Former Bears wide receiver Willie Gault has an easy explanation as to why he's been able to hang on to the world-class speed that made him one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL for a decade.
"I never really stopped," he said of the football and track training that he started as a freshman in high school. "I just never took much time off."
That's part of the reason the 50-year-old Gault recently set masters age-group world records by running the 100 meters in 10.88 seconds and the 200 meters in 22.44 seconds last month at the Occidental Invitational in Los Angeles. He also set 45-49 age-group world records in both events with a 10.72 in the 100 and a 21.80 in the 200.
How fast is that?
Well, consider this: Gault can still run a 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds, which is only a step or two slower than what he ran in his 20s, when he was leading the Bears in receiving yards every year from 1983-87 and in receiving touchdowns in all but one of those seasons.
After establishing his records in the 50-54-year-old class, Gault said: "I cherish what I do. I'm very fortunate to be in this sport, and I don't take it for granted. I just love the sport -- track and field is the greatest sport in the world."
That's high praise for someone with a Super Bowl ring, who played 11 seasons in the NFL and averaged 19.9 yards per catch for his career. In his first 10 years, five with the Bears and five with the Raiders, Gault never averaged less than 17.3 yards per catch, accumulating 6,635 career yards on 333 receptions, including 44 touchdowns.
Gault wasn't condemning football by praising track, but he says he has always enjoyed the individual challenge of his favorite sport.
"I think (track) is better than football as a pure sport," he said. "You don't have to rely on anyone else to be successful. In football, you have to rely on the coach to call the right play, the line to block and the quarterback to get you the ball. In track I train hard, I get in the blocks, and then I just have to beat the guys next to me.
"Is football a great sport? Of course. I've done a lot of sports, but track and field is the greatest because it's just you out there."
Gault has obviously been blessed with natural athleticism and speed, but so have a lot of other former professional athletes his age, and none of them is performing at the elite level that he is today. There's a lot more to his success than elite genetics.
"I enjoy training, and I've always been a hard worker," he said. "I always had a great work ethic. I'm in as great a shape as when I played. I outrun guys half my age (at open track meets)."
His workout schedule is proof enough that Gault enjoys the training aspect of his regimen. He lifts four times a week -- hoisting about as much weight as he did as an NFL player -- and does track work four days a week.
Gault's ability to defy age doesn't stop on the track. He could easily pass for a man 10-15 years younger. Taking care of himself and working hard every day have been lifelong missions, but he enjoys the spoils of his toils.
"It keeps me young," he said of training and competing with athletes the same age as his 24-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son.
"I've always thought about what I want to accomplish and how I want my body to look," he said. "I eat right. I'm a vegetarian. I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't do drugs.
"I know I'm only going to get one body. You can't trade it in like a used car. I've always been very conscious of my body, and I treat my body right. I try to be stress free. I realize I'm never as great as my best day or as bad as my worst day. I don't take anything too seriously, I laugh a lot and I play a lot. Acting like a kid sometimes helps keep me young."
Gault has some basic advice that has worked well for him when it comes to avoiding stress.
"Life is too short to have bitterness," he said. "Don't hold grudges; move on. You're only here for a short time, even if you live to be 100."
The way he's going, Gault might still be competing on the track at that age.
Without being preachy, he offers a simple explanation as to why other people his age, even former professional athletes, have been unable to look or perform as they did in their primes.
"It's what they've done to their bodies," he said. "From now to my fastest time ever (10.1 in the 100 meters), it's less than a second apart. I just never really stopped running. It's really easy to get out of shape, especially when you get older, and then it's just way too hard to get back. People get discouraged because after a few weeks they're not seeing great results, so they give up.
"I never want to get out of shape. I'll do it 3-4 times a week until I die. That's my plan."
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