A $300,000 Fountain of Youth? Some NFL players spend big to stay young

LATROBE, Pa. -- Fighting age with money can strengthen job security in the NFL, which often eschews capable free agents for cheaper rookies.

More than 150 free agents are unsigned as of late July. The NFL saw its average age dip 0.6 years (27.2 to 26.6) from 2006 to 2015.

For veterans maintaining jobs and hoping for bodily cooperation, a personal trainer and the occasional massage simply aren't enough. The new formula for NFL spending: reduce inflammation, increase tax write-offs, play longer.

"The great ones who last, it's all about recovery," said retired offensive tackle Ryan Harris, who played from 2007 to 2016. "Hydrations, IVs, meditation, yoga."

The yearly budget can vary wildly. There's James Harrison ... and then there's everyone else.

$300,000: The James Harrison plan

Nothing makes your morning elliptical workout feel inadequate quite like watching Harrison lift obscene amounts of weight on Instagram. Even his modest workouts get, at minimum, 100,000 views online. Fans watch the work that keeps Harrison playing at a high level in his late 30s.

What you don't see? Harrison huddled over a computer to price out a series of flights and itineraries.

For his muscles to handle the lifting sessions and the NFL grind, Harrison says he needs an acupuncturist, a dry needlist, three massage therapists, two chiropractors and "a person who does cupping."

But Harrison, 39, doesn't surf the net and read reviews like the rest of us. He goes underground for the most exclusive specialists.

"The people I use right now, you can't find none of them on Google," Harrison said.

That's where the $300,000 comes into play. Once he heard about these elite technicians and tried their services, he had to put them on the payroll. They are based in different parts of the country, including California and New York, so he pays their airfare and expenses to get them to town when he needs them.

"I see everybody at least once a week," Harrison said.

He books these flights on his own time, without an assistant. When asked about the arduous task of finalizing all these plans, Harrison treats the job like a set and just reps each schedule.

"It don't take more than a couple of hours," Harrison said. "I've had everything planned out since April."

Harrison estimates he has spent the past seven to eight years finding the right concoction of doctors and specialists, which he believes has led to his career longevity. Harrison has produced at least five sacks in each of the past three seasons and signed a two-year extension this offseason.

He has easily spent millions on recovery, though he has signed contracts worth nearly $70 million during his career.

Harrison hasn't done the math. He's busy factoring the results.

"I don't need to do the checks and balances like that," he said. "When it comes down to it, what I make versus what I spend, the payout is worth it based on how I feel."

"I'm still here."

$200,000: The Harrison understudy

As if torpedoing into other humans on Sundays in the fall wasn't enough, Steelers safety Mike Mitchell needed more muscle-smashing this offseason.

He's in the Harrison farm system of high-income recovery methods, so anything experimental is fair game. Mitchell's latest trade secret? Venturing into the world of body tempering, which is basically foam rolling with about 120 pounds of metal.

Mighty painful, Mitchell points out twice.

"Instead of rolling on it, it rolls on you," said Mitchell, 30. "If you had any knots in your leg and they start moving that thing around, it gets painful at times. But when you stand up, you're loose immediately. It just smashes [the tension] out."

Mitchell, who's due a base salary of $5 million this year, estimates he has dedicated more than $200,000 -- or 4 percent of his income -- to various methods of recovery and training in a calendar year.

Mitchell has transitioned to daily massages ranging from Thai style to getting stretched while being massaged, along with a routine of dry-needle acupuncture, body tempering and an intense offseason regimen at Performance Enhancement Professionals in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Mitchell had a blueprint to follow with Harrison, his training partner in Arizona. Harrison told Mitchell what he has told others who ask for guidance: You use your body to make money, so it's common sense to take care of it.

"He's 39 years old. He hasn't [stayed in the NFL] by accident. That's all a well-thought-out plan," said Mitchell, who has added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason. "I'd like to do something similar. I'd like to play well into my 30s. I think I can do it as long as I stick to the plan and stay healthy. I'm getting paid fairly decent for this season, so for me, it wasn't like I was wasting it partying. [The money] was all productive to help get me better to improve my longevity."

Mitchell doesn't follow every formation in the Harrison playbook, though. Mitchell tried cupping once, and "it made my skin red," he said.

$50,000: The NFL veteran

Nose tackle Barry Cofield played 10 NFL seasons and is enjoying retirement. He had 310 career tackles and 19.5 sacks and signed a $36 million deal with the Washington Redskins in 2011. Life is good.

But after staying in shape since leaving the game in 2015, Cofield wonders whether the $50,000 per year he spent on recovery was enough.

"If I were to go back, I would invest even more," said Cofield, 33. "I'd probably spend twice as much. I was very healthy the first eight years of my career. Toward the end, maybe more treatments would have helped."

Cofield and Harris both agree that $50,000 should be a baseline for veterans to play eight to 10 years.

Costs range from housing and training expenses while out of state for weeks or months at a time, dietary needs that sometimes include an in-house chef and a variety of treatments designed to relieve joints and muscle aches.

Not all players are sold on spending big. Free-agent tight end Gary Barnidge considers himself a throwback, relying on massages, cold tubs and a good diet but not much else. Veteran cornerback William Gay's go-to training? "Prayer," he said.

But having a 300-pound body tends to shift perspective. As Harris got older, the recovery possibilities grew more expansive. Offensive linemen routinely spend $10,000 per year on massages alone, players such as Harris and Steelers guard David DeCastro say.

It's not just to get the body ready for football, Harris said. Recovery helps prepare for sleep.

"Getting eight or 10 hours of sleep is crucial for performance," Harris said. "So your body has to be well-rested. That's difficult if things are out of whack."

Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats can relate. He calls a hyperbaric chamber an "expensive sleeping bag," so he bought a souped-up Tempur-Pedic bed instead.

A $50,000 baseline allows experimentation.

Last summer, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier tried vitamin infusions via IV at The Drip Room in Scottsdale, Arizona. Sessions for nonmembers are $149. Treatment options include everything from inflammation to energy.

Shazier is willing to try new things for the greater good.

"If you pay $100,000 and you make an extra $3 million playing, that's an easy decision," Shazier said.

$20,000: Ballin' on a budget

Coming from the University of Houston, Steelers receiver Demarcus Ayers was naive to the world of recovery outside of the occasional cold tub. So Ayers had to laugh when he found himself searching for toe stretchers online because Antonio Brown told him they help alleviate post-practice foot stress.

Luckily, the stretchers cost only around $40. But while playing on a rookie deal set to pay $540,000 this year, Ayers can't spend like Brown, who just signed a $68 million extension. He must get creative with his recovery methods.

That meant spending to be a baller on the field, not off.

"You've just got to make sacrifices," Ayers said. "In college, you don't have much money. In high school, your coaches take you places and make sure you are fine. But when I got here, I was like, man, I don't know if I can do that. My budget is a little bit shorter than other guys. I had to stop thinking like that and change my mindset and cut back on things I wanted to buy, wanted to do. Whether clothes or shoes, that's money I can invest in my body. Lately, I've been getting great results."

Ayers prioritized a budget of around $200-300 per week in the offseason and $500 during the season. He gets massages consistently and also enjoys 30-minute sessions of oxygen therapy.

Steelers tight end Xavier Grimble, also scheduled to make $540,000 this year, saves money by using all the benefits of the team facility, from the cold tub to extra stretching with trainers.

Grimble goes to Whole Foods three to four times per week, so he's hoping a proper diet will help stave off early retirement. Keeping produce and seafood fresh can be a challenge -- salmon and kale are his favorites -- so frequent trips to the store help.

"I trust the fact if I take care of myself, then I'll earn my money back," Grimble said.