The Oldest Running Backs in the NFL: Legends of the Game

A running back is a vital player in the world of football. As a key member of the offensive backfield, they play a crucial role in the strategy and execution of every game. Whether they are called halfback, tailback, wingback, or fullback, these athletes possess incredible skill and physical prowess. The path to becoming a running back in the NFL is challenging, but the rewards are significant, with many players amassing immense wealth throughout their careers.

However, a career in football is often short-lived. The average age of an NFL running back is 28.5, which means that most players retire in their late 20s or early 30s. In fact, the majority of players spend no more than three years in the NFL. Nevertheless, there are a few exceptional individuals who have defied the odds and continued to perform at the highest level well into their twilight years.

If you’re curious to discover who the oldest running backs in NFL history are, read on to learn more about these remarkable football legends!

8. Franco Harris

Franco Harris

Franco Harris, a gifted fullback, enjoyed a highly successful career in the NFL. He retired at the age of 34, cementing his status as one of the oldest fullbacks in the league. Harris spent the majority of his playing years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he showcased his unwavering loyalty from 1972 to 1983. Later, he joined the Seattle Seahawks for the 1984 season before ultimately retiring.

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Did you know? After hanging up his cleats, Harris and his college teammate Lydell Mitchell founded Super Bakery in 1990. This nutrition-oriented company aims to provide wholesome meals and products to school children across the country.

7. John Riggins

John Riggins

John Riggins, a retired fullback, continued to play until the age of 36, making him one of the oldest running backs in NFL history. In 1971, he was selected by the New York Jets in the NFL Draft, launching his successful career. Riggins’s time with the Jets brought him recognition, earning him the Jets’ MVP award in both the 1972 and 1975 seasons. However, he ultimately made a move to the Washington Redskins as a free agent, where he enjoyed a highly profitable contract before retiring in 1985. During his retirement, Riggins pursued acting and commentating to varying degrees.

Did you know? Riggins had a brief departure from football while with the Washington Redskins. When the team refused to renegotiate his contract, he decided to leave the training camp. As a result, he ended up on the camp-retired list, rendering him ineligible to play for any other NFL team. However, he eventually returned to the Redskins in 1981 and stayed with them until his retirement.

6. Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson, currently a free agent, has had a remarkable career spanning over thirteen years in the NFL. He is not only the third oldest running back in the league but also the second oldest active running back. Peterson’s professional journey began in 2007 when he decided to forgo his final year of college and enter the NFL Draft. He signed with the Minnesota Vikings and remained with the team until 2016, when the Vikings decided not to renew his contract, making him a free agent. Since then, Peterson has played for the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, and Detroit Lions.

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Did you know? Despite tearing both his ACL and MCL in a single game during the 2011 season, Peterson made an astonishingly swift return to the field at the start of the 2012 season. He went on to achieve great success, finishing the season with 2,097 rushing yards, just nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.

5. Darren Sproles

Darren Sproles, a former NFL running back, is known for being one of the oldest running backs of all time. His career began in 2005 when he joined the San Diego Chargers, where he stayed until the end of the 2010 season. Sproles then played for the New Orleans Saints for three seasons before signing with the Philadelphia Eagles. He spent six seasons with the Eagles before retiring in 2019 at the age of 36, solidifying his position as one of the oldest running backs in the NFL. Nowadays, Sproles continues to contribute to the Philadelphia Eagles organization as a personnel consultant.

Did you know? Despite his relatively short stature for a football player, measuring at 5-foot-6, Sproles has consistently proven his prowess on the field. He holds several NFL records, including a sixth-place ranking for combined punt and kick returns, standing behind legends like Devin Hester, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, Josh Cribbs, and Dante Hall. Sproles also overcame a severe stutter during his career and now supports the Stuttering Foundation.

4. John Henry Johnson

John Henry Johnson

John Henry Johnson, a running back in the NFL, is revered as one of the legends of football. Renowned for his skills as both a runner and a blocker, Johnson began his career in Canada, playing for the Calgary Stampeders in the Western Interprovincial Football Union for one season. He then proceeded to play for several NFL teams in the United States, including the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Houston Oilers. Johnson retired from professional football at the age of 37 and passed away at the age of 81 in Tracy, California.

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Did you know? Johnson was hailed as the “perfect NFL fullback” due to his exceptional ability in both blocking and running. Jim Brown, another legendary running back, even deemed Johnson “the greatest running back he had ever seen.” Johnson’s proficiency as a blocker earned him the respect of his peers, and he once remarked, “It gave me a chance to hit all those people who hit me all the time.”

3. Frank Gore

Frank Gore

Frank Gore, one of the oldest active running backs in the NFL, is a Miami football legend with a career spanning over 20 years. While his college career began in the 2001 season, he embarked on his professional journey in 2005. Gore spent the majority of his career with the San Francisco 49ers, and in 2015, he joined the Indianapolis Colts for three seasons. Following his departure from the Colts, Gore became a free agent, playing for the Miami Dolphins in 2018, the Buffalo Bills in 2019, and ultimately signing a one-year contract with the New York Jets in 2020. Throughout his NFL career, Gore rushed for an incredible 16,000 yards, securing third place on the NFL rushing yards list, behind the likes of Emmett Smith and Walter Payton.

Did you know? Gore holds several other records, including the most consecutive seasons with a minimum of 500 yards rushing (sixteen seasons) and the most seasons with 1,200 yards from scrimmage (twelve seasons). However, his most impressive feat is having played the most games in NFL history as a running back, totaling 241.

2. Lorenzo Neal

Lorenzo Neal

Lorenzo LaVonne Neal, a retired fullback, boasts an impressive career that spanned an incredible sixteen seasons in the NFL. Following his retirement in 2008, Neal delved into podcasting, hosting an NFL-centric podcast since 2013. His journey began in 1993 when he joined the New Orleans Saints. After three seasons with the Saints, he went on to play for a total of eight teams, including the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, and Oakland Raiders.

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Did you know? Neal and his wife Deanna have three children, including a son named Lorenzo, who followed in his father’s footsteps and is currently a member of the New Orleans Saints.

1. Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe holds the distinction of being the oldest running back in NFL history. Alongside his status as one of the greatest legends in the history of football, Thorpe enjoyed a lengthy career in the NFL. Initially recognized as a professional athlete and Olympic gold medalist, Thorpe excelled in multiple sports, including baseball with the New York Giants. His football journey began in 1913 with the Pine Village Pros, after which he played for the Canton Bulldogs. Although he never played for an NFL championship team, Thorpe competed in 52 NFL games for six different teams between 1920 and 1928. Thorpe retired from professional football at the age of 41 and passed away in 1953 at the age of 65.

Did you know? Jim Thorpe was heralded as the Greatest Athlete of the first 50 years of the 20th century by the Associated Press. He was also inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

These remarkable individuals have defied the normal lifespan of an NFL running back, leaving an indelible mark on the sport. Their achievements and perseverance serve as an inspiration to younger generations of players aspiring to leave their own legacy on the field. As the years go by, new talents will emerge, but these legends will forever hold a special place in the hearts of football fans worldwide.

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