Most athletes experience short careers. Injuries, age, and erosion of skills often knock them out of the game while they’re still young.
One of the most difficult transitions athletes have to make in their post-playing days is leaving the “big stage.” But some never do, they simply move from the sporting arena for theater, television and/or film. Here are our dozen favorite athletes-turned-actors.
As a defensive tackle at the University of Miami, Dwayne Johnson helped the Hurricanes win the 1991 national championship. After going undrafted, he tried out for the CFL Calgary Stampeders and was cut. Johnson then tried his hand at WWE wrestling, where he became a star known as The Rock. Johnson launched his acting career in 1999, and has appeared in dozens of films, including the Fast and Furious franchise, Tooth Fairy and Moana.
Carl Weathers started as a defensive end at Long Beach City College, then played for Don Coryell at San Diego State. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Oakland Raiders, where he played linebacker in eight games over two seasons. After being released by the Raiders in 1971, Weathers played three seasons with the CFL British Columbia Lions. Two years after retiring, he appeared as Apollo Creed in Rocky, then had roles in three more films in that series. Weathers’ best work came as Chubbs Peterson in the 1996 comedy Happy Gilmore.
Sean Connery starting bodybuilding at 18 and entered Mr. Universe competitions in the early 1950s. A keen footballer, Connery was offered a contract with Manchester United but turned it down to pursue a career in acting. The Great Scot was the original [and best] James Bond and has appeared in more than 70 films. The 1987 Academy Award winner has also copped two BAFTA Awards to go with three Golden Globes.
Esther Williams won three national swim titles but never made it to the Olympics due to the outbreak of World War II. She appeared in a series of films known as “aquamusicals” and was best known for her performance in Million Dollar Mermaid, which became her nickname while at MGM.
As a popular child actor, Kurt Russell was Disney Studio’s top star in the 1970s. He then pursued his baseball dream, playing for the Padres and Angels minor league organizations before a torn rotator cuff sent him back to acting. Russell also played for the Portland Mavericks, a minor league team his father owned that was featured in the 2014 documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball.
An All-State running back in high school, Burt Reynolds accepted a scholarship to Florida State, where he roomed with future Indiana University football coach and current ESPN buffoon, Lee Corso. A knee injury suffered his sophomore season derailed Reynolds’ career before it got on track. He turned to acting, appearing in Gunsmoke, Deliverance, Cannonball Run and the Smokey and the Bandit series. Reynold’s best performance came as Dick Horner in Boogie Nights.
Chuck Connors is one of only 13 athletes to have played in both MLB [Chicago Cubs, 1951] and the NBA [Boston Celtics, 1947-48]. Connors went on to appear in 168 episodes of The Rifleman, where he played Lucas McCain.
The youngest son of Old 98 — former Michigan standout and 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon — Mark Harmon played quarterback at UCLA for two seasons, going 17-5 in his 22 games. In 1972, the blond signal-caller engineered an upset over two-time defending national champion Nebraska. Harmon had roles in St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope but is perhaps best known for his work on NCIS.
Jason Statham was a top diver, competing in the 1999 Commonwealth Games and 1992 World Championships. Before landing roles in Snatch, Fast and Furious and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, this International Sports Hall of Famer just missed making Great Britain’s diving team for three Olympics.
Tommy Lee Jones, who celebrates his 73rd birthday this Sunday, was an All-Ivy League guard for Harvard’s undefeated team in 1968. He played in the most famous game in Ivy history, when Harvard scored 16 fourth-quarter points to tie Yale in November 1968. Jones has serious acting chops, having won an Oscar for his work in The Fugitive. He has also appeared in Men in Black, Lonesome Dove, JFK and No Country for Old Men.
After leading Ursuline High School to an Ohio high school football championship, Ed O’Neill earned a scholarship to Ohio University. He transferred to Youngstown State, where he was a defensive lineman. Following an unsuccessful tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers, O’Neill enrolled in acting school. He landed roles as Al Bundy in Married With Children and Jay Pritchett in Modern Family, but O’Neill’s best work may have come as Kevin O’Shea in the 1994 classic Little Giants.
Before he became governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a seven-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilding champion. He went on to become an action superstar, appearing in Predator, True Lies, Total Recall and the Terminator series.