Football is more than just a game – it’s a thrilling source of amusement that brings out a wide range of captivating personalities. It’s no surprise that numerous NFL players have taken a leap into the world of acting, both during and after their playing careers.
Take Jim Brown, for example. This legendary running back not only dominated the football field, but also conquered the silver screen in the 1970s by starring in “blaxploitation” films. Another standout is Merlin Olsen, who went from being a fearsome defensive lineman to landing his own TV series, “Father Murphy,” after playing second fiddle to Michael Landon on the beloved show “Little House on the Prairie.”
And it’s not just the superstars who’ve found success in acting. Carl Weathers, renowned for his portrayal of Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, is more famous for his acting chops than his brief stint in the NFL. Terry Crews is another prime example, as his acting career has surpassed his time as a professional football player. Even Nnamdi Asomugha, a former All-Pro defensive back, earned acclaim for his performance in the movie “Crown Heights,” catching the attention of the prestigious Variety publication.
Of course, not every ex-NFL player who tried their hand at acting has achieved equal levels of triumph. Some are primarily recognized for their cameos as themselves or appearances in commercials, rather than becoming bona fide stars of the big or small screen. Nonetheless, there have been some extraordinary success stories among them. So, from the following group of former NFL players, who do you think has enjoyed the most remarkable acting career?
(Note: O.J. Simpson is a highly controversial figure and will not be further discussed.)
1. Carl Weathers
Carl Weathers has had a long and diverse acting career spanning about 50 years. While many may recognize him as Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, his journey began with smaller roles in “blaxploitation” films during the early 1970s. Interestingly, he took these gigs while still pursuing his passion for football as a professional player.
Aside from his iconic role as Apollo Creed, Weathers has contributed to various projects over the years. He played Dreamer Tatum in the film Semi-Tough (1977) and even had his own TV series called Fortune Dane where he portrayed the title character. He also appeared as Colonel Brewster in Tour of Duty and Chief Hampton Forbes in In the Heat of the Night for a notable 28 episodes. Additionally, Weathers took on the roles of Mark Justice in both Chicago P.D. and Chicago Justice.
Before fully committing to acting, Weathers had a brief stint as a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders from 1970 to 1971. Although he only played in eight games during his football career, he always knew that his true passion lay in acting. In fact, back in 1979, he expressed his intention to The Washington Post, stating that his plan was to leave football behind once he made some progress in the acting world.
2. Terry Crews
Terry Crews, a familiar face in the entertainment industry, started his acting journey back in 1999 with Battle Dome, a syndicated series. You may recognize him from his memorable role as Julius Rock in the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, which aired from 2005 to 2009. Additionally, he portrayed Nick Kingston-Parsons in Are We There Yet? from 2010 to 2012 and Terry Jeffords in Brooklyn Nine-Nine from 2013 to 2021. He also left a lasting impression as Hate Caesar in The Expendables film series.
But before diving into the world of acting, Crews showed off his skills on the football field. He played as a linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams in 1991, followed by the San Diego Chargers in 1993, and finally the Washington Redskins.
3. Bubba Smith
Bubba Smith, the first overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft, had a successful nine-year career playing for the Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders, and Houston Oilers. As a defensive lineman, he made a name for himself and was selected to the Pro Bowl twice. Notably, Smith was part of the Colts’ Super Bowl V win.
After retiring from the NFL in 1976, Smith shifted his focus to acting. He quickly found his footing in the industry and took on various memorable roles. One of his most well-known characters was Moses Hightower in the original Police Academy film, a role he reprised in almost all of its sequels. Additionally, he played the chauffeur to Ned Beatty’s character in Stroker Ace (1983) and starred alongside fellow former NFL star Dick Butkus in the short-lived television series Blue Thunder (1984).
4. Merlin Olsen
Merlin Olsen, a highly accomplished professional football player, spent his entire 15-year career with the Los Angeles Rams. With an impressive record of 14 Pro Bowl appearances and five All-Pro selections, Olsen’s exceptional talent was recognized when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
After retiring from the NFL in 1976, Olsen swiftly transitioned to a new career in acting. In 1977, he joined the cast of the popular television show Little House on the Prairie. In this series, Olsen portrayed the character Jonathan Garvey, who was the close friend and neighbor of Charles Ingalls, played by Michael Landon. Interestingly, in one episode of Season 7, there was a playful reference to Olsen’s prior football career. When it was suggested that Olsen’s character could coach the town’s football team, his son dismissively remarked, “My pa doesn’t know anything about football!”
Olsen eventually left Little House on the Prairie to take on a lead role in the drama series Father Murphy. Set in the 1870s, the show revolves around Olsen’s character, who assumes the identity of a priest to aid a group of orphaned children facing the threat of being sent to a workhouse. With this new venture, Olsen continued to showcase his acting abilities and captivate audiences with his performances.
5. Jim Brown
Jim Brown, considered one of the greatest running backs in history, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. He had an impressive career, spending all his years in the league with the Cleveland Browns. Brown led the league in rushing for eight out of his nine years, earning nine Pro Bowl selections and eight All-Pro honors. Surprisingly, he retired at the young age of 29 after the 1965 season.
While still an active football player, Brown ventured into acting. In 1964, he played the role of a buffalo soldier in the western film Rio Conchos. He followed up with a prominent role as Robert Jefferson in The Dirty Dozen. However, filming delays caused him to miss the beginning of training camp, and the Browns’ owner threatened to fine him $1,500 for each week missed. Faced with this ultimatum, Brown announced his retirement from football.
The Dirty Dozen turned out to be a massive success, opening doors for Brown in the film industry. MGM signed him to a multi-film contract, and he made his debut as a leading actor in The Split, released in 1968. During the 1970s, Brown became known for his roles in “blaxploitation” films like Three the Hard Way. In the 1980s, he shifted his focus primarily to television, although he did appear in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starrer The Running Man in 1987. In 1998, Brown portrayed coach Montezuma Monroe in the film Any Given Sunday.
6. John Matuszak
John Matuszak, a former member of the Oakland Raiders, achieved great success in the NFL by winning two Super Bowl titles. Throughout his nine-year career from 1973 to 1981, Matuszak also played for the Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs. Known for his vibrant personality, party-loving lifestyle, and tough demeanor on the field, he earned the title of one of the NFL’s notorious “bad boys.”
While still an active player for the Raiders, Matuszak ventured into the world of acting and landed a significant role in the movie North Dallas Forty (1979). He portrayed O.W. Shaddock, a player for the fictional pro football team, the North Dallas Bulls. Another memorable performance came when he played the character Sloth Fratelli, who despite being mistreated and deformed, had a soft heart, in the movie The Goonies.
Unfortunately, Matuszak’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 38 due to an accidental overdose of the prescription drug Darvocet. Despite his untimely passing, he had one final film role as Jed Stewart in the comedy Down the Drain, which was released posthumously.
7. Alex Karras
Alex Karras, a defensive tackle, dedicated his entire career to the Detroit Lions. Recognized as a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, he achieved the remarkable honor of being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020. However, his professional football journey was not without its share of controversy. In 1963, Karras faced a suspension for the entire season due to his involvement in betting on NFL games.
Interestingly, Karras ventured into the world of acting while still an active NFL player. His debut came in the film adaptation of George Plimpton’s book, Paper Lion, released in 1968. The book chronicled Plimpton’s experience of participating in the Lions’ training camp, and Karras portrayed himself in the movie. Following his retirement from football, Karras shifted his focus towards acting, where he took on several notable roles.
One of his memorable appearances included a small role in the comedic masterpiece Blazing Saddles, released in 1974. Additionally, Karras displayed his talent by portraying a closeted bodyguard in Victor/Victoria, released in 1982. He also played the right-hand man to James Woods’ villain in the thrilling film Against All Odds, released in 1984.
However, Karras achieved significant recognition for his portrayal of George Papadopolis on the sitcom Webster, which aired on ABC from 1983 to 1989. In this role, Karras portrayed the adoptive father of Emmanuel Lewis, becoming widely known for his performance in this beloved television series.
8. Fred Dryer
Fred Dryer is best known for his role as homicide detective Rick Hunter on the NBC police drama series Hunter. Before portraying Rick Hunter, Dryer mainly appeared in guest roles on various TV series. One notable role was as sportscaster Dave Richards, a former teammate of Sam Malone (Ted Danson). Interestingly, Dryer auditioned for the role of Malone and was even a finalist. Originally, Malone was meant to be a former NFL player, not MLB.
Prior to his acting career, Dryer was an NFL defensive end for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. He had a successful 13-year career, recording an impressive 103 sacks. In the 1974 season, Dryer led the NFL with 15 sacks.
9. Dick Butkus
Dick Butkus, a highly regarded linebacker in NFL history, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. Throughout his impressive career, he played for the Chicago Bears for nine years and earned the honor of being an eight-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro. Unfortunately, a knee mishap forced him to retire prematurely at the age of 31 in May 1974.
Before stepping away from the game, Butkus showcased his acting skills in the critically acclaimed television movie Brian’s Song (1971), where he portrayed himself. Following this success, he made several guest appearances on various television shows during the 1970s and early 1980s. Later on, he secured regular roles in the short-lived TV series Blue Thunder (1984) and Half Nelson (1985). However, his breakthrough came when he played the role of cafe owner Ed Klawicki in the sitcom My Two Dads, running from 1987 to 1989. However, his most memorable acting role was as Coach Katowinski on the Saturday morning sitcom Hang Time from 1998 to 2000.
10. Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a successful quarterback, earning three Pro Bowl selections and leading the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories. In fact, he was named the Super Bowl MVP twice.
After retiring from football in 1984, Bradshaw shifted his focus to sports broadcasting. He became an analyst for both CBS and Fox, sharing his insights and expertise with viewers. While he primarily appeared as himself in television shows and films, he occasionally took on fictional roles. For instance, he played the father of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Failure to Launch (2006) and portrayed Coach Clarence in the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.
In 2020, Bradshaw and his family embarked on a new adventure with their own reality show, The Bradshaw Bunch, which airs on the E! channel. This show provides an intimate look into the lives of Bradshaw and his loved ones, offering viewers a chance to see a different side of the legendary quarterback.