A corporal in the US Marines during World War II, he had his rifle shot right out of his hands during the invasion of Guam, picked it up and just kept on going. When hostilities ended he returned to his native Mississippi to quarterback for ‘Ole Miss’ and from there he spent 13 years with the New York Giants.
Conerly was touching 40 by the time he called it quits in 1961 — only to re-emerge every now and then to lend his rugged good looks to some of those iconic cowboy ‘Marlboro Man’ adverts — but his NFL career could have ended eight years earlier when the Giants were struggling and fans took to calling for his head.
The Giants went on to win the championship three years later by socking the storied Chicago Bears by 40 points in Yankee Stadium and Conerly lost out to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in overtime two years later in a televised championship game renowned for prising a nation’s adoring eyes away from baseball and towards the gridiron.
Conerly’s name doesn’t carry quite the weight of a Unitas or a Joe Namath with the casual fan, not just because his was an era before Super Bowls of which the 51st is to be played on Sunday, but also for the fact that he wasn’t one to blow his own trumpet. Few quotes of his have survived the test of time.
One of the few doing the rounds was his short but significant take on life as an ageing sportsman: “When you win you’re an old pro, when you lose you’re an old man.” There is so much truth in those few words and Conerly knew well how swift and unsentimental the end can be given he was replaced in the line-up for his last season in New York by YA Tittle.
No rookie himself at the time, Tittle was 34 when he switched coasts and joined from San Francisco to kick off the last chapter of another storied career that would only end four seasons later. Few last acts have been captured as evocatively as his was on a Sunday in September in 1964.
Named the league’s MVP the season before, he had taken the Giants to the championship game three years in a row by the time he was left bloodied, battered and on his knees by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ John Baker. It was a moment captured for posterity by Post-Gazette photographer Morris Berman.
“That was the end of my dance,” Tittle said years down the line. “A whole lifetime was over.” It’s the risk all sportspeople run the longer they go on. Some careers end in a heartbeat, others fade away to nothing.
Kieran Shannon wrote a piece in these pages earlier this week about 35-year-old Roger Federer’s Australian Open triumph and the reward it was for his persistence and positivity and Sunday’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will see another ‘vet’ take centre stage long after most have been talked down.
Surviving in the NFL at 39 would be a feat in itself. Tom Brady is thriving.
It’s two years since Peyton Manning won his second Super Bowl ring. For years Manning and Brady had been held up as the alpha and omega of quarterbacks, different characters and different players who were reaching similar historic heights, but Manning’s game had deteriorated horribly by 2014. That ring was earned for him by the Denver Broncos defence.
Brady continues to keep Father Time on hold.
He eats an 80% alkaline diet, won’t touch a range of foods that includes everything from coffee to potatoes and tucks himself in at night at a time when some pre-schoolers are still watching cartoons. The science behind his food intake has been questioned, but that lifestyle, his work-rate and talent have facilitated one of modern sport’s standout careers.
Brady has won four Super Bowls (and lost three), he has been MVP in three of those and has been selected for the NFL Pro Bowl team a dozen times and he has not even contemplated the end of the road.
It hasn’t been without its bumps.
His friendship with Donald Trump can’t sit well with the 50%-plus of the US who voted against the new president and his popularity plummeted in 2015 in the aftermath of the ‘Deflategate’ scandal that ultimately saw him serve a four-game suspension.
Yet here he is, seven months out from his 40th birthday, 17 seasons into a career in a truly punishing game and adding rather than subtracting from his legacy with each play. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh played 14 years in the league as a quarterback. For him, it is the consistency of Brady’s excellence that stands him apart.
“Nobody’s ever done it like Tom Brady has,” Harbaugh said this week. “He’s the best of all time.”
Who knows where and when the end will come?