They Spare No Expense
The strongest evidence that some perfect storm of sports science and technology is rewriting the rules of athletic longevity has to be Peyton Manning. He was already a geriatric 35 years old in 2011 when a severe neck injury crippled his throwing arm. After undergoing surgery, Manning signed a five-year, $90 million contract extension with the Colts, only to have his neck pain return. Another operation, to fuse vertebrae in his neck, forced him to sit out the entire 2011–12 season. That third surgery eased Manning's pain, but his right arm had grown so weak that he had to relearn how to throw a football. He flew to Duke University to train with David Cutcliffe, the offensive coordinator from his collegiate days at Tennessee. After working for months in secrecy, he tested Manning's arm by flying in a bunch of the quarterback's old teammates from the Colts. Working in an undisclosed location, they re-created every offensive play from the 2009 AFC Championship game — in which Manning led the Colts on a series of memorable drives to beat the New York Jets 30–17. When Manning nailed every pass, they knew he was ready to play again. The Colts released him a week later, so Manning signed with Denver, where he set an all-time NFL record for single-season passing yards, soon breaking Brett Favre's record for most career touchdowns.
Others are turning to a slew of quasi-medical treatments that promise to speed healing from injury. Kobe Bryant, for example, was reportedly on the brink of retirement back in 2011, due to knee pain. Then he flew to Germany for platelet-rich plasma therapy, or PRP, a form of so-called orthobiological medicine that leverages the body's own ability to heal. The procedure began with Bryant's blood being drawn, warmed, and spun in a centrifuge to separate out the platelets that help with the production of the growth factors that speed recovery. Doctors then injected that fluid into the injured part of Bryant's knee. The treatment, which costs as much as $8,000 per injection, was so successful that Bryant's good friend, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, reportedly had it done five times to help bounce back after being sidelined by injuries.
Far more expensive is the stem-cell therapy used by Manning in 2011. The idea is to take stem-cell-rich fat or bone marrow, typically, and inject it into some injured area, in the hopes that it will aid in the regeneration of muscle, bone, ligaments, or tendons. The U.S. has extremely strict regulations surrounding the procedure. But European clinics harvest stem cells from liquefied placental tissue, cultivating those stem cells in petri dishes for injections of much higher concentration. A single injection can cost as much as $25,000.