THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Andrew Whitworth needed two knee surgeries before his 2013 season with the Cincinnati Bengals. During several frustrating months of slow rehabilitation, the left tackle seriously began to contemplate life after football.
“At one time in training camp in 2013, I thought I may never play again,” Whitworth said. “It’s one thing to rehab, but it’s another just thinking that this may be it, and you really don’t know until you finally feel like yourself again. Sometimes that can take a lot longer than you plan."
Whitworth persevered and eventually returned to play in the second week of his eighth NFL season. The experience left him with a new perspective on football, life and longevity — along with a new life goal he'll fulfill Monday night when he takes the field in Arizona with the Los Angeles Rams.
“When I finally came out of what I call that darkness, and thinking that was it, I was like, ‘With what I’ve learned through this, with what I’ve been through, I think I can take care of myself, and I’d love to see if there’s any chance I could play when I’m 40 years old,’” Whitworth recalled this week.
Whitworth turns 40 on Sunday, joining Tom Brady as the only active 40-somethings in the league. He'll be on the field for the latest game in his 16th NFL season when the Rams (8-4) attempt to make up ground in the NFC West race on the Cardinals (10-2).
He will become the first 40-year-old to start an NFL game at left tackle, and Whitworth is changing the framework for longevity among linemen.
Look at it this way: His career is now as twice as long as it was when he first worried about retirement in 2013, and there's every indication he will play beyond this season as well.
Not only is Whitworth still playing football, he is playing at an elite level in a key position for a Super Bowl-contending team. To hard-core analytics experts and casual fans alike, Whitworth’s play has remained remarkably sturdy as he plays deep into the second season of his second three-year contract with Los Angeles.
Other than a little extra gray in his beard and an occasional concern about his knees, the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Whitworth's imposing physical frame also shows no outward signs of the advancing time — no surprise for a man who installed an entire weight room in his garage last year to stay in shape during the pandemic.
“To look like that at 39, 40 years old is really special,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said.
The Rams are doing “not too much” razzing of Whitworth before his big day this week, Stafford added: “I mean, how are you going to tease a guy that looks like that? Can't do too much to him. We're just patting him on the back.”
More than ever in sports, age is not a wall, but a flimsy barrier that can be pushed, bent and stretched indefinitely with the right combination of dedication, genetics and good luck. Whitworth has all three — to a degree that not even he realized at first.
Whitworth said playing beyond 40 was “a kind of outlandish goal that I never thought I’d even get close to.” But the prospect started to feel real when the Rams signed the then-35-year-old in 2017 to be a major part of their reboot under coach Sean McVay — who is four years younger than Whitworth.
“I was like, ’Man, you’re going to be kind of close to it if you just finish this contract,'” Whitworth said. “I thought I would only play a year or two of that contract, and it ended up being another contract, and then even another year. So it’s just one of those things where it started getting close, and now to be here, it’s pretty wild to think about how long ago those thoughts were to be at this point.”
Whitworth hopes to end his 16th season by playing in his second Super Bowl. Even if the Rams fall short, he is already sounding increasingly eager to return for another shot in 2022.
“I still love playing this game ... and if it works out, hopefully I’ll have a chance to continue my career and continue playing,” Whitworth said. “For now, I feel great body-wise. I don’t see any reason to stop unless it doesn’t work out for both sides.”
Whitworth said his dream to play past 40 was cemented after he moved to California and shared a round of golf with fellow longtime Ventura County resident Wayne Gretzky.
“He said, ‘Just make sure you make people tear that jersey off of you, and you don’t walk away until you’re ready,'” Whitworth recalled. "'Because you’ll miss those moments, and there’s nothing like (the) locker room you’re living in right now.’”
NOTES: LB Terrell Lewis (back) joined C Brian Allen (knee) and CB Robert Rochell (ankle) on the sidelines at Thursday's walk-through practice. McVay doesn't know whether they'll play Monday. ... WR Cooper Kupp was limited by a toe injury, but McVay thinks he'll play.
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