Who is the oldest player to compete in NCAA football? Is there an age limit for college athletes?
College football requires peak physical condition and discipline, attributes that are most often associated with youth. But some players break the mold.
Back in January 2020, the LSU Tigers won the national championship in emphatic fashion, taking apart a previously undefeated Clemson team and capping off a perfect season. With Joe Burrow at the helm, Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the backfield, and Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase out wide, that team was perhaps the greatest football team, college or pro, that has ever been fielded.
When surrounded by that kind of talent, legendary names, it is easy to understand why a name like Zach Von Rosenberg might get left out of the headlines, but his story is every bit as amazing as the others.
Drafted to by the MLB’s Pittsburg Pirates out of high school, he played six years of minor league baseball before injuries took their toll. “A lot of guys battle injuries, and they can fight through it. I just wasn’t one of those people. I just wasn’t good enough to play major league. It is what it is. The dream came to an end.”
So the Lake Charles, Louisiana native decided to go home, and go to college. Enrolling at LSU, he got some sage advice from his mother. “She was like, ‘Zach, you don’t know a life without sports, so I don’t see why you wouldn’t continue now?’” Heeding those words, he tried out for the football team and became the Tigers’ punter at the age of 26. When LSU took the football world by storm and became national champions, Von Rosenberg was a 29 year old junior.
As unusual and heartwarming as his story is, Zach Von Rosenberg is not the oldest to play college football, and by a long way. Every year a handful of athletes who are the wrong side of 30 will compete in college sports. As far as the NCAA rules of eligibility are concerned, there is no distinction made between tennis, track and field, or football. All rules are in relation to an athlete’s status as a student.
In basic terms, there are two sets of eligibility rules, one for Division I and another that applies to Division II and III. If you enrol in a D-I program, you have four years of eligibility which must be completed in five years. The moment you enrol, your clock starts ticking, whether you play sports or not. The only exemptions to pause the clock are military service, religious missions, or foreign aid services like the Peace Corps.
For D-II and D-III schools, the difference is that rather than have five calendar years to complete your eligibility, there is a semester clock, which allows players to leave college, or perhaps study part-time, to continue playing until they have racked up 10 semesters in total.
Participation in organized sporting events, such as an amateur baseball or football league, will count toward your eligible years as well, so you may have never gone to college, but played in a local amateur league, deducting from your eligibility.
So while the NCAA does not place an age limit on athletics, their rules of eligibility make it extremely difficult for anyone who is older to maintain their amateur eligible status.
The oldest college football player so far has been Alan Moore, who had his college career interrupted by the Vietnam War, before returning to kick at Faulkner University. He had become a pipe fitter and when he lost his job after the economic crash in 2008, he decided to try out kicking once more. At the age of 61, he kicked an extra point in a game and became the oldest player in NCAA history.
Moore’s coach at Faulkner, Gregg Baker, puts it best when he says, “If you can’t get excited hearing that story, there’s something wrong with you inside.”
But while he is the oldest, his generational compatriots are not far behind. Mike Flynt suited up at age 59 for Sul Ross State University for his final year of eligibility after being kicked out of school for fighting over forty years previous. And Joe Thomas Sr., father of Chicago Bears linebacker Joe Thomas Jr, played running back for South Carolina State University at the age of 55. Bob Schembre fulfilled a high school dream by playing linebacker for Westminster College at 51 years old.
As one of Mike Flynt’s former team mates, Doug Connor, stated, “If you are tough enough to do it, do it.”