When the sun goes down on Mondays, the regulars arrive at Sportsmen’s Tennis & Enrichment Center in Dorchester, as they’ve done for the past 15 years. The most senior player, 81-year-old Ray Green, chooses his doubles partner.
“They defer to me because I’m the oldest,” said Green, clutching his racket. “So I always pick the youngest, fastest player. That’s the plan.” He added with a grin, “It doesn’t always work.”
His nod goes to Selwyn Dyette, who is a spry 65. They face their friends, Bob Freeman, 73, and Bob Frank, 76, across the net. After stretches and warm-ups, they begin serving and volleying, and running down balls. The game is back on.
For sports-crazed older athletes, some of whom jokingly dub themselves “geezer jocks,” the game is on almost every weekday night — and weekend morning — at basketball courts, soccer fields, hockey rinks, and other venues around the country.
More than 15 million Americans are lacing up sneakers to exercise regularly deep into their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond, according to survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Their ranks have swelled over the past two decades, along with their bonds of friendship and catalogs of aches and pains. But they still represent a minority — less than 20 percent — of the nation’s over-55 population. And even a smaller share gravitates to competitive contact sports, where the risk of injury multiplies.
Older athletes who have been at it for decades often play through injuries. Some have battled cancer. Others return after knee replacements or other medical procedures.
“I’ve torn both hamstrings, I’ve broken my wrist, I’ve ruptured my achilles [tendon],” Providence soccer player Brian Demers, 56, who drives to Massachusetts for weekly games, said matter-of-factly. “After my surgery, I so badly wanted to get back out there.”
Doctors once cautioned older patients against overexertion, but many now say the risks are outweighed by the physical benefits of regular exercise — burning calories and fat, strengthening the heart, and boosting lung capacity — plus the boon to mental health.
“Our philosophy’s evolved to cater to a population that has higher expectations and insists on being active into older ages,” said Dr. Joseph A. Bosco, orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. “There’s a better understanding of the health benefits.”
At the same time, better surgical techniques and implant materials have enabled doctors to perform knee replacements at younger ages — and procedures like reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, at older ages — than in the past. That means determined athletes of all ages have more opportunity to recover and get back into the game.
“We’re all counting our blessings that we can still do it,” said Demers.
Beyond an aversion to the couch-potato lifestyle, the area’s aging hoopsters and grizzled goalies cite a number of motivations for their high-intensity hijinks. Foremost is a quest for fitness at an age where bodies are more prone to decline, and fractures slower to heal.
“I don’t want my body to rust, so I just keep on keeping on,” said Jean Acheson, 81, a retired nurse who plays on an over-70 volleyball team, Mass Chaos, made up of Eastern Massachusetts women who have competed in a dozen national tournaments. They won a silver medal for their age bracket last spring at the National Senior Games in Albuquerque.
Acheson is the oldest member of her team, where she plays alongside younger 70-somethings. “I was hoping to get a team in their 80s, but I couldn’t find enough gals,” she said.
For older athletes, the bonhomie among teammates and rivals who have spent years sprinting or skating together, or boxing one another out under the rim, is often as important as the exercise. Many have become friends off the court, sharing meals and socializing after games.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” said Andy Thomas, 70, a retired project manager from Newton who plays in the Over-the-Hill Soccer League with a cast of contemporaries, including some from Peru, Israel, Hong Kong, and South Africa.
Many competitive older athletes say the biggest driver is their love of the game. Their weekly soccer match or basketball scrimmage is the one time they can take their minds off work drama or family worries and focus wholly on passing and shooting and rebounding, losing themselves in a way they can’t during solo athletic activities like running or swimming.
“Basketball’s a team sport,” said Dr. Matt Shuster, 63, a geriatrician for Atrius Health who has been playing in regular games twice a week for 30 years at gyms in Newton. “The truth is I feel sore for a couple of days after the game, but it’s worth it. I find solitary exercise pretty boring.”
Acheson, the octogenarian volleyball player, said there’s an added motivator for older women: making up for lost time. Athletic girls of her generation had few opportunities to play sports in college before Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that opened the door to female athletes.
“A lot of gals my age couldn’t get athletic scholarships,” she said.
Today, it’s not uncommon for sports-minded women, and men, to “retire” from adult leagues to raise children or pursue careers and then return to the field or ice years later, when the kids are out of the house and they’re downshifting from demanding jobs.
Dr. Elizabeth Ward, 56, a peak performance coach and consultant based in Westwood, played hockey at Harvard and continued skating into her 40s on adult teams with names like Mother Puckers and Mothers on Edge. “We were competitive,” she recalled. “We’d go out and skate our hardest and surprise the younger teams. We loved to beat the college teams.”
Ward has hung up her skates, at least for now, while she works with college players and executives and raises three children who are also playing hockey. But she won’t rule out the idea of returning to the rink in the future. “It gets in your blood,” she said.
For those still in the game, one question looms larger with every injury, every birthday, every teammate who retreats to the elliptical machine: How long can they keep it up?
“I know someday it’s going to have to stop,” Demers said. “But I choose not to think about it.” Some say there’s less contact in contact sports as players age — and less appetite for collision. Many adult hockey leagues have nixed body checking, or crashing into opponents in a bid to separate them from the puck. Older basketball players, meanwhile, are less inclined to “take a charge,” establishing a set position on the court to draw a foul.
“We’ve weeded out the jerks,” said Shuster, the Newton geriatrician, referring to overzealous players. “And as you get older, you don’t really want to cover the guys who are 45.”
Eventually, all older athletes must come to terms with the reality that they can’t play the way they did 30 years ago. But few like to admit it.
“Your mind thinks you can still do it, but your body knows you can’t,” said Boston police Officer Frank Williams, 56, who played football and basketball in high school and now teaches tennis to young people and seniors at the Sportsmen’s center in Dorchester.
When an opposing tennis player hits a ball you can’t get to — one you could have returned in the past — “you just have to learn to say, ‘Good shot,’ ” Williams said.