The Longest Professional Sports Careers

The average playing career for an NFL players is 3.5 years, the average MLB career is 5.6 years, the average NBA career is 4.8 years, and the average NHL career is 5.5 years. Playing in one of the major four American sports takes a toll on a person’s body that is nearly unfathomable.

The aforementioned being established, it is truly an incredible feat when an athlete exceeds the career length average of their respective league. The praiseworthy nature of such a feat is heightened when athletes break their sport’s average career length by a sizable amount.

Hence, it is the intent of this article to explore the athletes whose Herculean fortitude has seen them experience generation-bridging careers. But first, those worthy of an honorable mention will be listed.

A Pair of NHL Legends:

Considered the greatest hockey player to ever play the sport, Gretzky’s career lasted from 1978-1999. And, one of his most notable teammates makes the final list. But, Gretzky is unfortunately trumped by other NHL greats for the primary portion of the list.

Moreover, Martin Brodeur—the greatest goalie in hockey history—misses the list by the mere span of a year. But, the fact that he hasn’t retired clearly states that he will make the list of longest NHL careers before his career comes to a conclusion.

The 20-Year NFL Club

Playing 20 years of NFL football—a sport reputed for its sheer brutality—is something that deserves to be heralded. And, there are a select few NFL players who have managed to achieve such a status.

In particular, the careers of Brett Favre, Jim Marshall, and Jason Hanson all deserve honorable mention on this list.

Favre—unfortunately known in the 2010’s for his waffling antics and texting scandals—walked on the football field for nearly 300 consecutive NFL regular season games. And, he did so as the quarterback—the one position on the field where the person playing it walks onto the field with a figurative bulls-eye on his back.

In addition, Jim Marshall is a multi-decade player who is known for one play, the “Wrong Way” play. It was a blunder that left a permanent stain on an otherwise brilliant career—one where he was a member of one of the fiercest defensive lines in NFL history.

Lastly, Jason Hanson is a retired NFL kicker who played 21 football seasons with the Detroit Lions. And, he suffered through some of the franchise’s darkest times—including the oft-reviled Matt Millen era. Retiring after the 2012 NFL Season, Hanson played with both Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, who have both rewritten the record books at their respective positions.

But, while the previously stated careers are laudable, they weren’t quite lengthy enough to crack the top 10.

10. Kareem Abdul Jabbar—20 NBA Seasons

Considered one of the best to ever play the game of basketball. Jabbar—born Ferdinand Alcindor—played in the NBA for two complete decades. It was a career that spanned six championships, six MVP awards, nineteen all- star appearances, and two franchises– The Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers.

When Jabbar retired, he was the NBA’s all time leading scorer, which is an accolade that he still holds even in the present day.

9. Robert Parish—21 NBA Seasons

Another center who had a Hall of Fame career, Robert Parish’s career numbers and awards aren’t as gaudy as Jabbar’s. But, they still are impressive enough to merit his immortalization in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In his 21 NBA seasons, Parish appeared in nine all-star games and won four NBA championships.

In the end Jabbar’s career trumps Parish’s in all aspects save for one season of playing.

8. Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis—23 NHL Seasons

Believe it or not, Jaromir Jagr is still playing in the National Hockey League. To put perspective on how long his career has been, Jagr started playing in the NHL before his 2012 teammate, Dougie Hamilton, was alive.

Also, NHL Hall of Famer Ron Francis has the distinction of playing for 23 NHL seasons. Spanning from 1981 to 2004, Francis was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2007. He set franchise records for the Hartford Whalers, and proceeded to build upon such records when he returned to the team’s new incarnation, the Carolina Hurricanes.

7. Gary Anderson—23 NFL Seasons

Another Minnesota Viking with a blunder as his most remembered career highlight, Anderson was one NFL kicker who posted a 100% field goal success rate in the 1998 NFL Season. But, one missed field goal in the NFC Championship game during that same season caused one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses to go without a chance to fight for the Lombardi.

However, like Marshall, it is unfair to remember a mistake as the most notable moment of a long career. And, while he was a kicker, to play a professional sport for a span of time that exceeds two decades is praiseworthy.

Anderson’s career lasted from 1982- 2004.

6. Morten Andersen—24 NFL Seasons

Another NFL placekicker who is sure to be seen as undeserving of this recognition due to the position that he played, Andersen’s career lasted 24 seasons. And, it was a span of time that earned him seven Pro Bowl appearances.

Generally speaking, it is taboo to vote a special teams player into the NFL Hall of Fame. But, if it weren’t stigmatized, then Andersen would certainly be a worthy candidate to join the NFL’s elite in Canton, Ohio.

5. Deacon Mcguire and Tommy John—26 MLB Seasons

While baseball isn’t as physical as the hockey or football, the strain that the sport puts on a pitcher’s throwing arm is almost incomparable—just ask Stephen Strasburg. The aforementioned star pitcher was a player who received the now- famous ligament surgery that is named after Tommy John, a baseball player who pitched for 26 Major League seasons.

Now known more for the surgery named after him, John’s most notable career accolade is having 288 career wins—a number that was accumulated as a result of his long career.

In addition, Deacon Mcguire was an old-time player who played 26 seasons. Primarily, he did so for franchises that are no longer in existence.

26 years is a long time, but it is not the longest amount of time spent in the Big Leagues.

4. Mark Messier—26 NHL Seasons

The lesser spoken of contributor to the Edmonton Oiler dynasty of the 1980’s, Messier was Gretzky’s teammate at two separate points in his career. As stated before, they were teammates with the Oilers, and they were reunited in the twilight of their careers with the New York Rangers.

But, Messier’s career was great enough to be judged as an independent body—one that is separate from the massive shadow that the Great One casts. And, the NHL thought so when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Spanning 26 seasons, Messier’s career length is bested by only one other hockey legend.

3. George Blanda—26 NFL Seasons

To measure this career length, famous Rock and Roll singer Jim Morrison was barely six years old when George Blanda started playing in the NFL in 1949. And, in 1975—the year that Blanda retired—Morrison had been deceased for nearly four years.

Moreover, Blanda’s career predates the founding of the Oakland Raiders by eleven years. And, his retirement predates the Raider’s move to Los Angeles by a mere seven years.

Splitting time as a quarterback and a kicker, Blanda is one of the few NFL kickers to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

2. Cap Anson and Nolan Ryan—27 MLB Seasons

Cap Anson played a long time ago. In fact, his retirement from baseball as a player occurred three years before the twentieth century came to pass. Enshrined in Cooperstown, New York, Anson is a baseball player who—due to the his retirement being over 100 years in the past—is not as well known as another baseball player who played for 27 years.

Nolan Ryan, who some argue is the greatest pitcher to step on a mound, set records for amount of money earned and pitch velocity—as well as a good number of other things.

One of such records that Ryan holds is the tied record for the longest amount of time spent in the Big Leagues—a span of time that is two years more than one quarter of a century.

27 years is a long time to throw a ball at speeds that exceed 100 miles per hour. The fact that Ryan’s arm can still move is praiseworthy.

1.     Gordie Howe—26 NHL Seasons, 32 Seasons Total.

Gordie Howe’s NHL career spanned 26 seasons. But, in the 1970’s, a professional hockey league called the World Hockey Association was set up to try and compete with the National Hockey League.

After his final season with the Hartford Whalers, Howe played in the WHA for the better portion of the 1970’s. Effectively, this makes Howe a player whose professional career span from the 1940’s to the late 1970’s.

To put this in perspective, Howe’s career started in 1946—fifteen years before Wayne Gretzy was born. And, when he was reaching the end of his career with the WHA, Wayne Gretzky’s professional hockey career was just beginning.