Lights! Camera! Sports! 31 Famous Actor Athletes

By Adrienne McIlvaine
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If you ever dreamed of one day becoming an astronaut, but instead ended up in advertising, you know that life has a funny way of not turning out exactly how you planned. And believe it or not, this sort of thing doesn’t just happen to us “regular” people. These 31 actors have what it takes to shine both on screen and on the playing field.

Burt Reynolds

When Burt Reynolds thought about what he wanted to do when grew up, becoming an actor never crossed his mind. Instead, the athletic Michigan native dreamed of playing professional football; by his sophomore year at Palm Beach High School he was already an All-State fullback and fielding multiple scholarship offers.

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Reynolds eventually landed at Florida State University on a full scholarship, where he played halfback. His dreams of going pro were cut short though, first by a knee injury in his first game and then later by a car accident that ended up with the young athlete injuring his other knee and losing his spleen. 

Joel McHale

Best known for his role on the NBC/Yahoo! sitcom Community and hosting The Soup on E!, Joel McHale was an athlete in high school and college. The 6’4 inch actor was initially recruited by the University of Washington as part of the rowing crew. After a fight with the school’s crew team “over not pushing in a chair properly,” according to the actor, his time as part of UW’s row crew ended.

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Having only played one year of football in high school, McHale spent two years on the UW’s football team. A walk-on with the school’s football team in 1992, he convinced the team he would play. He wrote for Grantland “I couldn’t. I lied and said, ‘Oh yeah, I got hurt my senior year. That’s why you don’t know me,’” he wrote for Grantland. He joined the Huskies but never actually saw game time and spent his freshman year on the scout team.

Tom Selleck

He’s been a private investigator (Magnum P.I.) and a frazzled architect trying to raise a newborn that may or not be his (Three Men and a Baby), and even landed a recurring role as Monica’s much older boyfriend on Friends, but the most surprising role of Tom Selleck’s career? The two years he spent playing basketball at the University of Southern California.

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Selleck had originally enrolled at a local community college in Los Angeles but transferred to USC in his junior year, mainly due to the generous basketball scholarship they offered him. (and to get out of his parents’ house). Selleck spent almost two years playing for the Division I Trojans before dropping out of school to pursue acting. 

Tony Danza

There are many different paths our lives can take, and in the case of Who’s the Boss? star Tony Danza, it wasn’t immediately obvious that he’d one day become an Emmy-winning actor and one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. In fact, it wasn’t obvious he’d be an actor at all.

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Danza, a self-professed terrible student, majored in history at the University of Dubuque, thanks to a four-year wrestling scholarship. After he graduated in 1972, Danza took up boxing back in New York and was making a name for himself on the professional circuit when he was scouted by a talent agent at a gym. 

Dwayne Johnson

Most people know that Dwayne Johnson was a professional wrestler before segueing into acting. In fact, in his earliest films, like The Scorpion King, he was billed simply as The Rock, and even when he started using his real name, didn’t get to fully drop the nickname until 2008.

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But did you know his football skills got him a full ride to the University of Miami where he played defensive tackle on the 1991 NCAA championship squad? He was even in the starting lineup for a while, until injuries forced him onto the sidelines. (The guy who replaced him, Warren Sapp, did pretty well with the opportunity, too.) He only became a wrestler after going to Calgary to play Canadian football and getting cut mid-season.

Mark Harmon

When your dad is Heisman Trophy-winner Tom Harmon, who went on to a successful career as a sports broadcaster, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to grow up playing football. Which is why long before he was the star of St. Elsewhere and NCIS, Mark Harmon was a major collegiate football star.

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After finishing his associate degree and fielding scholarship offers from several major schools, Harmon ended up playing starter quarterback for the UCLA Bruins in 1972 and 1973. The underdog team soon turned things around and during his senior year Harmon was honored by the National Football Foundation for his all-around excellence. 

Terry Crews

Standing 6’3” and weighing in at over 240 pounds, Terry Crews was born to play football – and be an artist. When the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star graduated from high school, he was awarded both an art scholarship and a full athletic ride to Western Michigan University, where he ended up winning a major Division I conference in 1988.

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Crews continued to play after graduating college and eventually went professional with the 1991 NFL draft, where he was picked up by the Los Angeles Rams in the 11th round. Over the next few years Crews played for the Rams, the San Diego Chargers and the Philadelphia Eagles; he even spent 1995 season playing for the World League of American Football in Germany before retiring two years later. 

Uzo Aduba

Uzo Aduba had been working steadily in New York theater for a decade before landing the role of “Crazy Eyes” in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Before acting, though, Aduba was a stellar college athlete and originally went to Boston University on a track scholarship.

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As a sprinter, she competed in the 55-meter, 100-meter and 200-meter races, and nearly broke the school record for the 55-meter when she finished it in just 7.07 seconds. She also won recognition from the athletic department for her leadership skills. But she’d chosen BU as much for its arts program as for the athletic opportunity – and it was through one of her professors that she landed her first major stage role in 2003.  

Dean Cain

Honestly, is it any surprise that Superman was a two-sport athlete (or that he dated Brooke Shields while attending Princeton)? Dean Cain turned to screenwriting and acting after a knee injury ended his dream of playing professionally but before that he was a star on both the baseball and football fields.

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Cain first displayed his athletic talents as a baseball player, playing on his Santa Monica High School team alongside future stars Charlie Sheen and Rob Lowe. But he decided to switch things up when he got to Princeton, where he played free safety and ended up setting a national record for interceptions in the 1987 season. 

Matthew Fox

When you grow up in rural Wyoming helping your parents raise cattle and corn, anything seems like an excuse to leave. But it’s probably a good thing Matthew Fox never set his sights on becoming a professional football player, because his short-lived collegiate career definitely wouldn’t have put him on the NFL radar.

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The 6’2” actor caught the eyes of Columbia football scout while attending Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and was drafted to play wideout in 1985. But the team struggled during Fox’s tenure, which saw him square off against Princeton and Dean Cain at one point; by the time he graduated in 1989 the Lions had won just two games the entire time. 

Channing Tatum

The Cullman, Alabama native is known for his hit movies, which include the Magic Mike films and 21 Jump Street. Full of energy, Channing Tatum spent his youth playing a variety of sports, including track and field, baseball and soccer. During high school, he had a goal of earning an athletic college scholarship, a goal he realized after earning a football scholarship to Glenville State College in Glenville, West Virginia. He eventually ended up dropping out of school and returned home.

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Tatum is also skilled at martial arts expert, having earned belts in Kung Fu and in Gor-Chor Kung Fu. He worked as a model before he became an actor, but before he started modeling, he worked as a male stripper. He has credited his experience as a stripper with helping him play one in the Magic Mike films. 

Sheryl Crow

Born Sheryl Suzanne Crow, she is known widely for her music. Sheryl Crow is also an actress who has guest starred in several television shows, including 30 Rock and Cougar Town. She was also an all-star track athlete while attending Kennett High School in Kennett, Missouri. She medaled in the 75-meter hurdles.

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The nine-time Grammy winner may not compete in track now, but she works out regularly, even when on tour. “I take workouts with me on tour… P90X, Tracy Anderson. I do them in the hotel rooms,” she said. "I'm not big about going to gyms. I've been known to work out on a treadmill or StairMaster, but my first choice is really getting outside and running. That's where I can really clear my head.”

Kurt Russell

Kurt Russell began acting in film and TV when he was still a kid, and by the late 1960s he’d become a franchise star in live-action comedies for Disney. When he turned twenty, though, Russell took the opportunity to pursue another dream – professional baseball.

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Russell signed with the California Angels, and was an infielder for two minor league affiliates in the Pacific Northwest before moving up to Class AA ball in El Paso. A collision with a base runner took out the rotator cuff on his throwing arm, and that was pretty much it for Russell’s baseball career. Fortunately, Hollywood was ready for him to pick up exactly where he left off.

Lou Ferrigno

Louis Jude Ferrigno has worked as an actor, motivational speaker, fitness trainer and professional bodybuilder. Born to an Italian-American police lieutenant, Ferrigno experienced a number of ear infections as a child which caused him to lose 75 percent of his hearing. He was three years old when his condition was diagnosed. He played sports as a child, namely weightlifting and bodybuilding.

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His career as a bodybuilder was a successful one. He won an International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) Mr. America title and two IFBB Mr. Universe titles. He is best known as an actor for portraying the title role on the television series, The Incredible Hulk and his recurring role on The King of Queens portraying himself. 

Jason Lee

Best known for his role as Earl Hickey in My Name is Earl, Jason Lee was once a professional skateboarder. The Orange, California native was known in his skateboarding career in the late 1980s and early 1990s for his style and 360 flips. He still maintains ties to the skateboarding industry as the co-founder of Stereo Skateboards.

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Lee made an appearance in the video for Sonic Youth’s 100%, which served as his acting debut. Having retired from skateboarding in 1995, Lee turned to acting full-time. The skateboarder-turned actor now has a third career as a photographer. His work appeared in Oklahoma’s Philbrook Museum of Art. His photos largely focus on the Southwestern U.S. where he currently lives.

Gina Carano

Gina Joy Carano was born to professional football player Glenn Carano who played for the Dallas Cowboys as the backup quarterback to Roger Staubach. She was a Muay Thai fighter dubbed “The Face of Women’s MMA.” Her Muay Thai competitive record consists of 12 wins, one loss and one draw. She is the first American woman to ever win a Muay Thai title in Thailand.

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Athlete-turned-actress, Carano made her film debut in Blood and Bone in 2009. Since then she has appeared in Haywire, Fast & Furious and Deadpool. Prior to acting, she worked as a mentor to aspiring MMA fighters in the Oxygen reality series Fight Girls in 2007. She also performed as ‘Crush’ in the revived television series American Gladiator.

Tommy Lee Jones

If you know one thing about Tommy Lee Jones’ time at Harvard, it’s probably that he was Al Gore’s roommate – and, maybe, that he and the future vice president provided the combined inspiration for the male protagonist in Erich Segal’s bestselling novel Love Story. (Jones made his screen debut with a small part in the film based on the book.)

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But Jones was also a gridiron star at college. As an offensive guard, he was part of two Ivy conference championship teams, and even took part in one of the most legendary matchups in the fierce Harvard/Yale rivalry in 1968 when the Crimson scored two touchdowns in forty-two seconds – making the two-point conversion both times – to eke out a 29-29 tie.

Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson is best known as a boxer. Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised by a single mother, he was the world heavyweight champion during his boxing career. He became the youngest heavyweight champion of the world at the tender age of 20. He earned the World Boxing Association belt in 1987 after defeating James Smith, and the same year he was recognized as champion by the three boxing sanctioning organizations (WBA, World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation. 

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Tyson has also developed an acting career, guest starring in television shows, including How I Met Your Mother, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Franklin & Bash and Entourage. He has also acted in a number of movies, including A Medea Family Funeral and The Hangover

Emma Watson

When you’ve spent your entire childhood on-screen, as English actress Emma Watson did with her iconic role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise, it’s normal to want to do something completely different. Which is why it seemed perfectly natural when Watson enrolled at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and ended up on the club field hockey team.

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Watson, who grew up playing hockey in England, spent a year and a half on the team before deferring her courses due to work commitments. Even after graduating she continues to support field hockey – in 2018 she launched the Hockey Futures charity initiative, which encourages girls to play field hockey as a way to build self-confidence and a sense of community. 

Jim Gaffigan

You probably know Jim Gaffigan from his hilarious standup comedy routines, his successful comedy special Mr. Universe (2012) or his memoir Dad Is Fat (2013). What you might not know is that this comedy icon was once a college athlete.

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Gaffigan was a walk-on on the Purdue football team in his first year at the university. Gaffigan joked about his short-lived football career in a performance at Purdue in 2007, saying “I have so many fond memories from Purdue. Most seem to involve walking. I walked onto the football team and walked away after I didn’t like getting my head bashed in.” 

Chuck Norris

The Ryan, Oklahoma native is famous for his martial arts expertise. Chuck Norris began his career as a martial arts fighter in 1964 and it lasted until 1974. Although he began his fighting career by losing his first three tournaments, he was a champion by 1966. He won numerous titles, including The National Karate Championships in 1966 and All-American Karate Championship in 1967.

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Norris is as famous for his acting as he is for his martial arts career, partially due to his early 1990s television show, Walker, Texas Ranger. He served as an executive producer of the show. He has also starred in action films such as The Hitman, Sidekicks, The Delta Force and Delta Force 2: The Columbian Connection. His friend, the famous actor Steve McQueen urged him to go into acting.

Ed O’Neill

You know him as one of the stars of the hit sitcom Modern Family or from the ‘80s show Married With Children. But in the 1960s, Ed O’Neill was a defensive linesman for the Youngstown State football team—and, after graduating college, tried out for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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O’Neill showed up for training camp the same year Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood made their debuts with the team, which prompted him to switch to outside linebacker. Learning the new position proved too daunting, however, and he was cut from the squad after two weeks. That was the end of his football career, but he went back to Youngstown, joined the theater department and laid the foundation for his acting career.

Matthew Perry

Years before his success on Friends, teenage Matthew Perry excelled on the tennis courts. He was a nationally ranked player in his native Canada, in both singles and doubles competition. At his peak, he was practicing as much as ten hours a day.

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But when he moved to California at 15, he found himself facing much stiffer competition and, as he told an interviewer for Men’s Health, abandoning the sport became inevitable: “I was pretty great in Canada. Not so much in Los Angeles. It was insane. I realized I wouldn’t be playing tennis for a living, so I went for acting.” The results speak for themselves.

O.J. Simpson

He’s become one of the most infamous celebrities in America over the last quarter-century, but before the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, “the Juice” was a football legend: a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, and then a star running back in the NFL, the first player to beat Jim Brown’s record for rushing yards in a single season (though he fell short of Brown’s career total).

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Simpson had already starting acting during the off-season in the 1970s, and some early roles, like Roots, took advantage of his speed and agility. (There’s also his iconic commercials for Hertz, where he rushes through the airport to get his rental car.) Later, in the Naked Gun series, he showed a knack for physical comedy, bumbling his way through increasingly elaborate slapstick scenarios. At the time of the murders, he’d just shot a pilot for Frogmen, an action series where he’d have starred as the leader of a group of ex-SEALs. 

Carl Weathers

Carl Weathers captivated film audiences as the heavyweight champ Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films, but in real life boxing is just one of the sports at which he excelled as a high school athlete. He was also a pretty good football player in high school, then, after recovering from an ankle injury, went on to play for San Diego State.

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After graduation, he signed with the Oakland Raiders and lasted two seasons there before getting cut. He eked out a few more years in the Canadian Football League, but was already taking steps to transition into acting by attending drama school in the off-season. 

Caitlyn Jenner

Long before she was famous for appearing on Keeping Up with the Kardashians or starring in I Am Cait, her own reality series documenting her transgender journey, Caitlyn Jenner was a high school football player who went on to become one of the most successful American decathlon athletes of all time.

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Jenner played football all throughout high school and won a scholarship to Graceland University in Iowa, but was forced to stop playing in her sophomore year due to a knee injury. She was encouraged to try decathlon, a grueling sport that consists of ten different track and field events, and set several world records on her way to winning a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. 

Esther Williams

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Esther Williams was one of the most versatile actresses on MGM's roster. From 1945 to 1949, Williams had at least one film listed among the 20 highest-grossing films of the year. But the silver screen wasn't her first splash into stardom.

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Williams set multiple national and regional swimming records in her late teens as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. She would have been an Olympian if WWII didn't interrupt the 1940 games. No wonder why she fit right in as the star of 1952's Million Dollar Mermaid

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is best known as a basketball player. And he is not just any basketball player, but he is considered to be the “greatest basketball player of all time,” according to the NBA. He played 15 seasons for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.

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Jordan isn’t just a world-class basketball player, however. He’s also an accomplished actor. He is known for his acting work in Space Jam and has done voiceover work in gen:Lock, an animated web series, and the animated movie Year 3000.

Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille O'Neal had a long and successful professional basketball career. Standing 7’1” and weighing 325 pounds, Shaq (as he is affectionately known) played for six teams during his 19-years with the NBA. In 2015, he was announced as a nominee for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He began his NBA career after being drafted by the Orlando Magic in the 1992 NBA draft.

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While still a professional basketball player, Shaq starred in the movie adaption of Steel in 1997. Since retiring from the NBA, he guest starred in a number of television shows, including The Parkers, Southland and Highston. He has also done voiceover acting in movies, including The Smurfs 2 and The Lego Movie.

Terry Bradshaw

There’s an entire generation of sports fans who know Terry Bradshaw only from his successful career as a broadcast sports analyst and guests star on shows like The League and Everybody Loves Raymond. What they probably don’t realize is that Bradshaw, who played quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is also a four-time Super Bowl winner and NFL icon.

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Bradshaw had only one goal as a kid – to play professional football. After four standout seasons as quarterback at Louisiana Tech University, Bradshaw was considered the best collegiate player in the country, which explains why the Pittsburgh Steelers chose him as their number one draft pick in 1970. By the time he retired in 1983 he’d been named Super Bowl MVP twice and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Jim Brown

Remember that bit in Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks says, “I cried at the end of The Dirty Dozen,” and Victor Garber replies, “Well, who didn’t?” The first thing they mention is Jim Brown, running across a Nazi military compound, trying to stay ahead of the hand grenades he’s throwing down the airshafts.

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It’s a role that launched Brown’s career as an action movie star—and ended his NFL career. Over the course of nine years with the Cleveland Browns, he had become one of the greatest running backs the game had ever seen, setting all kinds of records. He’d started acting in the off-season, but The Dirty Dozen was running behind schedule, and his team threatened massive fines for every day he was late for training camp. So, with one year left on his contract with Cleveland, and a career total of 12,312 yards rushing, he announced his immediate retirement.