Forty-six years ago today, arguably the greatest professional football player ever retired from the sport at the age of 29. Only a few months prior, he led his team to a second consecutive NFL championship game appearance and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for 1965. And unlike other future Hall of Famers who walked away from the game at an early age, Jim Brown wasn’t forced out because of injuries. Brown, at the time a cast member of The Dirty Dozen, left the NFL to pursue an acting career.
In my past life as an NFL Network researcher, summer was the only time during the year that there was the possibility of a slow news day… As long as Brett Favre wasn’t un-retiring.
Occasionally, we needed to get a little creative and silly in order to fill airtime on the daily show, NFL Total Access. On a couple of occasions, that meant creating an in-house game show based on “Password.” Other times, it meant that we needed to venture outside of our usual on-field football top-10 lists we frequently used to wrap the show.
For the most part, the research department would create a top-10 ranking based on timely records being set, spectacular performances, or teams and players making headlines for positive reasons. For example, if Vikings running back Adrian Peterson rushed for 250 yards in a game on Sunday, we’d come up with a list of ‘all-time single-game rushing performances’ on Monday.
I was often the go-to-guy when it came to lists, especially when they involved historical significances. (I especially enjoyed anything where I could tie-in the AAFC and early 1950s Cleveland Browns.) And as long as a producer didn’t ask me to come up with one an hour before air, I really dug researching, ranking and writing them.
It was always fun explaining, and sometimes defending, my rationale for my selections and positioning to my fellow researchers, producers and others in the newsroom. And once the arguments were decided in the newsroom, new arguments would form between on-air analysts and viewers via the web. (I think there are still fans in Oakland arguing about just who actually was ‘“the greatest Raider of all time.”)
More often than not, the lists created by the research department weren’t too heavily questioned by producers. After all, we were the dudes who reviewed the record book, watched the videos, read the transcripts and, when possible, asked outside experts. However, our authority was often challenged in the summertime.
During some of our slower days, we’d come up with “fun” lists like the top-10 football players turned actor. And unlike some of the on-field rankings, this one was fluid. Depending on which former player had a hit movie, or who was visiting us in studio, we would tweak the list. But no matter how much we changed it, we always kept the number one spot for one man.
Brown was consistently the top-ranked player-turned actor. Never mind the criteria we established, or the fact that he hadn’t done anything in a long time, the top spot was always reserved. And unlike anything stats-based, this type of list created a stir within the newsroom, even from people who never weighed in on more serious topics.
I think much of the rationale of reserving the pole position for Brown was simply that it was JIM BROWN. Much like those Chuck Norris jokes where no matter what the task or who the opponent was, Norris would come out on top, Brown had to be ranked at the top for the sake it being JIM BROWN.
And much like the creation of the NFLN lists, this one wasn’t as easy as it might come off as. But at least I didn’t need to horse trade or appease any in-studio guests. The choices are all my own and based on these criteria:
- All actors must have been on an NFL roster. There was no consideration for big-time college players like John Wayne (USC), Burt Reynolds (Florida State) or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Miami). Also, training camp players like, Brian White (New England Patriots), Dean Cain (Buffalo Bills) and Ed O’Neill (Pittsburgh Steelers) were not considered.
- Cameo appearances don’t carry much weight. Brett Favre playing “Brett Favre” in There’s Something About Mary, or many of the cast members in football flicks like The Longest Yard (both versions) and Necessary Roughness, should not be in the same discussion as the former players that successfully made second careers in TV and/or film.
Top-10 NFL Players Turned Actor
10. Alex Karras - “Mongo only a pawn in the game of life.” OK, so Webster might have been a Diff’rent Strokes ripoff, and the acting wasn’t always the best. And it probably wasn’t a stretch to play himself in Paper Lion. But Karras played one of the most memorable characters in movie history as “Mongo” in the genius and socially important movie Blazing Saddles. Between that and Porky’s, Karras had comedy covered. And his performance in Buffalo 66 showed that he could also handle drama.
9. Ed Marinaro – Ragnar remembers him as a Vikings fullback in the early ‘70s. Mrs. Ragnar remembers him for a list of Lifetime movies. Marinaro found early acting success on Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues.
8. Fred Dryer – Hunter. Fred Dryer played the iconic cop for seven seasons as well as a few TV movies. How many shows even last that long these days?
7. Bernie Casey – Casey had a nice eight-year career with the 49ers and Rams, and even earned a Pro Bowl selection. But to people of my generation, the first thing that comes to mind when seeing him is his role in Revenge of the Nerds… Bill and Ted’s high school principal is a close second.
6. Fred Williamson – “The Hammer” played most of his pro football career in the pre-merger American Football League, and made a name for himself prior to his appearance in the first Super Bowl. The man had the gift of gab… Williamson has done everything from Blaxploitation to horror to Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller comedies.
5. Merlin Olsen – The supply of leading men from the Rams to Hollywood dried up once the team moved to St. Louis. But for a while, there was a steady flow of talent. Along with other Fearsome Foursome members, Olsen became a TV icon starring in Little House on the Prairie before getting his own show, Father Murphy. It’s hard to imagine one of today’s NFL superstar defensive linemen (let alone someone who earned 14 Pro Bowl nods) starring in flower commercials without any intended irony.
4. Jim Brown – Would Jim Brown the actor have received the silver screen opportunities he had if he weren’t also Jim Brown the football legend? Probably not. He found early mainstream success with The Dirty Dozen before downshifting into Blaxploitation and TV. Perhaps his best role was in the Keenan Ivory Wayans spoof, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, along with Bernie Casey.
3. Carl Weathers – Weathers didn’t have much of an NFL career. But he’s a household name because of his role as “Apollo Creed” in the Rocky movies. He spent time along Arnold Schwarzenegger’s side in Predator before starring in the the title role of Action Jackson. And while his blockbuster film days might be behind him, Weathers continues to land work on TV.
2. Woody Strode – Strode had a nice career on the silver screen. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in the legendary movie Spartacus and has an acting resume that spans six decades. However, his bigger place in history is the fact that he was one of four African-Americans to re-integrate pro football in 1946. Strode and Kenny Washington joined the Los Angeles Rams a full year before their former UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
1. Terry Crews – Terry Crews certainly didn’t parlay his NFL notoriety into a Hollywood career. It wasn’t until he started to become a successful actor that many people realized that he even played in the league.
Crews has quickly risen from “muscle in the background” of Training Day to the family patriarch in Everybody Hates Chris to summer blockbusters (The Expendables). Of course, my favorite role of his (not including the Old Spice campaign) was as the President of America in the underrated and hilarious Idiocracy.
While his resume isn’t as long as some of the other actors on this list, Terry Crews is, in my opinion, the most talented of the bunch. His Hollywood success will only grow.
Brian Bosworth – I’m not sure why “The Boz” didn’t become the next Michael Dudikoff after Stone Cold. It seemed like all the ingredients for a C+ action movie star were there.
Ben Davidson – The recently deceased Davidson had a lot of small roles. But once you saw his kickass mustache on screen, it was just awesome.
John Matuszak – Who doesn’t love Chunk and the rest of The Goonies?
Lyle Alzado – If one crazy former Raider wasn’t enough, here’s Alzado.
Bubba Smith – It was difficult to keep him out of the top 10, but the Police Academy movies really were bad.
Dick Butkus – My Two Dads was bad. But if you could combine the efforts of Butkus and Bubba Smith, a la Blue Thunder, they’d have a place in the top 10.
Howie Long – It looked like Howie could become a real movie star in the late ‘90s. There are plenty of worse actors who regularly find work in big productions.
Terry Bradshaw – He was fun to watch in the mediocre comedy Failure to Launch opposite Kathy Bates.
O.J. Simpson – … nah.
So, did I get this right? Why or why not?