Longevity is impressive in any sport. It often comes as a result of many factors: talent, toughness, determination, and, of course, luck. In baseball, guys must tough out the daily grind of the overwhelmingly long season. On the gridiron, football players must sustain physical contact and injuries that human bodies simply are not made to withstand. There are countless athletes who have carved out long successful careers in their respective sports, but no one- literally- has done what these two men have done.
Cal Ripken, Jr. was a 19-time All-Star, 2-time MVP, and World Series champion, but he is most noted for breaking, and ultimately shattering, Lou Gehrig's seemingly untouchable record of 2130 consecutive games played.
Brett Favre was no slouch himself; an 11-time Pro-Bowler, 3-time MVP and Superbowl champion, he more than doubled the NFL's previous mark for consecutive games played set by Ron Jaworski (116).
These two athletes epitomize the term "gamer" and it is possible we will never see the likes of a Ripken or a Favre again. So whose record is more impressive? Better yet, whose streak is more unbreakable?
Football fans, get your tomatoes cocked and ready- I'm going with Ripken on this one. When their streaks are averaged out over the 16-game NFL regular season and MLB's 162-game season, Favre actually outshines Ripken by over two seasons : 18.56 to 16.25. And yes, football is a far more physical sport, and Favre battled through injury, sickness, and personal problems on countless NFL Sundays to make sure he was under center for his team. And not only did he play, he produced! He holds essentially every quarterback career record (including the bad ones)- although most would argue those to be a perk and byproduct of such longevity.
Ripken's "Iron Man" record is more unbreakable, however, because it happened on the baseball diamond. It's a game where a "day off" isn't worthy of ESPN coverage, but rather commonplace for every league starter. The grind of the MLB season is unlike any other in sports. Every day is game day, and a night game in Seattle followed by a matinee in New York is not out of the ordinary. These guys are always going, and while their bodies aren't being smashed by 300-pound Defensive Tackles, they are slowly but surely breaking down over the course of the season- and that's in addition to the mental grind of a season that can span over seven months.
In football, you take your beatings, you have six days to recover, and as long as you can go the next Sunday, you play. That's what makes Favre's record attainable: if you're healthy- and productive- you play. Peyton Manning has never missed a start in his career. He has good protection in front of him, he gets rid of the ball quickly, and he's smart about avoiding the big hit via the slide or, my favorite, the fetal position surrender. His streak currently stands at 206. Do you think Peyton can stay healthy and keep his starting job for six more seasons? I do. The record will lose some of the toughness and grit that Brett's style and over-publicized injuries brought to it, but it will someday belong to number 18.
Ripken's will never be touched. I know they said that about Gehrig's mark, but this is a new age. Perennial All-Stars don't even play full seasons, never mind sixteen straight. There are too many factors, too many health precautions, too much awareness of the daily grind, and yes, too much babying that goes on today to allow someone to even approach such a streak. If a baseball player is legitimately healthy all-season, a rare occurrence in itself, he will play about 150 games, on average. Days off have become a part of the game- a way for a player's body to recover, an opportunity for a back-up to get some at-bats and exposure, and a chance for a star to let his mind rest. They're not seen as a punishment, but rather a perk.
The whole season is geared toward making the playoffs and winning a World Series, so days off are given in bulk toward the beginning of the year to ensure a player's health later in the season, when it counts. Lose your star QB for two NFL games? That could be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them from your couch.
Much focus is placed on toughness throughout these streaks, both physical and mental, and rightfully so- but what about luck? How lucky is Favre that he never battled concussion problems that plagued so many of his colleagues. How lucky is Ripken that he never caught that inside fastball off the knuckles that have shattered hands and left so many guys sidelined for weeks, even months at a time. No hamstring pulls, hell, not even a bad case of the flu. These two Hall-of-Famers fought hard their entire careers, but luck was also on their side.
In the span between two NFL Sundays, a baseball player plays six games. No bye weeks, no days off from practice- hell, there is no practice! Every day's game day, and the fact that Cal Ripken, Jr. woke up on 2632 consecutive game days to see his name on the lineup card is truly amazing- a record that will surely stand the test of time.