NFL's Greatest Players: The 13 Best Football Stars In Movies
On Super Bowl Sunday, the best and baddest of the professional football world will lay it on the line for the biggest of prizes. But only a select few will go on to achieve an even greater glory: movie superstardom.
Okay, the odds of anybody from the NFL rubbing shoulders with Daniel Day-Lewis is somewhat slim, but there have been several former players who have acquitted themselves well on the big screen.
Join us as we salute these gridiron heroes-turned-silver screen stars. (Pros only, please: Sorry, former college star The Rock.)
"Laces out, Dan!" As the object of place kicker-turned-psycho killer Ray Finkel's madness, former Dolphins QB great Dan Marino plays a key role in the mystery that leads Jim Carrey's wacky title character into a multiple-murder mystery. But what's surprising is the manner in which Marino acquits himself as an actor, holding his own while being manhandled and even managing to steal a few seconds of scene from Jim Carrey before the latter can devour it with his yawning, abyss-like maw. Marino may have never won the Super Bowl, but he did get to make out with Sean Young, so, you know.
Former Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin made a reputation as one of pro football's boldest presences, and he's kept up the act in his stints on ESPN radio and television. So, it's no shock that he should make the transition to the big screen, as he did in the Adam Sandler remake of the classic 1974 football flick "The Longest Yard." Playing a convict and an outstanding football player isn't too much of a stretch for Mr. Irvin, who is both a Pro Football Hall of Fame member and a multiple arrestee. But it was nice to see that he lost none of his chutzpah in the transition from field to screen.
Unlike many of the names on this list, Terry Crews has actually made a bigger name for himself as an actor than as a football player. After spending six years in the NFL (with the Rams, Chargers, Redskins and Eagles) Crews retired in 1997 and made the move to thespianism. He's since appeared in numerous movies and TV shows, but for our money, his crowning achievement is his turn as a former pro wrestler/porn star who becomes president of a United States filled with morons in Mike Judge's criminally underseen "Idiocracy." Crews goes way over the top, firing machine guns randomly into the air and strutting like a huge, muscular ninny, but it's the perfect fit for Judge's view of a world gone dumb.
During his decades-long tenure in the NFL as a player and coach, Mike Ditka was known for his outsized personality and tendency to erupt like a long-dormant volcano. He's the kind of guy you would expect to kick ass in front of the camera, but his exposure in movies has been rather minimal. When he does show up, though, he definitely makes an impact, as in his appearance in this Will Ferrell youth soccer flick. Playing himself, Ditka brings his own particular brand of hard-nosed coaching to the team led by Ferrell's character, and even manages to get into a shouting match with the loud-mouthed comedian without cracking a smile. That, alone, is worthy of recognition.
Lawrence Taylor was a terror on the field, basically redefining defensive football during his 12-year career with the New York Giants. So it wasn't much of a stretch for him to play a powerhouse defensive player in Oliver Stone's ridiculous football flick "Any Given Sunday." LT definitely nails the big, brash, on-the-field moments, but he also has one of the movie's best and quietest moments, delivering a message to Jamie Foxx's Willie Beamen about the importance of leadership and pride in one's sport and life. Given the rollercoaster trajectory Taylor's life followed after football (multiple drug arrests and other legal issues), it's easy to see where his motivation for the scene might have been coming from.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw was known for his down-home, country boy charm during his playing career, and that charisma has carried over to his work on the silver screen. He has appeared in numerous movies, including such classics as "The Cannonball Run" and "Smokey and the Bandit II" (and yes, we use "classic" without irony), and he is currently the only former NFL player to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2006, though, he gave what we consider his most significant performance, playing Matthew McCounaughey's father (which, let's face it, is about as good a match as you could hope for) and dropping trou for a nude scene. Given that it's been a long time since Bradshaw's playing days, it may not have been the most exciting nudity ever recorded on film, but you have to admire the guy's... guts.
For many children of the '80s, Bubba Smith's turn as police cadet -- and friend of Gutenberg -- Moses Hightower in "Police Academy" was the first exposure to this hulking, mustachioed presence. But football fans knew Smith as a former gridiron badass, an All-American defensive linemen in college and a nine-year veteran of the NFL. Known for his bruising work on the field, Smith was playing against type as the quiet, shy Hightower, and it worked to perfection. Unfortunately, he wouldn't parlay his "Police Academy" success into much else of note in the way of casting, but he did appear in all but one of the "Academy" sequels... which, let's face it, isn't a bad body of work for anyone.
On the pro football field, Fred Williamson was known for his vicious hits and hard-nosed playing style - let's just say he didn't get the nickname "The Hammer" because of his love of carpentry. After his playing career ended, Williamson transitioned to acting and became a big name in the blaxploitation genre, starring in flicks like "Black Caesar," "Original Gangstas" and "Three the Hard Way," sometimes appearing with fellow former player Jim Brown. In the modern era, he took a turn in the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez vampire flick "From Dusk Til Dawn" as a hard-bitten (and, eventually, vampire-bitten) Vietnam vet and trucker named Frost. His speech prior to being bitten is one of the comedy highlights of the movie, and shows Williamson lost none of his acting chops over the years.
Let's all travel back to a time before we saw a white Ford Bronco being chased down the highway by police...before OJ Simpson was known more for murder charges and legal woes than for his football exploits...back to a movie theater in 1988, when one could sit and simply enjoy the comedic value of watching a former NFL great getting the crap beaten out of him in a great slapstick movie. "The Naked Gun" is one of the best comedies of the modern era, and this legendary Buffalo Bills running back plays no small part in making it so, taking part in several hilarious set pieces and even having the good humor to take Leslie Nielsen's butt in the face. Oh, OJ. Where did it all go so wrong?
A controversial figure during his stint in the NFL, and a former professional wrestler, Alex Karras first appeared on screen in the 1968 film adaptation of George Plimpton's "Paper Lion," playing himself. He acquitted himself well enough that other roles followed, and he even was considered for a part in "The Godfather," of all movies. He went on to a long and illustrious (hey, not everybody could play the dad on "Webster" with such aplomb) acting career, but our favorite Karras role was one of his earliest, as the mentally-challenged cowpoke Mongo in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles." Whether riding a brahman bull, knocking out a horse or uttering the classic line, "Mongo only pawn in game of life," Karras managed to do well by himself even in the company of comedy titans like Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Not bad, Mongo.
Despite his early retirement, many consider Jim Brown the greatest football player ever, and he was certainly one of the best athletes ever to take the field. He retired as the NFL record holder for both single season and career rushing yards, and was known for a bruising running style, which garnered him a reputation as a bad, bad man that would serve him well in the film world. He's played numerous roles and appeared in great flicks like "Mars Attacks!" and "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," but our favorite Jim Brown movie is his first, "The Dirty Dozen." Alongside a murderer's row of cool customers (Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and John Cassavetes among them), Brown stands out as the quiet, dignified, but not-to-be-messed-with Robert Jefferson in what is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made.
Carl Weathers only graced the NFL for a short time (two years in the early '70s), but it's enough to qualify him for this list... which is good news, because he has probably the best resume among former professional players. First getting into movies in the blaxploitation genre, Weathers got his big break in 1976, when he was cast as Apollo Creed opposite Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky." Ostensibly the villain of the film, Weathers was so charismatic that he was brought back for multiple sequels, becoming a good guy in "Rocky III" and serving as the entire motivation behind the action in "Rocky IV." He's since gone on to a long and varied career, including a hilarious turn as the one-handed golf legend Chubbs in "Happy Gilmore" and an iconic muscle-off with Arnold Schwarzenegger (Weathers lost) in "Predator."
Despite the woes that followed him this season, Brett Favre is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks to ever take the field...so it's pretty believable that he would be able to successfully woo the lovely and inexplicably magnetic Mary (Cameron Diaz) in the Farrelly Brothers' beloved comedy "There's Something About Mary." Entering with the immortal line, "I'm in town to play the Dolphins, you dumbass," Favre makes the most of his cameo, and while this is pretty much the pinnacle of his movie career (we're not counting 1996's "Reggie's Prayer"), it's certainly an unforgettable effort from a guy who was never known for his on-camera chops.
Originally published Feb. 1, 2011.
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