Grace smiled twice upon these lucky stars! Breaking into show business takes a lot of luck and some serious talent. For the average Joe, securing one professional career in the entertainment industry is an impossible dream. But check this out. Not only did our A-listers reach the stars to bask luxuriously in celebrity lifestyle—they scored all that, plus a brush of fortune in sports too. Making the cut on the team takes raw talent and athletic prowess.
In some of our professional actors, athletic ability is clear and present, while in others, like Jon Stewart and Uzo Aduba, you would never guess. Get ready to be impressed.
Burt Reynolds’ true love was football. (Sorry ladies). He first fell in love with the sport in high school where the hunk’s performance earned him a scholarship to Florida State. Unfortunately, a knee injury compounded by further injuries due to a car accident crushed his dreams. His heart, however, stayed with the Florida State Seminoles where he continued to hang out on sidelines and donate large sums of cash.
At one point, he bought the entire Seminoles team new, snazzier uniforms which they gratefully donned. The program adored their star athlete. But we know him best from blockbusters like Smokey and the Bandit, The Longest Yard and Deliverance. Reynolds passed last year at 82. RIP.
Here’s someone for whom fortune knocked twice. Chuck Norris, a martial arts champion, was a karate instructor for Steve McQueen before hitting the big screen. In fact, it was McQueen who talked him into a Hollywood career. Norris picked up karate in Korea while serving the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s. Point is, he does not only play a fighter on TV, but he is also an undefeated martial arts champion since 1968.
Check out this skill set: Norris holds a black belt in Tang Soo Do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Judo. That makes three black belts. Plus, he developed his own fighting method called, Chun Kuk Do. On film, those self-defense moves have venerated the man into a mythological legend. Perhaps you’ve seen him in action in Good Guys Wear Black, Code of Silence or The Delta Force?
Hollywood humbled this NFL athlete. Terry Crews said he left pro football with a cocky attitude as if the industry owed him a movie career. Instead, he found his new competition running circles around him. Other actors had been taking drama classes for years while he was blocking plays and tackling dudes. From a full ride to play football at Western Michigan University to being drafted in 1991 by the Los Angeles Rams, Crews’ life was all about football. In 1996 he flipped it to film.
He hit it big with Everybody Hates Chris and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and, latest, Brooklyn Nine-Nine on television. He’s also celebrated for his advocacy toward women and against sexism. Staying athletic, Crews trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It gives him the physique to be the body of Old Spice, “The man your man could smell like.”
As a kid, Sean Connery grew up strong in a rough district of Scotland slums. On the streets, they called him Tommy. He was a moose of a lad who made a formidable impression playing tag or soccer. Later he joined the Dunedin Weightlifting Club to impress the ladies. Mission accomplished! His weightlifting blokes were so impressed they nominated him for Mr. Universe. Connery traveled to London to compete. He scored a medal, but more than that, he was discovered by the producers of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific musical.
Already pro grade at soccer, by age 23 he was set to become a professional footballer or an actor. Spoiler alert, he chose the latter. After a handful of minor roles on British TV and film, Connery scored his big break. He landed probably the most recognized role on film. Bond. James Bond.
Phil Robertson is dead serious about duck hunting. He raked in a fortune making duck call devices he invented himself—the Duck Commander. He grew up a burly outdoorsman in the rugged backcountry of Louisiana, hunting and playing sports at school. He was a sharpshooter with a powerful arm. His quarterbacking skills earned him a football scholarship to Louisiana Tech University where he played first-string quarterback for the Bulldogs.
When the Redskins tried to draft him, he turned them down. He couldn’t rationalize getting pummeled by large aggressive dudes all year for only $60,000 (and miss duck season on top of it). It wasn’t worth it. Professional hunting became far more lucrative, especially after starring on the popular Duck Dynasty television series.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
A WWF crowd favorite, The Rock, as he was known in the pro wrestling circuit, won over audiences worldwide. As a six-foot-five, 260-pound muscleman, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was courted by Hollywood until he broke onto the silver screen with The Mummy Returns. His brawn was also featured in the long-running, super-lucrative franchise, The Fast and the Furious, yet he’s more than just muscle—he’s got the moves.
Johnson almost hit an NFL career until injuries bumped him off the University of Miami’s starting lineup, but not before winning a national championship with the Hurricanes in 1991. Now, enjoying his second professional career in show biz, he’s swimming in prosperity as the world’s top-earning movie star.
Setting out with one scholarship to play football and another for training as an operatic tenor, Forest Whitaker’s USC career led him to Berkeley where he focused on acting and stage performance. As a star quarterback in high school, an injury playing college ball cut his football hopes short. His debut into career option No. 2 had him playing a high school football star in the classic teen flick, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Needless to say, he nailed the part. One role led to another, and by 2006 Whitaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland playing dictator Idi Amin earned him the Oscar for Best Actor, making him the fourth black actor to win the prize.
Not only was Mark Harmon a star quarterback for the UCLA Bruins and, later, voted “Sexiest Man Alive,” but he graduated from the university cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in communications as a Second Team Academic All-American. Turning down an NFL career so he could use his brains instead of his brawn, his original career goals focused on advertising or law. But now we know him as Gibbs in NCIS and agent Simon Donovan in The West Wing.
His break out role as Dr. Caldwell on St. Elsewhere led to People magazine’s assessment of his manliness. His love of sports also found him part owner of minor league baseball team, the San Bernardino Spirit. Harmon is also a carpenter by hobby and worked as one prior to his acting career success.
In high school, Sheryl Crow was an all-state track athlete with medals in the 75-meter hurdles. At the University of Missouri, she dove into music with a degree in music composition and performance and played in a local band. Crow’s still an athlete. As a sports-lover, her favorite is tennis. In the music industry, she’s a world champion winning nine Grammy Awards, 32 nominations and selling 50 million albums worldwide.
She’s performed with everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Sting, from Luciano Pavarotti to B.B. King. In the 1990s she dated Eric Clapton and was nearly married to cycling pro Lance Armstrong in 2005. Crow’s radio hits, “All I Wanna Do” and “If It Makes You Happy,” dominated the airwaves. She also composed the theme song for the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.
Forever endeared in our hearts as Hermione, it makes sense Emma Watson studied at Brown University, but did you know she made the field hockey team there as well? She’s got game! The young, British actress who was born in France, having already landed the Harry Potter role at age nine, knew she would be an actress by age seven. Athletic, diligent with a fondness for literature, she excelled at hockey and rowing as a child in school.
When she auditioned for the first Harry Potter movie, she never imagined getting a lead role, let alone the worldwide fame and a ten-year commitment that would come with it, finding the 9-year-old through her teens and beginning her twenties. A charmed life, indeed.
Friends icon, Matthew Perry, is a huge sports fan. His favorite teams are the Toronto Blue Jays, the Ottawa Senators, and the New England Patriots. As a kid in Ottawa, he grew up playing tennis, becoming a top-ranked national Canadian player. That all changed when he moved to California to live with his dad. Perry told Men’s Health magazine, “I moved to Los Angeles when I was 15, and everyone in L.A. just killed me. I was pretty great in Canada. Not so much in Los Angeles. I realized I wouldn’t be playing tennis for a living, so I went for acting.”
As Chandler, he hit the Hollywood jackpot, earning one million dollars per episode! The insanely popular show ran for ten seasons. Perry starred in several other television shows and movies, but nothing compared with the massive success of Friends. In his spare time, he supports sober living by running the Perry House, a rehab he converted out of his former Malibu mansion. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Perry spent some time in rehab struggling with addiction.
Way too cool for school, Jason Lee dropped out of high school to become a professional skateboarder. Now the Huntington Beach local is a boss in three coveted professions. After Mallrats and Chasing Amy, Lee’s a famous slacker actor who is known worldwide as Earl in My Name is Earl. His success in TV and film and shredding professionally apparently wasn’t enough. Lee took on photography as a passion and a profession—his book sold out, pre-production.
As Earl, he’s been nominated twice for Best Actor. And, he’s the co-founder of a skateboard company heavy in merch appeal. In his day, Lee’s street tricks, like kinked rails, varial kickflips and 360-flipping over any available surface were nothing short of phenomenal.
Before Jason Statham played the bad guy in a string of action flicks, he was one of the world’s top high divers competing in the British National Diving squad for 12 years. He did some male modeling to make ends meet. And then he ran into Guy Ritchie. Fortune struck. When Ritchie met Statham, he was inspired to write the role that launched the career of the strapping Brit to the stars—Bacon, in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Statham maintains his strength training in martial arts.
His athleticism allows him to perform many of his own stunts. One practically killed him. While filming Expendables 3, the brakes on the truck he was driving failed. He plunged into the Black Sea and nearly drowned.
He’s a martial arts champion with a master’s degree in chemical engineering. On top of that, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to MIT. On the way to MIT Dolph Lundgren was sidetracked into an acting career starring as arch-enemy Ivan Drago in the Rocky franchise. Lundgren was a Masters of the Universe and Universal Soldier action movie star too.
Fortune knocked quite a few times for this Swede. As an action film star, he performed his own stunts, obviously. Besides training in martial arts, he’s also a bodybuilder. Filming Rocky IV, when Sylvester Stallone told Lundgren to keep it real in the ring, Lundgren delivered a chest punch that laid Stallone up in the intensive care unit for four days with “all these nuns around,” according to the Rocky legend.
In real life, Ed O’Neill’s football glory days were played on the college fields of Youngstown and Ohio University as a burly defensive lineman who got there on a scholarship. At his peak, the gifted athlete was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. When he was cut at training camp, O’Neill went for acting instead. On Married with Children he was Al Bundy, the uproarious shoe salesman who, from his permanent position on the couch, bemoaned his glory days as a high school football star while his bimbo wife, Peg, never missed a chance to emasculate him with biting wit.
He bit back. O’Neill hit it big again as a different kind of dad with Modern Family for which he has been nominated for three Emmys. As an athlete, he stays in shape playing handball and practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He earned his black belt in 2007.
Here’s another action movie star who keeps it real on the big screen. To this end, Gina Carano has pioneered women’s martial arts setting championship records. She competed in the male-dominated Strikeforce and EliteXC tournaments becoming the third-best female fighter in the world. In 2009 she fought Cris Cyborg at Strikeforce, the first time two women headlined a major MMA event.
Carano received the first female Chuck Norris Award for Best Action Star in Haywire for bringing those moves to film. On Deadpool, she marveled fans. She’s been named “Hottest Woman in the World” by several publications. She drives her car like an action hero too. Racing down the freeway at 126 m.p.h., the cop did not agree with her that it’s not reckless driving if you’re a really good driver who is in control of the vehicle.
Joel McHale made the University of Washington football team after playing just one year of high school football. He walked-on the Huskies in 1992 by exaggerating, well, lying to the coach about his high school experience. He spent all his time getting pummeled at practice and never seeing a second of game time. He quit after warming the bench for the Huskies for two seasons. As a player, McHale was most valuable for his locker room performances on “skit night.”
Now the Rome-born, stand-up comedian and actor with a master’s degree in acting, entertains everyone hosting The Soup on E! and starring in the popular sitcom Community. He’s a huge Seahawks fan and was thrilled to host the stand-up’s dream gig, The White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2014.
Tom Selleck would rather not be known as the sex symbol of a generation, yet the sex symbol appeared on the cover of Playgirl magazine four times. Driving a red-hot Italian sports car as a private detective on Magnum P.I. created this appeal, but not before he won a scholarship to USC to play basketball. There, the show biz bug bit hard and Selleck quit the Trojans to study acting at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
After some modeling, some small television parts and a few commercials, he scored the lead role as Thomas Magnum. His film career surpassed his basketball career by a long shot, but he still loves athletics and is an imposing beach volleyball player. He’s also serious about ice hockey and baseball. At one point, he part-owned his favorite baseball team, the Detroit Tigers.
Joe Rogan is an MMA expert. At 15 he went competitive in taekwondo and kickboxing. At 19 he won his first U.S. Open grand championship. He dropped out of competition in 1989 concerned about head injuries. Stand-up seemed safer. Rogan kicked off his stand-up career after friends persuaded him to profit from his talent.
Soon after, he landed himself as host of Fear Factor. His stand-up took a hiatus until he dove back into headlining shows in the late 2000s. His podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, became such an outrageous sensation that Sirius Radio picked it up in 2011. It’s open mic with guests featuring his unrestrained views.
At Princeton and Yale, David Duchovny honed his literary skills procuring some acclaim as a poet until he left doctoral studies behind to act fulltime. After two years of small parts, Duchovny landed the DEA role on Twin Peaks which led to his immense popularity in the 1990s with The X-Files. (And, again, more recently as the extra-ordinary series was rediscovered by the younger gens).
As Agent Mulder, he and Scully chase paranormal phenomena and crack conspiracy theories. But, honestly, if he didn’t make it as an actor, his next choice would have been professional basketball or baseball. At Princeton, he played shooting guard for the varsity basketball team and he manned centerfield for the JV baseball team.
For a whole 45 minutes, Uzo Aduba almost quit acting and settled for the law profession. Next, she got the call back from Orange is the New Black. Needless to say, it was her lucky break. Her talent sparkled so brightly with the part-complicated, part-deranged role, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, that Aduba picked up two Emmys and two SAGs for the comedy/drama series.
All that may not have happened if she hadn’t earned a track scholarship to Boston University where she studied theatre and opera while setting records on the track field. At BU she still holds a sprinting record. She ran the 100- and 200-meter sprints.
At first glance, this adorable face donning cheeks that simply beg to be pinched by doting Italian grandmas does not betray its boxing moniker, “Dangerous” Tony Danza. To wit, he was a scrapper! Starting out fighting on the streets of Brooklyn, Danza got a hold of some gloves and went pro. Out of 15 fights, “Tough” Tony won 12, each by knockout. Nevermind that he lost the remainder by knockout.
On the side, he graduated from the University of Dubuque in Iowa on a wrestling scholarship and then became an actor. Playing cab driver and boxer Tony Banta on the TV classic Taxi, Danza continued to dream of being a boxing world champ. Instead, his lovable persona on Who’s the Boss? earned him even more adoring, “awws” from fans.
It comes as no surprise that Kurt Russell, a well-known Hollywood fixture, was voted “Best Looking” at Thousand Oaks High School by the Class of 1969. And we know he’s constant lover and companion to movie star knock-out Goldie Hawn. You also probably know that Russell has a knack for starring as the hero in cult-favorite films. But did you know this strapping gent played second base in Major League Baseball?
Russell was a switch-hitter on the Class A minor league team for the California Angels in 1971. He moved up to Class AA in 1973, but a torn rotator cuff caused by colliding with an incoming base runner rerouted his fate to acting.
Denzel Washington’s one-on-one performance playing hoops in the 1998 film He Got Game is sheer talent, no acting necessary. Washington performs all his stunts. He trained with Terry Claybon for a year for his role as boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Today he’s paying it forward as the spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Club of America.
As a kid, it was on those same playgrounds where he learned to handle the basketball. Washington played guard on the Fordham University JV team in the Bronx for two seasons. And, according to Coach Carlesimo, he was a “legit” player. The team went 18-1 in 1974. Since then, he became the first black actor, after Sidney Poitier, to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (Training Day). He followed that up with another for Best Supporting Actor (Glory). He set a separate record by receiving the most Academy Award nominations of any black actor. Nine, to date.
Tommy Lee Jones
At Harvard, where Tommy Lee Jones roomed with Al Gore and graduated cum laude in 1969, he played varsity football as well. As an all-league offensive guard, he participated in the Harvard vs. Yale game known as “The Tie,” the most famous game in Ivy League history. That season, his Crimson team was undefeated.
He also appeared in undergrad theater productions. Students would find him in the sports locker room suiting up in costume for rehearsal! Acting won out. Now we know him as the big screen’s baddest tough guy in films like MIB and The Fugitive.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan jokes about being fat, lazy and an incompetent dad. (He does kind of have that former-football-player physique.) Gaffigan also digs up some hysterical observations about his five kids and his wife. After a dare from a friend, he became a stand-up. As one of the only comedians to sell out Madison Square Garden, he scored big. On TV, he appeared on That ‘70s Show, Ed and Sex and the City. Plus, he was a cast member on The Ellen Show.
Now he has his own: The Jim Gaffigan Show. There was nothing funny about his Georgetown presence. As an offensive guard and tackle for the Hoyas football team, he clobbered plenty of opponents. He also walked onto the Big Ten Purdue team and played a year on the Boilermakers.
This guy is pretty hardcore. As a footballer for several teams in the English Football League, he won the 1988 Cup Final with Wimbledon where he played six years and scored 14 goals as a feisty midfielder. His scrapping style of play was infamously captured when he was caught on camera grabbing the gonads of Newcastle United’s Paul Gascoigne.
After retiring from the sport, Jones dove into an acting career on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels playing the gnarly mobster, Big Chris. He played Bullet-Tooth Tony in Snatch, Sphinx in Gone in 60 Seconds and a merciless henchman in Swordfish. Jones is barred from Virgin Airlines for instigating an inflight scuffle, so don’t mess with him.
Carl Weathers played pro football for the NFL Oakland Raiders, but not before rushing yard for the Aztecs at San Diego State University. In college, he majored in theater. He had one eye on the football and the other eye on Hollywood, as he has said. Acting won out.
He scored big with the Apollo Creed role on the epic Rocky film franchise. He always dreamed of being an actor while admiring Sidney Poitier films as a youngster. His dream definitely came true. He starred in numerous television and film roles and in Rocky until Creed’s death in Rocky IV.
He’s the Incredible Hulk, but where did he get that bulk? Pumping Iron, a documentary starring Lou Ferrigno captured him at six-foot-five, 285 pounds, the biggest professional bodybuilder in the world. Ferrigno also held the Mr. Universe crown and was playing professional football for a Canadian team at the time. In that film, the producers of The Incredible Hulk TV show found their perfect lead.
Today, at 67, you can find him on Twitter. His tagline says, “I’m not just The Incredible Hulk or Mr. Universe. I’m also a husband, a father and a pug lover.” We remember him best with ripping green muscles tearing through shirts.
Just call him “Dr. Dunk.” Jason Segel’s moves on the basketball court earned him that nickname, but he’s best known for his part on How I Met Your Mother. He’s also a screenwriter, author and musician. His tall and gangly physique made him a formidable force playing on the back-to-back California state championship team at Harvard-Westlake high school. At six-foot-four he led the team to the CIF state championships and won the school’s slam dunk contest.
But movies and acting were his thing. His tall stature and charming nature got him lined up with Judd Apatow’s high school drama Freaks and Geeks. At 18 he landed that first role as stoner Nick Andopolis. The quirky-hilarious part kicked off his acting career in movies like Slackers and I love You, Man. Not only that, he voiced Vector in Despicable Me and co-wrote and produced The Muppets. He wrote a children’s book as well. Random fact: Segel is an ordained minister. The online application took about two minutes. He’s also half Jewish with a Bar Mitzvah under his belt.
Mahershala Ali, short for Mahershalalhashbaz Ali Gilmore, played basketball before he played Remy. At St. Mary’s College he was an imposing six-foot-three Division I basketball guard. Now he’s the first black actor and the first Muslim man to win two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. He won the first for his role as Juan in Moonlight and his second as Don Shirley in Green Book. Quite a feat! Both of the films won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In college, Ali found himself drawn more toward Shakespearean theatre than his basketball court performances. Born and raised a sports kid, Ali became disheartened with the culture of team life at the college level. His teammates were treated like cogs, he was threatened with being shipped to the University of Denver, and nothing mattered but wins and productivity. Added to that, Ali’s father died his junior year. The sad event routed him even more into a creative career.
Channing Tatum made his way into the entertainment industry as a male stripper at an exotic dance club. But, how do you think he got that great body? The fact is, he’s an incredible athlete who played college football on a scholarship, excelled at all sports in high school and trained in martial arts. Exotic dancing turned into a modeling career with Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap and Nautica all clamoring for his chiseled bod.
A fortuitous spot on Ricky Martin’s music video, “She Bangs” earned him four hundred bucks and a big break into film acting. We all know him in 21 Jump Street, Coach Carter, Step Up and She’s The Man. Just as his stint as an exotic dancer prepared him for Magic Mike, his martial arts and tough tackling skills cued him for action roles. By 2012, Channing became the “sexiest man alive,” according to People magazine.
At his hometown college, North Dakota’s Minot State University, Josh Duhamel played quarterback for the Beavers while dreaming of an NFL career. He loved playing football but settled for acting. The truth is, after realizing he wasn’t good enough for the pros, he considered dentistry, but luckily, as fate would have it, he landed a modeling career that led to his Hollywood breakout in TV and film.
Transformers just would not have been the same without drop-dead, gorgeous knockout Duhamel. He’s taken! Duhamel married the love of his life, Black Eyed Peas popstar Stacy Ferguson.
Jon Stuart Leibowitz (just call him “Leibo”) was a William & Mary men’s soccer walk-on. With high expectations for varsity placement as an all-state player straight out of high school in 1980, the coach promptly rerouted Jon Stewart to the JV team. Coveting the varsity team’s “NCAA Regional Champs” hoodies, Stewart added this reminiscence to his former coach’s book, “I wanted only one thing at that point in life: to earn one of those damned sweatshirts . . . and to lose my virginity . . . but I assume that is for the foreword of a very different book.”
He played hard and won a spot on the varsity team as a tenacious wing. “Leibo” became a team star for his feisty athleticism on the field and for his rousing locker room pep talks off the field. A year before Stewart’s Daily Show launched, the William & Mary soccer program commemorated his contribution by creating the annual “Leibo Award.”
This southern boy did everything right. In the South, it's football, God and country music, in that order. (Government is filed under God.) Sam Hunt starred as a quarterback phenom in high school and then played college ball, throwing the pigskin for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But it was in his dorm room, strumming a guitar, where the Georgia-born country stud spent his free time.
On summer break, he picked up his buddy’s new instrument, plucked a few strings, and decided he had to have one of his own. The next thing he knew, he was writing songs. His friends suggested he play his tunes at local bars. He became a college-scene sensation with a hot debut album called Montevallo. The album broke chart records as well as outsold the legendary Clint Black.