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NFL 'THIRTYSOMETHING' GANG GETS BETTER WITH AGE

Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers already has set a personal career high for passing yards and should reach the 4,000-yard mark easily.

Joe Montana still is considered the National Football League's best quarterback. He keeps on pulling out last-minute victories for the San Francisco 49ers.

Now the NFL's oldest starting player, Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg is having the best of his 13 pro seasons and has the Chiefs sitting in first place in the AFC West.

Phil Simms of the New York Giants is the NFC's leader in passing efficiency.

Drew Hill of the Oilers is the AFC's No. 2 receiver with 56 catches.

O.J. Anderson of the Giants has a shot at another 1,000-yard season, which would make the 33-year-old running back the first to reach that plateau in three different decades.

The addition of guard Max Montoya, who was cut loose by the Cincinnati Bengals, is being credited for solidifying the Los Angeles Raiders offensive line and helping the Silver and Black become a playoff contender.

And, of course, Buffalo Bills wide receiver James Lofton continues to climb closer to the top of the NFL ladder for career receptions and career receiving yards. The 12-year veteran is averaging 22 yards a catch, best in the AFC and second only to Philadelphia rookie Fred Barnett in the entire league.

All these players, except Anderson, are 34 years or older, senior members of the NFL's "thirtysomething" club.

At 33, Anderson is ancient for a running back. O.J. Simpson was 32 when he retired. Jimmy Brown was only 29 when he left the game after the 1965 season. Are there more older players in the NFL than ever? Probably not, but many of the ones who have survived are having superior seasons.

Right now, not counting kickers and punters, there are only 33 players in the NFL 34 and over. George Allen's last Washington Redskins team in 1977, the Over the Hill Gang, had nine players in that category, including three 37-year-olds (Ron McDole, Billy Kilmer and Pat Fischer) and one 36-year-old (Chris Hanburger).

etter with age
The last of the Vince Lombardi championship teams at Green Bay had six players in the 34-and-over group, including Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Willie Davis, Bart Starr, Max McGee and Zeke Bratkowski.

On the other hand, the 1963 New York Giants, the last of a run of championship-level teams, was thought to be an ancient group. They actually had only four 34-and-overs. Frank Gifford was a mere baby of 33 at the time.

Dallas' last Super Bowl team had only three players 34 and over, but one of them was 36-year-old quarterback Roger Staubach.

Surprisingly, the oldest player on the last (1979) of Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl championship teams of the 1970s was 33-year-old running back Rocky Bleier.

What's the key to career longevity in pro football?

It's a combination of good luck, good health and just being in the right place at the right time, according to the Bills' Lofton.

Some players just outgrow the game or lose the intensity the sport requires. The grind burns them out.

"But," Lofton says, "for a majority of players who are fortunate enough to be injury-free enough to stick around, it's a matter of conditioning. Most guys enjoy playing the game."

Some players who grow stale are overwhelmed by playing in a losing atmosphere.

Lofton says his attitude has been freshened by two moves he has made. Originally a Green Bay Packer, he was traded to the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987 and wound up with the Bills last year after he was released by the Raiders.

"It presents a new challenge," said Lofton, who thinks that two reasons for Moon's outstanding season with Houston are the change to the run-and-shoot offense and a change of head coaches. "It's made everything new and exciting for him."

Lofton also realizes he and the others who have lasted have been fortunate to keep turning up in situations where they fit in.

"What happens," Lofton says, "you're playing for team 'X' and they have a new coach who comes in, and he wants guys who do things a certain way, and you've been used to doing it your way. It's not a meeting of the minds, and you have a parting of ways a lot of times.

"There's still guys who can go out there and play on Sunday, but because they don't fit the mold the coaching staff is looking for they find themselves out of work."

Guard Jim Ritcher is having perhaps his best NFL season even though at 32, he's the Bills' second-oldest player. He admits it now takes him longer to recover from a game than it did when he was 23 or 24.

On the other hand, he says, "A lot of things seem to have become easier. You're used to the system. Like any job, the more experience you get, the easier the job actually becomes."

Developing a more professional and purposeful attitude over the years helps, Ritcher said.

"I've learned how to do that. When I was studying film I used to just watch either myself or the guys playing my position. I really didn't study the defense. I didn't know how. It took a while to learn how to watch film and how to break down what you're watching and really know what you're looking for.

"And there was a tendency to drift off and think about other things.

"I feel I'm in better shape now than I've ever been," Ritcher said. "Better diet. Better use of my time as far as lifting weights. You know, you would go in there and 'max out' and see how much you can lift instead of lifting the right way, the right number of sets, the right amount of weight to build strength, instead of going in there and seeing how much you can do."

Most players are bachelors or newlyweds when they break into pro football. By the time they reach their mid-30s, most have taken on family obligations.

"For me, my family's a stabilizing factor," Lofton said. "I have a wife and three children, and I think, in a way, you change your priorities a little bit. You can focus in on your job because that's what you know it is. You also realize it's not the most important thing to you."

For Ritcher, living half the year in Buffalo and half in North Carolina complicates things. "You have kids who are going to school now. A lot of guys 24 years old don't have kids in school. Moving and rearranging schools makes it complicated sometimes.

"It's a game and it's fun. It's a job, too. It's the way I earn my living."

Playing this long was something Lofton admits he once aspired to, but he doesn't recommend hanging on to such long-term plans.

"There was a time when to make it to the 1990 season and start my third decade (in the NFL) was kind of my goal," said Lofton, who was the sixth player taken in the 1978 draft. Some of the players taken ahead of him (Earl Campbell, Art Still, Wes Chandler, Chris Ward and Terry Miller) left the NFL scene long ago.

"In the last five years there were times when I thought 'maybe one or two more years and that's it.'

"You can't spend the rest of your life thinking 'I could have played one or two more years' because every player becomes an ex-player.

"I think the best way to approach football, whether you're in your first year, your second year, your 10th year, is to approach it day by day. You get up in the morning and say: 'I have an exciting job that I want to go to and I want to do it well.' "

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