UGUSTA – In Charlie Bickford’s first incarnation as a nontraditional college student and basketball player, his younger teammates tagged him Grampy. That was 25 years ago. Today, Bickford carries arthritic knees, a hernia and a strained Achilles tendon on his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame. But the funny thing is, when he’s finished keeping pace and swapping bruises with men roughly one-third his age, Bickford never hears a word about gray hair and crow’s feet. “Not one of my teammates has mentioned my age,” said Bickford. “They might yell at me to say, Charlie, what are you doing?’ But it’s never, Boy, are you old.'” Although nobody can prove it, it’s a safe assumption that Bickford, 52, is the oldest college basketball player in the country.

A registered nurse born in Lewiston and now living in Belfast, Bickford played nine games for the University of Maine at Augusta this winter. He was the first player off the bench most nights. Other times, he was the only reserve.

UMA finished the season with seven players and a two-game winning streak after defeating Eastern Maine Community College and Unity College this week. Bickford scored four points against Unity.

“He’s a fan favorite, home and away,” said UMA coach Jim Ford, who previously led the boys’ high school programs at Lewiston and Oak Hill. “When he scored at Central Maine Community College, the place went nuts.”

Loves contact’

Not many schools in America would open the locker room door to someone outside the 18- to 25-year-old demographic as anything more than a practice player or equipment manager. But the ball bounces differently at UMA, which has always been somewhat of a vagabond program in the low-key Yankee Small College Conference.

Nicknamed the Moose, the men’s basketball team often had women on its roster before the school recruited enough females to field a separate squad.

In the early 1990s, UMA earned a mention on ESPN’s nightly “SportsCenter” for playing the final five minutes of a game with only four players when everyone else fouled out. The reason it made national news? UMA won the game.

Three years ago, the Moose led the nation in scoring after then-coach Mike Kane brought in five players from Chicago. On the flip side, when Coach Ford accepted his job last August, his primary recruiting tool was a flurry of posters tacked up around campus.

Bickford phoned Ford in October. Without revealing his age, he received a formal invitation to practice. That’s when Ford found out that he was 18 days younger than his newest player.

Bickford’s enthusiastic walk-on showed the strength and endurance to battle burly teammates Chris Blodgett of Wilton and Jon Hill, so Ford offered Bickford the chance to suit up with the team when he became eligible at the start of the second semester.

“We have two big boys in the middle, and he mixes it up with them pretty well,” Ford said. “He loves contact. He loves to scrap for rebounds.”

Getting off the couch

Bickford injured his knees while playing football in the Army and at Arizona Western University. He scored only two points in a brief stint at Manchester (Conn.) Community College before abandoning his hoop dreams the first time around.

With a 13-year-old daughter and two sons, 8 and 5, at home, Bickford said his nursing work and a health scare inspired him to get off the couch and lace up his sneakers again.

“I was taking care of people younger than I am who had debilitating strokes,” he said. “Then I found out I had eight cardiac risk factors, three of which I can’t control. I tell people I can’t change the number of years that I’ve lived, but I can control how old I am.”

When confronted with his basketball comeback, Bickford’s wife asked him when he planned to grow up. Bickford’s reply: “I haven’t stopped growing.”

Each summer, he runs two 5-kilometer road races in Lewiston, where relatives still live on No Name Pond. He also enjoys skiing and ski kayaking. And now he’ll enjoy it more, knowing that his most elusive sports fantasy has been fulfilled.

“I couldn’t let this opportunity slide,” Bickford said. “I’m not planning to be a high second-round pick in the NBA draft next year. I just wanted to do this for myself. And maybe it will inspire someone else who’s my age to get out and go for a hike today.”

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