache just like Rollie Fingers,' " he says.
"They recognize the mustache before they recognize me."
The residual pain
Baby Boomers around the world are dealing with the infirmities and indignities that come with age.
Some weekend warriors suffer an additional range of sports-induced afflictions such as arthritis, tendinitis or bursitis — collectively and colloquially known as boomeritis.
The need to replace worn-out body parts is all the more when these Boomers are former pro athletes.
Former NHL star Derek Sanderson (born June 16, 1946, in Niagara Falls, Ontario) has had 10 hip replacements — six on the left, four on the right, which sounds like some sort of record.
"What are you going to do?" he says. "They tell you that you've got to have it done, then you've got to have it done."
Laffit Pincay Jr. (born Dec. 29, 1946, in Panama City) was the winningest jockey in history at the time of his retirement in 2003 (since surpassed), but it's fair to say Pincay busted a lot more than records.
"I broke my collarbone 13 times," he says. "One time I broke 10 ribs at once. I had my ankle broken. My thumbs. I had a fracture on my wrist once. Worst one I had was when I broke my neck, my second vertebra, in three pieces."
Today, Pincay is happily retired and visits the gym every day. "I'm very healthy," he says. "My neck bothers me sometimes, but I know how to deal with it."
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Wes Unseld (born March 14, 1946, in Louisville) deals with residual pain, too.
"I've had a number of surgeries to repair and put in new parts and pieces," the former Washington Bullets center says. "I've had both knees replaced, ankle fused, that kind of thing."
Bleier had his left shoulder replaced nine years ago.
"I always say I had to block for Franco (Harris)," he says, "so it cost me a shoulder."
Sanderson figures upcoming generations will be luckier: "Science knows so much more about the body than they did in the '60s and the '70s.
"Today, the athletes are so much better conditioned; they take care of themselves. So I don't know if when they get to their 60s that they'll have the same problems."
Donna Lopiano (born Sept. 11, 1946, in Stamford, Conn.) has had one hip replaced — her left. She chalks it up to overuse. Her left leg was the one she landed on as a Hall of Fame fast-pitch softball pitcher.
"There is a price to pay for being terrific at something," she says.
"You've probably done it, if you're in the Hall of Fame, for many years. That's going to lead to some damage."
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