While being a professional athlete is its own breed of celebrity, there’s been a fair number of football players who set their sites on the big or small screen after they retired from life on the gridiron. One of the first to bridge the gap between these worlds was Cleveland Browns halfback Jim Brown. After making his film debut as a Buffalo Soldier in the western Rio Conchos, Brown ended up with a fairly prolific resume in both film and TV while avoiding the typical athlete-turned-actor pitfall of playing fictionalized versions of themselves.
In honor of the legendary athlete-turned-actor’s 80th birthday this week, here’s a look at how his career as a thespian stacks up against some other former NFLers who got bit by the acting bug.
15 – O.J. Simpson
Simpson began working as an actor during his football career with parts in the universally acclaimed network miniseries Roots, and in The Towering Inferno. As an actor, he’s probably best remembered as the hapless Detective Nordberg in the Naked Gun trilogy of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As a person, the convicted robber and alleged double murderer is probably best not remembered at all.
14 – Howie Long
Having earned a bust in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame after playing for the Raiders for 13 seasons, Long retired in 1993 and set his sights on action movie stardom. After playing himself in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210, he’d go on to co-star in a handful of action romps like Broken Arrow and 3000 Miles to Graceland, often displaying the same level of acting range as that bust. Long’s most memorable role was as firefighter Jesse Graves, a man who has to punch a forest fire in the face to rescue an ornithologist in the 1998 action film Firestorm.
13 – Bill Goldberg
For Bill Goldberg, a brief career in the NFL in the early ’90s eventually led him to a role as a popular WWE wrestler named, simply, “Goldberg.” While wrestling for WCW earlier in his career, he started doing voicework for Looney Tunes and Family Guy, as well as some live action roles in network dramas like Law & Order: SVU and Desperate Housewives. Of course, most know him as a murderous St. Nick in the low-budget horror film Santa’s Slay.
12 – John Matuszak
The former defensive end will be forever associated with playing the deformed and neglected Fratelli brother, Sloth, in 1985’s Goonies, though he was in some other notable films, including Ice Pirates and Caveman. Unfortunately, Matuszak passed in 1989.
11 – Bob Golic
After 14 seasons in the NFL, defensive tackle Bob Golic finished his last season with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1992. The following year, he landed a bit part on TV’s Coach opposite Craig T. Nelson, as well as a recurring role as dorm adviser Mike Rodgers in Saved By the Bell: The College Years where he served as a kind of lovable big brother type. He’d reprise the character in the TV movie offshoot Saved By the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas. Golic retired from acting not long after, did some talk radio, and most recently served as a VP of Football Operations for the Toledo Crush of the Lingerie Football League/Legends Football League, though the team suspended operation in 2015, so it’s unclear if he’s still with the organization.
10 – Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers over the course of his 14-year career and went on to work as an analyst for Fox NFL Sunday for more than two decades. While he’s played himself (or a version of it) in a number of projects, including The Sinbad Show and FX’s fantasy football comedy The League, he’s done some actual acting, landing parts in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill, and most notably, Failure to Launch, wherein he played Matthew McConaughey’s occasionally bare-assed father.
9 – Brian Bosworth
Brian ‘The Boz’ Bosworth made a number of headlines with his mouth during his three-year NFL career, proving himself to be a bust and the ultimate style over substance player despite his electric college career. After retiring from the Seahawks in 1989 due to a shoulder injury, Bosworth starred in the low-budget action vehicle Stone Cold. Since then, he’s appeared in a number of direct-to-video/DVD action romps that allowed him to bring his swagger out to play. He’s also had bit parts in Adam Sandler’s remake of The Longest Yard and the Gulf War heist movie Three Kings.
8 – Bubba Smith
A seemingly gentle giant who could freeze you cold with a stare, Bubba Smith will forever be known as Moses Hightower in the long-running Police Academy series, even reprising his character on the small screen for the TV adaptation in 1998. Other career highlights include a co-starring role beside Burt Reynolds in the 1983 NASCAR comedy Stroker Ace, a memorable appearance as Al Bundy’s high school football rival in Married with Children, and several other supporting roles throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. Sadly, Smith passed away in 2011.
7 – Fred Williamson
Leaving the NFL in 1967, only to retire a year later after a stint in the Canadian Football League, Williamson became synonymous with the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, co-starring in a few with fellow pro football player Jim Brown. He was able to turn that into a career resurgence 20 years later, thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez casting him as Frost in From Dusk Till Dawn back in 1996. As a lantern-jawed exploitation mainstay, Williamson remains focused on low-budget action/horror movies, and his career is as strong as ever, with close to a dozen projects currently in production.
6 – Carl Weathers
Retiring from the NFL after only four years, Weathers decided to work toward attaining his goal of becoming a professional actor. Like Jim Brown, he worked regularly on some of the biggest TV shows of the era, from Good Times to Kung Fu before landing his big break as Apollo Creed opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, where Weathers’ confidence and natural star power proved a perfect contrast to Stallone’s more quiet street brawler character. He’d continue to play Creed in the next three sequels, as well as his beloved role as Dillon in the original, yet soon-to-be rebooted, version of Predator. Though he’s probably best known for the sense of humor he brought when playing a fictionalized version of himself as Tobias’ acting/life coach in Arrested Development.
5 – Fred Dryer
The 6-foot-6 former defensive end used his physically imposing stature to carve out a career in action movies with a successful run on the small screen as the titular police sergeant (and later lieutenant) in Hunter. Prior to that, he had recurring role on Cheers, and scored some comic book credibility by playing HYDRA leader Octavian Bloom in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last year.
4 – Frank McRae
While he only played six games in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1967, McRae became something of a Hollywood “that guy.” He bounced around between small roles in forgettable movies at first, eventually nabbing guest spots on then-TV staples The Rockford Files and Wonder Woman. He’d make his mark on Hollywood when he basically created the trope of the irate police captain in the blockbuster hit 48 Hours, as well as its sequel, before later being the one to parody it in the meta-action/comedy The Last Action Hero.
3 – Alex Karras
Karras earns a spot on this list for his portrayal of the sometimes dim/sometimes philosophical physical force of nature, Mongo, in 1974’s Blazing Saddles, but he moves way up the list for his gentle nature as George Papadapolis in the classic ’80s sitcom Webster. Unfortunately, Karras passed away in 2012.
2 – Jim Brown
Often called one of the game’s all-time greatest players, Jim Brown started acting back when he was still donning his Cleveland Brown uniform in 1964. He’d hit the big time when he co-starred in the gritty wartime classic The Dirty Dozen, and later co-starred as the flamethrower-wielding Fireball in The Running Man, and as a boxing champ turned martian buster in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! playing both roles with stone cold seriousness. Brown also nailed the role of an intense, foul-mouthed coach beside Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, rattling off the ultimate tough-guy line, “I don’t get strokes, motherf*cker. I give ’em!”
1 – Terry Crews
After only playing 32 games across his career in the NFL, Crews retired in 1997, landing his first acting role two years later in the pilot episode of Battle Dome. He’d tread water with smaller roles in movies like Training Day and Soul Plane before winning our collective hearts as President Camacho in Mike Judge’s comedy-turned documentary Idiocracy. Since then, he’s shown up in everything from Everybody Hates Chris to the first three (and possibly fourth) Expendables movies. These days, he can be found playing Sgt. Terry Jeffords in the Fox comedy hit Brooklyn Nine Nine, and while he’s proven that he can walk the line between action and comedy, this peck-popping internet treasure may forever be thought of as the wild-eyed spokesman from those increasingly bizarre and magical Old Spice commercials.