THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Andrew Whitworth will get reminders about his age by his teammates from time to time, but last Sunday against the Jaguars, the Rams offensive lineman heard it from the opposing team.
"55 for them, which I can't remember his name right now, but actually during a TV timeout, (he) came up to me and he was like, 'Man,' he gave me a hug. And he was like, 'Hey, man, be honest with me. Like, how old are you?'" Whitworth said during a video conference with reporters Monday. "And I was like, I'm 39 years old. And he was like, 'you've got to be kidding me. You're not.' And I was like 'I am. I'm 39.' And he's like, 'No, it's unbelievable. Like can we please give me some secrets, I need something. Help me out a little bit.' I said I'll get with you after the game, but I ended up seeing him.'"
55 was seventh-year Jaguars defensive end/outside linebacker Lerentee McCray, and no one could blame him for asking. Whitworth, who turns 40 on Sunday, has had impressive career longevity, one that will be marked with another major milestone: When the Rams take on the Cardinals on Monday Night Football at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., he will become the first 40-year-old to start an NFL game at left tackle.
"It's definitely amazing, and something that probably for me, in my career, there's a lot of reflecting, just because it is a pretty huge deal and something that I put as a personal goal almost seven, eight years ago," Whitworth said. "To be here and think of all the things I've been through, through it, it's pretty wild."
Since entering the league as a second-round draft pick out of LSU in 2006, Whitworth has played in 235 out of 251 possible regular season games in his 16-year career. The four-time Pro Bowler and two-time First Team All-Pro selection's 231 career starts are most among active offensive tackles and fourth-most among active players, regardless of position, according to pro-football-reference.com.
This season alone, his 93 percent pass block win rate ranks third among all offensive tackles, according to ESPN – no doubt a component to the Rams' 68 percent pass block win rate as a team, which is second-highest in the NFL behind the Browns (69 percent).
Whitworth attributes that durability to taking care of his body. What he had learned about that, and preparing himself to play, factored into that milestone becoming a personal goal 7-8 years ago, as well as going through a difficult patella injury during his time with the Bengals.
During training camp in 2013, he thought he might never play again, given how much he had struggled through the surgery for that injury and that "it wasn't coming back as much as it wanted to." After a midseason breakthrough where he felt like himself again, Whitworth committed to that goal.
"When I finally came out of what I call that darkness of thinking, that was it, I was like, 'You know what, with what I've learned through this, what I've been through, how I think I can take care of myself, I'd love to see if there's any chance I could play when I'm 40 years old,'" Whitworth said.
That resolve and determination helped him land with the Rams, who have greatly benefitted from his veteran presence over the last five seasons.
Experienced and and young players – on both sides of the ball – lean on him for guidance.
Sometimes, it's coaching up then-rookie outside linebacker Terrell Lewis in practice and giving him the offensive lineman's perspective to help him prepare as Lewis built toward his Week 5 debut last season after spending the first four weeks on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury List.
"Andrew is a special person, special player. He sure has meant a lot to this organization both on and off the field," Rams head coach Sean McVay said. "I think sometimes you take for granted that he's 40 years old. If you didn't know with the bald head and stuff like that, I mean he moves around like he's young and he's got great athleticism."
Other times, it's a simple but effective analogy for the Rams offensive line, like how "really good offensive linemen throughout the game look like they're smoking cigarettes, where they're just here the whole time," offensive lineman Rob Havenstein said on Oct. 18, pausing and moving his right his hand on a flat plane to demonstrate. "There's no up, down, up down."
"It's truly an unbelievable feat. It really is," Havenstein told theRams.com after Friday's practice. "I mean, I'm turning 30 in May, and I think I'm old and just tried to picture 10 more years of that. It's pretty special, especially for him to be playing at such a high level. For him, he's in the Pro Bowl, All-Pro category almost every single year for 16 years. I mean, that's incredible. He's gonna go down as one of the best to ever do it as a left tackle, and it's pretty special to be to be playing with him."
Whitworth has shown no signs of slowing down, either, and isn't shy about occasionally reminding people that age is seemingly just a number for him at this stage of his career.
"He's one of the hardest workers out there," Havenstein said. "Every now and again, he'll go ahead and show that like, 'Hey, I'm turning 40 and I'm still a top dog here,' you know what I mean? He'll just come in and start repping out some bench press, or go hit something for just, one or two or three, sometimes five more reps than anyone else, just to kind of let everyone know, like, 'Hey, I'm still that guy.' And for him to still be doing that and honestly looking just as young as ever for the five years that I've been fortunate to be with him, it's truly a milestone, it really is."
A provider of advice last week, Whitworth was a recipient of it on his own career when he first signed with the Rams from Wayne Gretzky while the two were playing golf – a conversation that perhaps provided a peek into Whitworth's mindset.
"Make sure people tear that jersey off of you, and don't walk away until you're ready," Gretzky told him.