You are here

20 Famous Actors ​Who​ Started Out as Athletes

These famous faces all had some major talent back in the day.
20 Famous Actors ​Who​ Started Out as Athletes

Celebrities, actors, musicians, artists—their goal is to entertain the masses. 

Sports are about giving people a show too, and perhaps that is why so many celebrities started off their careers in the sporting world before making it in the entertainment industry. 

11 Sports Stars Who Went From Fat to Fit >>>

Many celebrities began their careers as sports stars before transitioning into acting or music, and those  experiences may have been key in gaining success later in life. Some stars found their way after after suffering injuries while playing sports, while others had it on their minds the entire time.

The 15 Greatest Underdog Sports Stories of All Time >>>

Some played professionally, some in college, some just in high school, but one thing they all have in common is that they were pretty damn good at whatever they played. 

Here is a look at the top celebrities that were sports stars:

Before Johnson made his name as the hardest working man in Hollywood, he was crushing people on the gridiron for the Miami Hurricanes. Johnson played on the defensive line and was part of the 1991 squad that won the national title—a team that also included future Pro Football Hall of Fame player Warren Sapp.

While Johnson did not get drafted into the NFL—an injury kept that from happening—he spent some time with the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. Johnson leveraged that experience in his HBO series Ballers, in which he portrays a star NFL player transitioning into a financial management career.

Of course, football wasn't Johnson's only sport. As "The Rock," he became one of WWE's greatest stars, and leveraged that charisma to launch himself into to superstardom.

Schwarzenegger made his name as one of the greatest bodybuilders and fitness athletes of all time before he turned his focus (and his famous physique) toward acting. The future “Governator” won numerous bodybuilding titles over the course of his career, including a Mr. Universe title when he was just 20. Schwarzenegger also won seven Mr. Olympia titles before starring in films like Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, and Total Recall. As if conquering Hollywood and the bodybuilding worlds wasn't enough, Schwarzenegger went on to become the governor of California, serving from 2003 to 2011.

Reynolds became one of the biggest movie stars in the world during the course of his film career, but things could have been very different if he'd stuck with his first passion: football. The Smokey and the Bandit star was First Team All-State at Palm Beach high school and went on to play running back at Florida State—where he was roommates with future college football broadcaster Lee Corso.

Reynolds was injured during his freshman year and later was in a car accident that re-aggravated his injury, ending any chance at a football future. Reynolds finished his time with the Seminoles with just 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns, but his movie star success earned him a spot in the Florida State Hall of Fame. The master of the moustache later got the chance to mix his passions together while starring in the original The Longest Yard.

Statham has made his bones in Hollywood as one of the toughest, most badass movie stars around. But before he was cracking skulls, the star of the Transporter series competed as a member of Britain's National Diving Squad. Statham also competed in the 1990 Commonwealth Games for England before moving into an acting career.

McHale was recruited to the University of Washington to be part of the rowing team, but the funnyman ended up in a different sport for the Huskies—football. McHale walked on as a tight end for the team and played two seasons, although he never actually made it into a game. McHale even left with a Rose Bowl ring after Washington defeated Michigan in the 1992 game. 

The former host of The Soup made a good impression on his teammates during his time with the Huskies, including on tight end Ernie Conwell, who said McHale “came and worked hard. He wasn’t great, but he had everything he needed: desire and want-to. He was tough, he could catch the ball and he wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line.”

Austin made his name as one of the top wrestlers in the WWE, but before that he was just another kid from Texas looking to play football. Austin went to the University of North Texas on a football scholarship, playing for the Mean Green before moving into the wrestling world. Austin brought the “Stone Cold stunner” to the masses during his time in the WWE while building a major rivalry with The Rock and later starred in films like The Expendables and The Longest Yard.

Harmon has football in his roots—his father was Heisman Trophy winning-football player Tom Harmon—so it’s not much of a surprise that the younger Harmon also took a liking to football. Before he went on to star in the show NCIS, Harmon played quarterback for the UCLA Bruins for two years, putting together a 17–5 record while under center.

Before Whitaker became an Academy Award-winning actor, he went to California State Polytechnic University on a football scholarship. Whitaker played quarterback in high school, but an injury in college ended his football pursuits and pushed him towards acting. Whitaker’s debut film role combined football and his new profession—he portrayed a fearsome defensive lineman in the classic comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Duhamel played quarterback at Division II Minot State before making his name as an actor in films like When in Rome, Win A Date With Tad Hamilton, Safe Haven, and the Transformers movie series. Duhamel played for the Beavers for two years, putting up 1,242 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 21 games.

Before Crews became a scene-stealing actor in projects like Friday After Next, The Expendables series, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it looked like he would have a promising career in football. Crews played defensive end at Western Michigan University, where he helped the Broncos win a conference title before being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1991. The 6’2”, 245-pound lineman appeared in 32 games in the NFL while playing for the Rams, Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers, and Philadelphia Eagles. Crews also spent some time with the Rhein Fire in the World League of American Football before moving into acting.

Cain—best known for his portrayal of Superman on the television series Lois & Clark—was a real-life hero for the Princeton football team during his time in college. As a defender, Cain set an FCS record with 12 interceptions (since broken) during the 1987 season, and was teammates with future NFL head coach Jason Garrett. After college, Cain signed with the Buffalo Bills, but an injury in training camp ended any chance of a future in football.

Jones’ tough-guy persona—showcased in Guy Ritchie classics like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels—wasn't just an act. Before moving into a film career, the English actor was a hard-charging soccer player for nearly a decade, playing for the likes of Chelsea, Leeds United, Sheffield United, and Queens Park Rangers. He's mostly known for his time with Wimbledon, though: Jones appeared in over 200 games for the club and was part of the “Crazy Gang” era, which included a 1988 FA Cup title and some of the most brash, physical play that anyone had ever seen in England.

O’Neill has had a long and successful career in television with roles on Married … with Children and Modern Family, but before all that, O’Neill was a football star in Ohio. The future Al Bundy played at Youngstown State University as a defensive lineman and he got a chance to make the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, but was cut in training camp. O’Neill later got the chance to mix some football and acting in the classic sports film Little Giants.

Reagan had quite the connection with sports before becoming the 40th President of the United States—he played football at Eureka College and also served as a Chicago Cubs announcer in Iowa. Reagan’s connection to sports actually got him into acting. While working as a Cubs announcer, Reagan travelled with the team to California and ended up screen testing for a film, which later led to a major contract with a movie studio.

All that football came in handy later on when Reagan portrayed George “The Gipper” Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American, a knickname that followed him throughout his career in Hollywood, the California governor's office, and the White House.

At 6'4", Segel has the height for a basketball player—and he was one back in high school, when he played for Harvard-Westlake  in Los Angeles. The How I Met Your Mother star had some notable teammates there in future NBA players Jaron and Jason Collins, who helped lead the team to a state championship in California. The Collins brothers both ended up in the pros, while Segel ended up starring in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked UpThe Muppets, and The Five-Year Engagement.

Goodman earned a football scholarship to Southwest Missouri State University—now known as Missouri State—but an injury sidetracked plans for the future silver-screen comedian. Goodman turned to acting after getting injured, and ended up studying alongside Kathleen Turner before graduating. He's been a stalwart in Coen Brothers films over the years, including The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Barton Fink

Jones attended Harvard University and played on the offensive line for the Crimson football team before making his name as an Academy Award-winning actor. During his time at Harvard, Jones was roommates with future Vice President Al Gore and earned All-Ivy League team honors for the 1968 season. The future star of No Country for Old Men, The Fugitive, and Men in Black also played in one of the most famous college football games in history—the classic "Harvard Beats Yale, 29–29" Game.

Back when he was still going under the name Jon Leibowitz, the former Daily Show host played on the William & Mary men's soccer team. Stewart came to the team as a walk-on and he eventually became a starter as a senior. The future funnyman helped the team make it into the the NCAA tournament.

Stewart made an impression on his coach Al Albert, who called him “athletic and feisty and quick”in an interview with ESPN. Stewart’s impact lasted long after he left—the team named an award after him called the "Leibo Award,” which is “given to the men's soccer player with the most positive influence on the team's attitude.” Nice work, Jon.

Weathers is best known for his parts as Apollo Creed in the Rocky film series, but that’s not his only connection to sports. Weathers was a real-life athlete before he moved into acting, playing linebacker at San Diego State and appearing in eight games for the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s. Weathers—who also starred in Predator and Happy Gilmore—also spent some time in the Canadian Football League with the BC Lions before putting on the boxing gloves and taking on Rocky Balboa.

Before Fox found himself Lost on a mysterious island, the actor played football for Columbia as a wide receiver. The Lions were not very good at the time—the team went 0-9 in 1984 and had a 35-game losing streak while Fox was there—but he hung around and played for four years despite the streak (which eventually stretched to 44 games). Fox played against Dean Cain, another future actor, when Cain starred as a safety at Princeton.


Want more Men's Fitness?

Sign Up for our newsletters now.