Matt Giles | Longreads | March 2019 | 28 minutes (6,730 words)
Dry heaves racked Dan Stoddard’s body as he bent his 6-foot-8, 325-plus-pound frame awkwardly over a toilet, shaking as he vomited up the Gatorade and other fluids he had consumed in an attempt to stave off dehydration. The 39-year-old hadn’t slept well in days, and even when he did manage some shut-eye, it was only for a few hours at a time before beginning the first of his two six-hour shifts driving a bus for Ottawa’s OC Transpo public transit system. Stoddard had never felt this exhausted, but he couldn’t rest — down seven points at halftime, his team needed him.
It only took the first 20 minutes of this early February 2018 game against Seneca, one of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association’s top teams, for Stoddard to realize his body was fully gassed. Algonquin had lost 10 of its first 14 games, so the final outcome — an 80-71 defeat — was immaterial, but Stoddard had joined the team to finally act on the lifetime of regrets he had accumulated, and he didn’t want to add another disappointment to the ledger.
In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”
He knew others would think this experiment was crazy — during the Thunders’ preseason schedule, Stoddard heard the laughter from opposing coaches and players — and he even realized that his endeavor reeked of desperation, but he never felt the pull of quitting. “If I’m not talented enough, I can live with that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to put in the effort to be the best player I can be,” he told me. “I don’t want to be wasting time hemming and hawing thinking about it.”
Most of Stoddard’s teammates are at least two decades younger than he is; at first, they thought of him as something of a sideshow, but Stoddard’s commitment to training earned him respect: “They see me on Instagram at the gym at 5 a.m., and they see me in practice every day, and they understand how dedicated I am to the team.”
According to Trevor Costello, Algonquin’s head coach, “All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain. He sprained his ankle before last Christmas, and after a twelve-hour shift driving a bus, his foot down on the ground the whole time, his foot was the size of a watermelon. He’s just so dedicated. Fuck, if he was a real stud, he’d get us thirty points a game. But he’s working — he’ll be better next year.”
Yusuf Ali, Seneca’s guard, didn’t initially understand Stoddard’s passion. He was taken aback when the two teams first met in November — “[Stoddard] looked so old, it was very confusing,” he told me — but before the February rematch, he congratulated Stoddard: “I told him it was an honor to play against him. I know people out there are scared of the risks to pursue their dreams, so he is a hero in my eyes. This doesn’t happen every day.”
At the start of his freshman season, Stoddard experienced something of a 15-minute burst of fame in the Canadian press; several outlets featured his journey for the same reason — his story touches the very base emotions of our human core — but then the novelty of his quest wore off. Now, he’s just a player with immense hustle in a changing body still growing accustomed to the grueling athletic demands of a college athlete.
‘All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain.’
The now 40-year-old is more than a publicity stunt, and although he’s taken it to the extreme, Stoddard’s career is part of a trend of competitive athletics taking hold among adults well into and beyond their 30s: Of the 2,500 or so adults surveyed for a 2015 study commissioned by Harvard, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, only a quarter said they’d played or participated in some sport in the past year. But of that quarter, a large majority played once a week or more. The majority play mostly because they enjoy doing so, but 23 percent said they played mainly for health reasons. Stoddard’s quest is emblematic of this shift. Not only does he plan to keep attending and playing for Algonquin for the next three years, after which point he will be 42 years old, but he has also already lost nearly 150 pounds pounds in a 12-month period and hopes to drop nearly 200 pounds total by the time he graduates.
Where Stoddard differs from those other midlife warriors, though, is that he would actually like to continue playing beyond Algonquin — to explore the possibility of becoming a pro athlete. Stoddard claims ex-pros have been encouraging, and his stats, were they those of a 19-year-old are promising: Through 21 games of his sophomore season, the center averaged 6.4 points and nearly five rebounds per game, and his field goal percentage (54.7) was fourth-best in the conference. During a November win against Georgian College, Stoddard barely missed a double-double (10 points, nine rebounds), hustling up the court in a high-paced (77 possessions) game, which he could never have done when he joined the team.
But still, the facts are glaring. Stoddard has spent decades willing his body across eastern Ontario; stabilizing badly sprained ankles with tightly bound boots while working a 100-hour week at a construction site; falling 22 feet from a ladder and breaking his hand, only to cut the cast off to avoid unemployment. Stoddard estimates he has had about 60 jobs since graduating high school; construction, sewer maintenance, a bouncer who once fought off a knife-wielding assailant — you name it. The work has put an untold amount of stress on his body. It has, in other words, been through the wear and tear that everyday life requires.
“To jump in at the top rung without developing one’s body fully is a recipe for disaster,” said Andre Deloya, a retired sports trainer with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The predictive formula is not rosy. Our bodies are developing, evolving, and positively growing until the age of twenty-five, which is the peak of the mountain. After that, we all start to deteriorate.”
Stoddard is aware of the risks, but to his mind, they make his current moon shot all the more enticing: Who could have possibly conjured up a tale of a bus driver to the Algonquin hardwood (and potentially beyond)? “The reality is that when growing up, you see the NBA, and that’s where you want to be,” he said to me when I met him in February 2018. “It’s the best, and you strive for the best. You don’t just want to be the guy no one remembers. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
He added, “So what if it happened at forty-two? Who gives a shit. I’ve always said age is a number, but that’s bullshit. We all know it’s old, especially when it comes to basketball. But if you can play, you can play, and I just want to have the definitive answer, to have someone tell me I don’t have the talent to make it at the highest level. It’s just to know.”
According to his Ottawa-Carleton (OC) Transpo colleagues, Stoddard’s a “big teddy bear,” someone who “shoots the shit” in the locker room between his daily bus routes. “I’m always honest and I don’t beat around the bush,” he told me, detailing his childhood in what he calls the boondocks of Ontario, helping his father to build houses for a burgeoning community on what previously had been acres and acres of farmland. Stoddard had a sheltered upbringing: If he wanted to visit friends, he biked several miles to the next town, which explains why he didn’t take to basketball until high school. “I was a teenage kid doing nothing,” he explained, adding that until the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors expanded north of the border in the mid ’90s, he had never watched a basketball game on television.
Stoddard started playing a bit early in high school, but in 11th grade he sprouted and added several inches to his frame. While he lacked coordination and his understanding of the game was limited, a player with his size — by then 6-foot-8 — was very much in demand. “My center of gravity was thrown off,” he said, “and after six months of being messed up, I had to retrain my body’s balance. I was just a tall guy.” Stoddard flunked out of high school before he could improve upon his burgeoning basketball skillset, and his biggest regret, he told his family, was that he didn’t play organized basketball beyond high school. That failure gave way to a chip on his shoulder, one fueled by a sole thought: Why didn’t he succeed on the court? No matter the highs in his life, the nagging perception remained. “I spent a long part of my life not knowing what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to be perceived, or the legacy I want to leave behind,” he said.
“Once I achieve a limitation or a goal or an understanding of what I’m doing, I get bored quickly,” he continued. “I tend to drive myself a thousand miles a minute.” And off the court, that chip was a hindrance — dropping out of college after a semester or two, he rebuffed his father’s offer to take over the family’s construction business. “It felt like he was encroaching on me, and I couldn’t be bothered,” said Stoddard.
Stoddard forced himself to do things for the health of his own family — working those 100-hour work weeks to not only provide for his son and daughter but also to help pay for his wife, Amanda, to get a nursing degree in palliative care. Basketball was his one outlet that provided unfettered joy; it was his lone constant and getaway from the demands of life. “You fend for yourself, and you take care of yourself,” he said. But on the court or at the playground, he wasn’t a construction worker, a sewer company employee, a garbageman, a nightclub bouncer, or a husband married at 20 years old and father of two teenagers.
He could be found on the playgrounds of eastern Ontario at least four nights a week, finally “doing something for me, and not for the family.” All those reps had an added bonus, transforming Stoddard into an immovable center with an unguardable skillset. His hulking frame — “I told people that I weighed 386 pounds, but that’s only because it was the last number on our scale, so the notion I weighed somewhere around 400 pounds isn’t far-fetched” — belied a pick-and-pop nimbleness with a soft touch around the basket. By 2017, he was “crushing” guys with backgrounds more advantageous than his.
Each summer, Stoddard participates in a high school alumni tournament. It’s very low-key: #BallIsLife during the two-day round-robin setting, burgers and beers at night. Stoddard’s team — a roster of mid-’90s graduates, the group’s name is “We’re So Old It Doesn’t Even Matter” — was typically good enough for a win or two but unable to compete with others in their athletic prime. But few teams had a player Stoddard’s size, and even fewer had a player of Stoddard’s size who, prior to the tournament’s tip, was balling a dozen-plus hours a week.
As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, ‘Look at the size of you! You could play for my team.’
When he isn’t coaching the Thunder, Costello supports himself through refereeing (he also works at an elementary school as an educational assistant and spends his nights overseeing a group home), and he was refereeing Stoddard’s alumni tournament that summer of 2017 when he first spotted the ultimate diamond on the blacktop. Stoddard’s play was a revelation to the coach, who was about to coach his 18th season at a school that had once been the crown jewel of the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association but recently tumbled down the rankings. “The best Canadians who don’t cross the border to play college basketball play in the OUA,” said Costello. “That’s the dream for most kids”.
He added, “The last few years haven’t been good. I don’t want to demean it, but Algonquin is a last chance resort. It’s tough to get kids.” Three players Costello expected to join the team bailed before ever arriving on the Ottawa campus, and his lead recruiter had taken a new job, which prevented him from working Algonquin’s sidelines.
As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, “Look at the size of you!” recalled Stoddard. “You could play for my team.” The more he thought about it, the more the coach began to formulate a different sort of recruiting pitch. Yes, Stoddard was clearly overweight, but few teams in Algonquin’s conference had a taller player. On a team whose prospects were already dim for the upcoming season, inviting Stoddard to try out didn’t seem much of a gamble. “I’m all about winning games,” explained Costello. “Dan was far from a sideshow. I’m hardly getting paid enough to do this as a goof. Did I know he would ultimately end up starting for us? That might be pushing it. His upside is far from that of a twenty-two-year-old, but his brain is working so much harder.”