"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?”
Mike Flynt was swapping stories with some old football buddies in the summer of 2007 when he brought up the biggest regret of his life: getting kicked off the college team before his senior year.
So, one of his pals said, why not do something about it?
Most 59-year-olds would have laughed. Flynt's only concern was if he was eligible.
Finding out he was, Flynt returned to Sul Ross State 37 years after he left and six years before he goes on Medicare as a player on the Division III team.
Flynt gave new meaning to being a college senior. After all, he's a grandfather and a card-carrying member of AARP. He was eight years older than his coach and has two kids older than any of his teammates.
"I think it was Satchel Page who used to say, 'How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?' I'd be in my late 20s or early 30s, because that's how I feel," said Flynt, who has made a living out of physical fitness. "That's been my approach to this whole thing. I feel that good. I just wanted to be able to perform and make a contribution to the team."
A longtime strength and conditioning coach at Nebraska, Oregon and Texas A&M, he's spent the last several years selling the Powerbase training system he invented. Clients include school systems and the military. His colorful life story includes being the son of a Battle of the Bulge survivor and having dabbled in gold mines and oil wells—successfully.
Flynt's life was supposed to have been slowing down. With his youngest child starting at the University of Tennessee, he and Eileen, his wife of 35 years, were planning to take advantage of being empty-nesters for the first time.
Instead, they moved to a remote patch of West Texas so Flynt could mend an old wound and inspire others. He became emotional discussing his goal of "helping a bunch of young men to make up for those guys that I let down." Then he laughed about the reality that fellow Baby Boomers are getting the most out of his comeback.
"People were kind of in awe. They kept comparing me to themselves and where they are physically," he said. "If I helped anyone out by what I did, then it was all worth it."
Mike not only made the team, but he played the last half of the season on a regular basis at linebacker and on special teams. He is the oldest contributing member of a college football team in NCAA history.
"I told him he was an idiot," said Jerry Larned, who coached Flynt at Sul Ross in 1969 and counseled him at the start of his comeback. "I said, 'Gosh, dang, Mike, you're not 20 years old any more. You're liable to cripple yourself.' He understood all of that. But he had a burning desire to play. ... He is in great physical condition. He still runs a 5-flat 40 and bench presses I-don't-know-what. He's a specimen for 59 years old."
Back in the day, Flynt was quite a player.
In 1965, he was on the first state championship team at Odessa Permian, the high school featured in Friday Night Lights. He was offered a partial scholarship at Arkansas when the Razorbacks were among the top teams in the land, but instead went to Ranger Junior College.
He wound up at Sul Ross in 1969. An NAIA school then, the Lobos were in the Lone Star Conference with East Texas State, which at the time had future NFL stars Harvey Martin and Dwight White, and Texas A&I, which was starting a two-year run as national champs. The highlight of Flynt's two years at Sul Ross was sticking A&I with its only loss in '69.
Flynt was going into his senior year in 1971 when he got into a fight that was far from his first. School officials decided they'd had enough and threw him out of school. He earned his degree from Sul Ross by taking his remaining classes elsewhere.
"I actually grieved for more years than I can remember the loss of that senior year," said Flynt, who'd been a team captain and the leading tackler as a junior. "What really got me was I felt that was my football team and I had let them down. ... I don't know if I ever got over it, but I finally learned to live with it."
Then came word of a reunion of former Sul Ross students from the 1960s and '70s. Randy Wilson, who has been best friends with Flynt since they met as college roommates in 1969, talked a bunch of his former teammates into using that event as an excuse to get back together.
During several days of reminiscing, Flynt's pain became fresh as ever, especially when one of the guys said their '71 season went down the drain without Flynt.
That's when he told them of his remorse. And, he added, "What really gets me is that I feel like I can still play."
"You might as well give it a shot," Wilson told him. "The worst thing that can happen is you get your head knocked off and come home."
When Flynt returned home to Franklin, Tenn., his wife wasn't as fired up by the idea.
"I feel like I'm married to Peter Pan," she said.
It took time to accept that instead of joining their daughter at Tennessee's home opener she would be watching her husband hit kids one-third his age.
Eventually she came around. They sold their suburban Nashville home and moved to Alpine, a town of about 6,000 residents near the Big Bend National Park, a three-hour drive from the nearest major airport.
"I told her, for me to know that I can do it and not do it would be worse than losing out the first time," he said.
A devout Christian, Flynt sees many religious undertones to his story. He also believes it touts the benefits of strength training.
"People have asked me, 'Mike, what is the fountain of youth?' Well, it's strength training that builds muscle, increases bone density and burns calories," he said. "It's the one thing you can do in your 90s and benefit from."
Just to be clear, Flynt won't be playing football in his 90s.
He'll be out of eligibility then.