Lights! Camera! Sports! 31 Famous Actor Athletes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.