Football Players Turned Actors
50 Football Players Who Acted in Movies
After they were through tearing up the gridiron, many football players turned to acting to make ends meet. While some only managed to achieve supporting roles, other football players turned actors have went on to achieve stellar success in film and television.
Some of these ex-athletes have become such stars that the public often forgets about their football past. This is especially true of college standouts such as Burt Reynolds, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Below is a list of 50 of the most notable football players turned actors. Their acting careers may have varied wildly in terms of success, but each of these men has dedicated their lives to entertaining fans on and off the field.
1. Howie Long – After playing for 13 years with the Oakland Raiders, Long jumped into the world of acting with roles in Broken Arrow and Firestorm. The Hall of Fame defensive end has also made his mark in the world of commercials, endorsing everything from Radio Shack (with Teri Hatcher) to Nike. When he’s not shilling or acting, Long can be found as one of the co-hosts on the FOX Network’s NFL coverage.
2. Deion Sanders – Also known as “Prime Time,” Deion Sanders has hosted Saturday Night Live and starred in numerous television commercials. Never one to shy away from the limelight, Sanders released a rap album in 1994 and also appeared in two music videos of pal MC Hammer (“Too Legit to Quit” and “Pumps and a Bump”). Most recently, he and his wife were the stars of the Oxygen Network’s reality show Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love.
3. Michael Irvin – The brash Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys has been equally brash during stints on ESPN’s radio and television programming. His biggest foray into the world of acting came in 2005, when he co-starred as a convict in the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard. While the jury’s still out on whether or not he could pull of Shakespeare, Irvin has certainly demonstrated that he’s got the role of the mouthy jock down pat.
4. Bill Romanowski – Known for spitting and punching his way through the NFL, the man nicknamed “Romo” is perhaps the only NFL player who can claim to have ended another player’s career by punching him in the face during practice – and this was one of his teammates! After 16 season in the league with teams such as the Niners, Eagles, Broncos and Raiders, Romanowski has transitioned to acting with roles in The Longest Yard, The Benchwarmers and Get Smart.
5. Brett Favre – “I’m in town to play the Dolphins, you dumbass.” Who can forget those immortal words uttered by Favre in There’s Something About Mary? Favre also demonstrated his acting chops by appearing as a not-so-intelligent janitor in teammate Reggie White’s film Reggie’s Prayer. Let’s hope Favre’s not going to rely on a career in acting to pay the bills after retirement.
6. Dan Marino – During his playing days, Marino was known as a long-time spokesman for Isotoner gloves. Once his Hall of Fame career came to an end, Marino moved on to football commentary and small roles in film. In Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky, he was shown asking the devil for a Super Bowl win, but he is probably best known for being kidnapped by cross-dressing psycho Ray Finkle in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. “Laces out, Dan!”
7. Alex Karras – After playing defensive tackle at Iowa, Karras was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1958. He had a stint as a pro wrestler and would be suspended during the 1963 season for betting on football games. He appeared as himself in 1968’s Paper Lion, and Karras began acting full-time following the end of his football career in 1971. His two most memorable roles are as Mongo in Blazing Saddles and George Papadopolis on the hit TV series Webster.
8. Bill Goldberg – After a failed pro football career, Goldberg turned to pro wrestling. During this time, he starred in Universal Soldier: The Return and television shows such as The Man Show and The Love Boat: The Next Wave. Following his retirement from wrestling, Goldberg has focused on acting, appearing in The Longest Yard, Santa’s Slay and Half Past Dead 2.
9. Bob Sapp – Especially popular in Japan, Bob “The Beast” Sapp is known for his massive 6’5”, 375 pound physique. Drafted by the Chicago Bears in the third round, Sapp bounced from team to team before being cut and embarking on a wrestling and mixed-martial-arts career. He’s also found time to fit in some movies, including appearances in Electra, The Longest Yard and Big Stan.
10. Terry Bradshaw – With his aw-shucks charm, the Super-Bowl-winning quarterback has long been a favorite in movies and television. Movie credits include Hooper, Cannonball Run and Failure to Launch (where he appeared nude). He’s appeared in a ton of television episodes and continues to serve as a commentator on FOX’s NFL pre-game show. As of 2008, Bradshaw is the only NFL player to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
11. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – The man known as “The Rock” played defensive tackle for the Miami Hurricanes’ national championship team in 1991. Unfortunately, an injury sent him to the sidelines, and he was replaced by future NFL standout Warren Sapp. Johnson tried his luck in the CFL after graduation, but he was cut soon afterwards. Turning to pro wrestling, he made an indelible mark on the business and has since transitioned into acting with roles in The Rundown, Southland Tales, Doom and Get Smart.
12. Lyle Alzado – After playing football at a junior college, he was spotted by a scout for the Broncos and drafted by the team in the fourth round. A fearsome defensive end, Alzado would go on to play for the Raiders, Browns and Broncos. An amateur boxer, he also fought a 1979 exhibition match against Muhammad Ali. Alzado found success in movies and television, most notable matching wits against Jim Varney in Ernest Goes to Camp. Sadly, Alzado died of a brain tumor in 1992 at the age of 43.
13. Bubba Smith – After playing college football at Michigan State, Smith went on to play nine seasons in the NFL as a defensive end. The first pick in the 1967 NFL draft, Smith would play for the Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers. After his football career was over, Smith began appearing in movies and television commercials in the 70s and 80s. He’s best known for appearing in a number of Miller Lite commercials and as Moses Hightower in the Police Academy series.
14. Don Gibb – Before turning to acting, Gibb played briefly for the San Diego Chargers. Later, he would go on to star as Ogre in the Revenge of the Nerds movies, as well as play Ray Jackson, the doomed friend of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport. These days, he co-owns a Chicago brewery and promotes Ogre beer.
15. Dick Butkus – Considered one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game, Butkus had a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears. Since that time, he’s moved on to make a number of appearances in movies and television. Notable roles include Blue Thunder, Any Given Sunday, My Two Dads and Necessary Roughness.
16. Lawrence Taylor – A 10-time Pro Bowl selection, “LT” is widely regarded as the greatest defensive player to ever play the game. In recent years, the two-time Super Bowl winner has cleaned up his act and appeared in a number of roles on-screen, including The Waterboy, Any Given Sunday and the Samuel L. Jackson remake of Shaft. He’s also lent his voice to video games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Blitz: The League.
17. Fred Williamson – Known as “The Hammer,” Williamson was a star defensive back for the AFL in the 1960s. When his football career was over, he turned to acting, racking up an impressive resume over the years. Williamson was a favorite in the “blaxploitation” genre of the 70s, plus he’s also had roles in From Dusk Till Dawn, The Inglorious Bastards, Starsky & Hutch and Original Gangstas.
18. Terry Crews – Drafted in the 11th round of the 1991NFL Draft, Crews played defensive end and linebacker for six seasons in the NFL. Afterwards, he made a name for himself in the entertainment industry, getting his first break as T-Money on a television show called Battle Dome. He’s also appeared in Training Day, Idiocracy, Click, The Longest Yard (as a convict obsessed with McDonalds) and Everybody Hates Chris.
19. Fred Dryer – Taken as the #1 draft choice by the New York Giants, Dryer would play defensive end in the NFL for 13 years. A Pro Bowl player, Dryer finished his career with an impressive 104 sacks, although he retired the season before sacks became an official NFL statistic. After football, he starred opposite the hot-for-the-80s Stephanie Kramer in Hunter, a hit show which ran from 1984 until 1991. He would later star in a television show entitled Land’s End.
20. Brian Bosworth – After being forced to retire from the NFL due to injuries, “The Boz” embarked on an acting career with 1991’s Stone Cold. The former Seahawks linebacker then starred in a number of straight-to-DVD releases, but he would later land a role in the high profile remake of The Longest Yard. Since then, his career has been revitalized, and he has a number of projects in the works.
21. Joe Namath – “Broadway” Joe, the charismatic Jets quarterback, has appeared on a number of television shows, including The A-Team, The Simpsons and ALF. He even guest-hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on several occasions. His own 1969 show, The Joe Namath Show, has developed a cult following over the years.
22. John Matuszak – Taken with the first overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft, John “The Tooz” Matuszak would go on to play for the Oilers, Chiefs and the Raiders (where he won two Super Bowls). Following his retirement, he got into acting, most famously appearing as Sloth in The Goonies. Matuszak died unexpectedly of heart failure in 1989.
23. Carl Weathers – The man who will always be remembered as Apollo Creed also played linebacker in the NFL and CFL. After retiring in 1974, he became an actor. Since that time, he’s appeared in hits ranging from Rocky and Predator to Action Jackson and Happy Gilmore.
24. Ronald Reagan – After playing football in college, Reagan would embark on a lengthy career in acting, even serving as the president of the Screen Actors Guild. His most famous tie with football was his role as George Gipp (the Gipper) in the movie, Knute Rockne All American. Of course, he would also go on to become the 40th President of the United States, serving two full terms in office.
25. OJ Simpson – While he’s best known these days as a murderer, O.J. Simpson was once a respected running back in the NFL. After winning the Heisman Trophy in college, Simpson would be drafted by the Buffalo Bills and play in six Pro Bowls. A first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1985, Simpson would go on to star in a number of films and television commercials. His most memorable roles came in a series of Hertz commercials and as Nordberg in the Naked Gun trilogy.
26. Mark Harmon – Before he married Pam Dawber and starred in movies like Summer School and The Presidio, Mark Harmon served as quarterback for the UCLA Bruins in 1972 and ‘73. Following graduation, he embarked on a full-time acting career, appearing in a number of television shows and films. Voted the Sexiest Man Alive in 1986, Harmon most recently starred on the CBS series NCIS.
27. Ed Marinaro – Marinaro became the first running back in NCAA history to rush for over 4,000 career yards. In fact, he led the nation in rushing in ‘70 and ‘71 while playing football for Cornell University. He turned pro and played for the Vikings, Jets and Seahawks, appearing in Super Bowl VIII and IX with the Vikings. He later turned to acting, starring in such television shows as Hill Street Blues and Laverne & Shirley.
28. Merlin Olsen – A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame, Olsen is remembered by many as either the spokesman for FTD Florists or Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie. Olsen played defensive tackle in the NFL for 15 years, going to the Pro Bowl in 14 of those seasons.
29. Dean Cain – As a standout free safety for Princeton University, Dean Cain would sign as a free agent to play with the Buffalo Bills. Unfortunately, a knee injury in training camp forced him to retire from the NFL. He turned to acting and starred in a number of commercials and smaller roles before being cast as Superman on Lois & Clark. He’s worked steadily as an actor ever since.
30. Sam J. Jones – After serving in the Marine Corps and playing semi-pro football, Sam J. Jones decided to try his hand at acting and modeling. He appeared as the centerfold in the 1975 issue of Playgirl Magazine, but he’s best known for portraying Flash Gordon in the 1980 film of the same name. Since then, Jones has continued to get roles, and he has over 100 credited appearances on television and film.
31. Jim Brown – Still considered by many to be the best running back to ever play in the NFL, Jim Brown has also carved out a very respectable acting career for himself. After playing nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns, he retired suddenly while filming The Dirty Dozen (after being given an ultimatum by team owner Art Modell to either play football or make movies). He has also starred in Mars Attacks!, 100 Rifles, The Running Man and Any Given Sunday. He served as a color commentator for the first six UFC pay-per-view events.
32. Lester Speight – Following college, Speight signed to play with the Baltimore Stars of the USFL. Unfortunately for him, the league folded before he ever got on the field. Speight then got into acting, appearing on the television show Battle Dome as Rasta the Voodoo Man. His greatest success, however, would come as Terry Tate: Office Linebacker in a series of Reebok commercials.
33. Fran Tarkenton – After nine Pro Bowls and a distinguished career playing quarterback for the Giants and Vikings, Fran Tarkenton worked on Monday Night Football and That’s Incredible!. Voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, Tarkenton has also appeared in a number of television commercials.
34. Ron Simmons – Following a career as an All-American nose guard at Florida State, Simmons moved on to play for the Cleveland Browns and the Ottawa Rough Riders in the Canadian Football League. In 1986, he became a professional wrestler and formed the tag team Doom with Butch Reed. Besides wrestling under his own name, Simmons would also be known under the name Faarooq. To wrestling fans, he’s well-known for his catch-phrase “Damn!”.
35. Mark Schlereth – Schlereth played 12 years as a guard in the NFL and took part on three Super Bowl championship teams. After undergoing 29 different surgeries (mostly on his knees), he finally retired following the 2000 season. He quickly landed a job on ESPN, and he has since appeared on a number of sports shows. In 2007, he began a recurring role as Detective Roc Hoover on the soap opera, Guiding Light.
36. Burt Reynolds – Known around the world for roles in Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, Boogie Nights and The Longest Yard, Reynolds was also a star halfback at Florida State University. After an impressive freshman season, Reynolds’ hopes of playing in the NFL were dashed by a series of knee injuries and an auto accident. Instead, he turned to acting, and the rest is history.
37. Roy Jefferson – Jefferson played wide receiver for 12 years in the NFL(with the Steelers, Colts and Redskins). He led the league in receiving yards in 1968, and he would be selected to the Pro Bowl on three occasions. While playing with the Redskins, he starred alongside a number of his teammates in the blaxploitation classic, Brotherhood of Death.
38. Bo Jackson – A former Heisman Trophy winner, Jackson would rocket to fame in both professional football and baseball. Unfortunately, a serious hip injury would end both careers prematurely and rob sports fans of one of the all-time greats. His “Bo Knows” commercials for Nike were a huge success, and he would later appear on television shows such as Pros vs. Joes, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Lois & Clark.
39. Frank McRae – After playing defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears during the 1967 season, McRae made use of his college degree in drama. He has appeared in Used Cars, 48 Hrs., Red Dawn, 1941, Last Action Hero and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
40. Ray Nitschke – Nitschke played middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers from 1958 until 1972. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, he also appeared in the 1974 football film, The Longest Yard. Nitschke died of a heart attack at the age of 61.
41. Mike Ditka – A bruising NFL tight end for the Bears, Eagles and Cowboys, Ditka would later become a head coach and lead the Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX. Highly recognizable, Ditka remains beloved by fans, and he is a sought-after celebrity endorser. He has also appeared in numerous films and television shows, such as Kicking & Screaming, L.A. Law and Third Rock from the Sun.
42. Rosey Grier – Grier played defensive tackle in the NFL from 1955 until 1966. He was part of the Rams’ original “Fearsome Foursome” (along with Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy). Following a career-ending injury in 1967, Grier moved into acting. With over 70 television appearances, Grier was one of the first successful football players turned actors. He also wrestled the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan moments after he had fatally shot Robert F. Kennedy, breaking the assassin’s arm in the process.
43. Bernie Casey – Casey made a name as a wide receiver in the NFL, playing for the 49ers and Rams from 1961 to 1968. Afterwards, he appeared in a number of films, including Brian’s Song, Never Say Never Again, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Another 48 Hours and When I Find the Ocean.
44. Woody Strode – One of the first African-Americans to play in the NFL, Strode competed for the Rams in 1946 and later the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance opposite Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, and he would go on to appear in a number of westerns, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Professionals and The Quick and the Dead.
45. Ben Davidson – From 1961 to 1971, Davidson played defensive end in the NFL. After playing for the Packers, Redskins and Raiders, Davidson appeared in movies ranging from Conan the Barbarian to Behind the Green Door. He also starred as himself in a popular Miller Lite commercial featuring Rodney Dangerfield and John Madden
46. Roman Gabriel – The first Asian-American to play quarterback in the NFL, Gabriel competed in the league from 1962 until 1977. A brief acting career included roles in Skidoo and The Undefeated. Many experts point to Gabriel as the first truly big quarterback of the modern era (6’4”, 235).
47. Bob Golic – Golic played defensive tackle in the NFL from 1979 until 1992. He was voted to three Pro Bowls and played for the Patriots, Browns and Raiders. Following retirement, he took up acting, most famously appearing as Mike Rogers on Saved by the Bell: The College Years.
48. Ed O’Neil – In 1969, the man best known for his portrayal of Al Bundy was signed to play outside linebacker by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he was cut before the season even started. With his football dreams dashed, he turned to acting, making his movie debut as a deputy in Deliverance. He has also starred in Disorganized Crime, Dutch, Wayne’s World, Little Giants, The Bone Collector and many more. On a side note, O’Neil is also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, having trained in the art for over 15 years.
49. Larry Csonka – After being drafted by the Dolphins, running back Larry Csonka became one of the most feared runners in the NFL. He won two Super Bowl rings and was voted MVP of Super Bowl VIII. He would also play with the Giants, but his #39 jersey has been retired by the Dolphins. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, Csonka has appeared on numerous television shows, including a number of hunting and fishing programs. He also served as an analyst for American Gladiators from 1990 until 1993.
50. John Wayne – One of the greatest screen icons of all time, Wayne was a promising player on the USC Trojans football team. After suffering an injury which ended his football career, Wayne got a job working in the prop department of local movie studios. He was eventually cast in small parts and worked his way up to feature status after several years. Wayne remains one of the most popular actors in movie history.
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