Football players who went on to become actors
Miami/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Football players who went on to become actors

Football careers are short, at least if you’re not Tom Brady or Adam Vinatieri. Some guys barely play as a pro, and some don’t even make it that far, seeing their careers end in college. So what do these football players do when their days on the gridiron end? Some disappear into a regular life and some turn to being commentators or analysts on TV, but others become acting. Hey, there’s always a place in film and TV for big, hulking guys. Here are those who made the transition from football to performing on the screen.

 
1 of 25

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne Johnson
Warner Bros.

The story of Dwayne Johnson is well-known. After playing football in college for the Miami Hurricanes, Johnson followed in his family’s footsteps by becoming a professional wrestler. There he became known as “The Rock” and turned himself into the biggest star in the WWE, which gave him a chance to try acting, and it took. Now he’s arguably the biggest action star in the world.

 
2 of 25

Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds
Universal

Among Reynolds’ many starring film roles was as Paul Crewe, a football quarterback in prison in the film “The Longest Yard.” That wasn’t his first brush with football. In college, Reynolds was a halfback at Florida State. Unfortunately injuries derailed his career, and he had to give up the sport while still in school. Looking for something to do with his life, he turned to acting, and the rest is history.

 
3 of 25

Merlin Olsen

Merlin Olsen
Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images

Olsen’s football career went just a bit better than Johnson’s or Reynolds’. He played defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams from 1962-1976, making the Pro Bowl a whopping 14 times. That was good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. Olsen didn’t need an acting career, but he gave it a shot. Movies never really worked out for the big man, but he did star in a TV show called “Father Murphy.”

 
4 of 25

John Matuszak

John Matuszak
Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Matuszak was 6-foot-8’ and brimming with potential, which got him drafted first overall in 1973. However, the man known at Tooz also liked to party, which hindered his NFL career, though he did win two Super Bowls. After retiring, Matuszak did a bit of acting, mostly notably as Sloth in “The Goonies.” Alas, the opportunities ended when Matuszak died at the age of 38 due to an opioid overdose.

 
5 of 25

Alex Karras

Alex Karras
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

After a college career at Iowa that got him in the College Football Hall of Fame, Karras move on to the Detroit Lions, where he played his entire NFL career. He replicated his college success in the pros, as the defensive lineman was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Thanks to being on the Lions when George Plimpton wrote the book “Paper Lion,” Karras gained a bit of celebrity. He used that to start making TV appearances on shows like “Match Game,” but also tried his hand at acting, playing the dad in the show "Webster." His most famous role has to be as Mongo in “Blazing Saddles.” How many other actors can say they had a scene where they punched a horse?

 
6 of 25

Jim Brown

Jim Brown
MGM

Brown was the preeminent football player of his era. He dominated the game as a running back, retiring with a bunch of records. That’s despite the fact he retired relatively young, as he wasn’t even 30. Leaving the NFL early gave Brown the chance to jump into an acting career, where he soon scored a big role in the iconic war film “The Dirty Dozen.”

 
7 of 25

Carl Weathers

Carl Weathers
United Artists

Weathers is probably best known for playing the boxer Apollo Creed in the “Rocky” movies — or maybe for playing a retired golfer in “Happy Gilmore.” In reality, though, football was Weathers’ game of choice. He played at San Diego State in college and then got a cup of coffee with the Raiders. After that he played a bit in Canada before retiring to move on to acting.

 
8 of 25

Lyle Alzado

Lyle Alzado
Ron Galella, Ltd/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Alzado was known for being rather intense on the field, even inspiring the NFL to make it a penalty to throw a helmet. That being said, he had talent to go with the passion, as he made three All-Pro teams. Alzado had several smaller acting roles but never quite had his breakout. Not that he didn’t try. Alzado starred in a sitcom called “Learning the Ropes” where he played a high school teacher by day and professional wrestler by night. It lasted one season in syndication but is not remembered fondly, if at all.

 
9 of 25

Bob Golic

Bob Golic
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Bob’s brother Mike went the more traditional route, becoming a talking head and radio host for ESPN. On the other hand, Bob tried his hand at acting. It didn’t go great, as his only regular role was as a character named, funnily enough, Mike on the woeful “Saved by the Bell: The College Years.” Hey, at least his NFL career went well. Golic was a two-time All-Pro.

 
10 of 25

John Amos

John Amos
Paramount

Amos had the build of a football player, but the sport never quite worked out for him. After playing in college at Colorado State, he got a couple of NFL tryouts but never made a team. He left the world of football and made the move to acting, first getting noticed as Gordy the weatherman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Eventually, though, he would get lead roles on shows like “Good Times” and “Roots.”

 
11 of 25

Bill Goldberg

Bill Goldberg
Bryan Steffy/WireImage

Bill Goldberg is primarily remembered as a professional wrestler, which is enough to get him on this list. It is acting, to a degree, after all, and is called “sports entertainment” for a reason. However, Goldberg, who played in 14 NFL games and was the first player ever cut by the Carolina Panthers, has done some acting as well. One time he even played Santa Claus in a horror comedy film!

 
12 of 25

Brian Bosworth

Brian Bosworth
Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Just to be clear, it’s tremendously impressive to have an NFL career or an acting career, let alone both. With that caveat out of the way, neither went the way the Boz would have wanted, we presume. While he had a great college career at Oklahoma, he lasted only a couple of years in the NFL. Then he tried to make a go of it as an action star but not in any movies you are likely to have heard of.

 
13 of 25

Terry Crews

Terry Crews
NBC

Crews still looks like he could play football, but instead he used his muscles to help get laughs on shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” He was also on that weird “Battle Dome” show that was like a mix of “American Gladiators” and pro wrestling. Unsurprisingly, given how ripped he is, Crews has a history in football. He played in 32 NFL games, including one full season with Washington.

 
14 of 25

Fred Dryer

Fred Dryer
NBC

At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Dryer cut a lean figure for a defensive end. However, his long arms clearly worked wonders for him, as he routinely led his team in sacks, though he played during a time when that was an unofficial stat. He also once picked up two safeties in one game. Dryer came close to being potentially a massive star, as he was up for the role of Sam Malone in “Cheers.” He didn’t get that gig, as you surely know, but he did get to star in the cop drama “Hunter.”

 
15 of 25

Rosey Grier

Rosey Grier
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Grier was a man of contrasts. While he played on the Rams defensive line known as the “Fearsome Foursome,” he also was known for his interest in needlepoint and macramé. No wonder he was called the “Gentle Giant,” even though opposing offensive linemen may have disagreed. Grier started acting before he even officially retired — playing in L.A. will do that for you — and eventually he would make dozens of TV guest appearances, including as himself on “The Simpsons.”

 
16 of 25

Joe Namath

Joe Namath
AVCO Embassy

Thanks to “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Broadway Joe’s acting career has emerged from the shadows. Most of the Jets legend’s acting roles have been as himself — because Namath is so iconic he can get away with that — but back in the day he acted in a few ‘70s action films. That includes “C.C. & Company,” the movie referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s ode to old Hollywood. He also starred in several iconic commercials, including a famous shaving cream ad with Farrah Fawcett.

 
17 of 25

Ed Marinaro

Ed Marinaro
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Marinaro played at Cornell, but this was long enough ago when you could play at Cornell and finish as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. The NFL didn’t work out quite as well for the running back, but he did get to play in a couple of Super Bowls. He also got to act on “Laverne & Shirley,” which is maybe an even bigger honor. His most known role, though, was when he joined the cast of “Hill Street Blues.”

 
18 of 25

Fred Williamson

Fred Williamson
United Artists

Williamson nicknamed himself “The Hammer” when he was playing football, and it’s a nickname that stuck with him even after he retired from the NFL. The former defensive back became a staple of blaxploitation films. You know what one of them was called? “Hammer.”

 
19 of 25

O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson
Warner Bros.

Look, we want to dance around this one a bit, but we had to include Simpson. He was, before things went awry, perhaps the quintessential football player turned actor. O.J. had a Hall of Fame-level career, even rushing for over 2,000 yards in one season. Then he became a staple of the movie industry, including as Nordberg in the “Naked Gun” series. For a time, Simpson was even being considered to play the Terminator in the film of the same name. Thankfully, that didn’t end up happening.

 
20 of 25

Bubba Smith

Bubba Smith
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Smith was the first-overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft out of Michigan State, and the defensive end played for three teams: the Baltimore Colts, the Houston Oilers and the Oakland Raiders. Smith is synonymous with a single role, that of Moses Hightower in the “Police Academy” series. Hey, he appeared in six of those films. That’s nothing to sneeze at from a career perspective.

 
21 of 25

John David Washington

John David Washington
Focus

The son of Denzel Washington, an actor you may have heard of, didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps at first. Washington was a running back at Morehouse, but his only taste of the NFL was on a practice squad. He did play three seasons for the Sacramento Mountain Lions in the now forgotten UFL. After that he took up acting, first appearing in "Ballers," which was an easy transition point from football to acting. You probably know him best as the lead actor in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Like father, like son.

 
22 of 25

Mike Henry

Mike Henry
Universal

Johnny Weissmuller made the move from swimming to acting by playing Tarzan. Henry didn’t swim — he was an NFL linebacker — but he too tried his hand at playing the vine-swinging, chest-beating man raised by apes. Henry starred in three Tarzan films in the ‘60s. He also played Junior, the son of Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice, in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

 
23 of 25

John Kimbrough

John Kimbrough
20th Century Fox

Kimbrough is an old-school name. He was the second-overall pick in the NFL Draft...in 1941. He didn’t played for the NFL, instead signing with the New York Americans of the AFL. That league then folded after the Pearl Harbor attack, and Kimbrough tried his hand at acting. A known name, he was thrust into starring in two Westerns. The Texan then stopped acting, went to war, returned to play more football and then became a member of the Texas House of Representatives in 1953. Quite an eventful 12 years.

 
24 of 25

Roman Reigns

Roman Reigns
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Back when he was known as "Joe" Anoa’i, Reigns was a defensive end at Georgia Tech. He didn’t catch on in the NFL but managed to play one season in the CFL before retiring. Like many members of his family, he then turned to pro wrestling, where he became Roman Reigns. Mostly Reigns is known for wrestling, where he is a massive star, but he just had his first notable acting role, playing a small part in "Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” starring Dwayne Johnson.

 
25 of 25

Don Meredith

Don Meredith
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Meredith was a stud quarterback for SMU in college and then stayed in town by joining the Dallas Cowboys. Dandy Don played his entire career with Dallas, making three Pro Bowls and earning a spot in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. His most famous post-playing role is as a member of the first “Monday Night Football” announcing team. Meredith also did some acting. He starred in several made-for-TV movies in the ‘70s and had a recurring role in the anthology show “Police Story.”

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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