IN ALMOST everyculture, 40 is a mystical number. Forty is the length, in days, of Biblicalfloods and fasts. Forty is the only number, spelled out in English, whoseletters appear in alphabetical order. To millions of Americans, 40 is a figureof almost divine significance, consecrated by Casey Kasem.
The same is truein sports, in which 40 was worn by Pat Tillman and Gale Sayers, whose footballhopes hinged on a fast time in the 40. When repeated, the number gives you thehardest club to crash in baseball: 40-40.
So why doesn'tanyone want to be 40? "At 40, you feel incredibly old as an athlete,"says Mike Richter, the New York Rangers goalie who retired three years ago andnow attends Yale. "You certainly feel old as a 40- year-old senior incollege."
Forty years agothis Friday, on Sept. 22, 1966, Richter was born in suburban Philadelphia and Iwas born in suburban Chicago. We both went to college in Wisconsin, took jobsin New York City and then settled in Connecticut, where Richter studiesphilosophy, politics and economics at his third Ivy League institution and Iwatch TV in my underwear. Worse, he's funny, whip-smart and a doting father ofthree young boys. "My brother says I'm either reading Plato or playing withPlay-Doh," says Richter, who has unwittingly dedicated his existence tomaking me look ridiculous by comparison.
Famous athleteswho share your year of birth are a handy reference point for how you're doingin life. And so I've long consoled myself that I have fewer gambling debts thanJohn Daly, fewer drug arrests than Michael Irvin, fewer Maori face tattoos thanMike Tyson.
But the onlymeasure that has ever mattered to me is the Richter Scale. The guy who haswalked the Earth exactly as long as I have played 15 seasons in the NHL,attended Columbia and Cornell in his summers off, competed in three Olympics,won the Stanley Cup, earned millions of dollars, saw his number 35 hoisted tothe rafters at Madison Square Garden and now spends his days and nightsreading. "Kierkegaard and Green Eggs and Ham," says the student-father,who commutes to New Haven from his home in coastal Guilford, one of MONEYmagazine's 100 Best Places to Live in 2005. Sigh.
Forty years isforever ago. On the night Richter and I were born, the Yankees and the WhiteSox drew 413 spectators to Yankee Stadium, a figure that is inconceivabletoday. But Richter doesn't believe that four decades is an epoch, perhapsbecause he just emerged from his class on Greek antiquity. (When the girl infront of him wirelessly summoned a Google map of Macedonia on her laptop—nowthat made Richter feel old.)
Twice thissemester, students have approached Richter in lecture halls and asked for acopy of the syllabus, mistaking him for a Yale professor. "I assure you, ithas a hell of a lot more to do with my hairline than any air ofintelligence," says Richter, who is less bald than I am but moreself-deprecating.
For athletes, 40might as well be 80. Stefan Edberg is 40, and he retired from tennis 10 yearsago. Zola Budd is 40, and her greatest fame came 22 years ago, at the L.A.Olympics. "Athletics give you a skewed idea of what you are," saysRichter, who retired at 36 after fracturing his skull. "At 35 you've had along career as a hockey player. An Olympic gymnast might be 'too old' at 19.But 40 is still young for a normal working person. Hopefully, you've still gotmore ahead of you than behind you."
And yet he has noplans to celebrate himself with a gala on Friday. "We just had a pirateparty for one of our boys," he says, "so that theme is taken."
At 40 we're as oldas Kwanzaa, Star Trek, Miranda rights, Wite-Out, Eleanor Rigby and Twister, butRichter assures me I can still rally in life's second half. "As a writer,you can grow and improve," he says. "As an athlete, I have to go intosomething that I'm not as competent at." He implies that I'm on my way upand he's on his descent, and that our paths are briefly intersecting at 40,like two men on opposite escalators. But Richter is just being kind.
"I had a veryinsular and artificial life playing pro sports," the philosophy studentsays, philosophically. "It was an awesome, unique experience. But peoplesay the same thing about academia: It's insular, it's artificial. I guess nowI'm working in my second dream world.
"Because ofthat," he says after a pause, "I still have some ideals, and maybe evenan ignorance of the way the world works."
And what ablessing that is at 40, to trade your goals against average for a grade pointaverage, which measures perfection in two profound syllables: four-oh.
If you have acomment for Steve Rushin, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Athletes with your year of birth are a reference pointfor how you're doing in life, so I've long consoled myself that I have fewerMaori face tattoos than Mike Tyson.