While football is. first and foremost, a sport, it is also a form of entertainment, complete with a range of personalities. So it probably should not be a big surprise that many NFL players have pursued an acting career - once their playing days have come to an end. Or sometimes even while they are still playing.
Take Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back who became a movie star by starring in the “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s. Or Merlin Olsen, who went from fierce Hall of Fame defensive lineman to starring in his own television series (Father Murphy) after being Michael Landon's sidekick on one of the most popular shows of the 1970s and early 1980s (Little House on the Prairie).
But it's not just Hall of Famers who have found success as actors. Carl Weathers is likely far more known for portraying Apollo Creed in the Rocky films than he is for his brief NFL career. Terry Crews likewise is better known for his acting career than he is for his time as a professional football player. Then there's Nnamdi Asomugha, a former All-Pro defensive back who Variety named one of a handful of breakout stars in for his performance in the film Crown Heights.
Of course not every former NFL player who has pursued an acting career has gone on to have success. More of these players will be known for doing cameos as themselves or appearing in commercials than would be considered true movie or TV stars. Still, there have been some true success stories. So, out of the following list of former NFL players, which have gone on to have the best acting careers?
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Carl Weathers has been an actor for approximately 50 years. Although he is probably best known for portraying Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, his career ranges from being an uncredited extra in “blaxploitation” films in the early 1970s - bit parts he took while still playing professional football - to his recurring role as Greef Karga in the television series The Mandalorian (2019-2022). Other notable credits include playing Dreamer Tatum in the film Semi-Tough (1977), the title role in the TV series Fortune Dane, Colonel Brewster on Tour of Duty, Chief Hampton Forbes for 28 episodes of In the Heat of the Night, and Mark Justice in both Chicago P.D. and Chicago Justice.
Weathers was a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders from 1970 to 1971, appearing in eight career games, although his first love was always acting. In 1979 he told The Washington Post that his plan had always been to “hop out of football as soon as I made some headway with acting.”
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Terry Crews made his acting debut in 1999 in the syndicated series Battle Dome. He is known for portraying Julius Rock in the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009), Nick Kingston-Parsons in Are We There Yet? (2010-2012), and Terry Jeffords on Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-2021), as well as for portraying Hate Caesar in The Expendables film series.
Prior to becoming an actor, Crews was a linebacker in the NFL, playing for the Los Angeles Rams (1991), San Diego Chargers (1993), and Washington Redskins.
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The first overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft, Bubba Smith played for the Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders, and Houston Oilers during his nine-year career. A defensive lineman, the two-time Pro Bowler won Super Bowl V as a member of the Colts.
Smith retired from the NFL following the 1976 season and soon began pursuing acting roles. Among his most notable roles are portraying Moses Hightower in the original Police Academy film and all but one of its sequels, the chauffeur to Ned Beatty's character in Stroker Ace (1983), and co-starring alongside fellow former NFL star Dick Butkus in the short-lived television series Blue Thunder (1984).
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A 14-time Pro Bowler and five time All-Pro defensive tackle who played his entire 15-year career with the Los Angeles Rams, Merlin Olsen was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
Olsen retired from the NFL after the 1976 season. He quickly transitioned to acting, joining the cast of Little House of the Prairie in 1977, portraying Jonathan Garvey, the neighbor and close friend of Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon). In a Season 7 episode, there is an inside joke about Olsen's previous career; when it's suggested that Olsen's character could coach the town's football team, his son scoffs, “My pa doesn't know anything about football!”
Olsen left Little House on the Prairie when he was tapped to star in the drama series Father Murphy. In the series, which was set in the 1870s, Olsen disguises himself as a priest in order to help some orphans who are being threatened with being sent to a workhouse.
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Considered as one of the top running backs in history, Jim Brown was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. A nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro, Brown spent his entire career with the Cleveland Browns; after leading the league in rushing in eight of his nine years in the league, he retired from football at age 29 following the 1965 season.
Brown began his acting career while he was still playing football, portraying a buffalo soldier in the 1964 western Rio Conchos. His second film role was portraying Robert Jefferson in The Dirty Dozen; delays in filming resulted in Brown missing the beginning of training camp. When the Browns' owner threatened to fine his star running back $1,500 for each week of camp missed, Brown announced his retirement from football.
The Dirty Dozen was a huge hit. MGM signed Brown to a multi-film deal, with his first starring role coming in 1968's The Split. In the 1970s Brown starred in several “blaxploitation” films such as Three the Hard Way. During the 1980s he acted mainly on television, although he was in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starrer The Running Man (1987). In 1998 he played coach Montezuma Monroe in Any Given Sunday.
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John Matuszak won two Super Bowl titles as a member of the Oakland Raiders. The defensive lineman played for the Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs during his nine-year (1973-81) NFL career. His colorful personality, hard-partying lifestyle, and on-field toughness earned “Tooz” the reputation as one of the NFL's true “bad boys.”
He was still playing for the Raiders when he got his first major acting role, portraying O.W. Shaddock, a player on the fictional pro football team the North Dallas Bulls, in North Dallas Forty (1979). Another notable role was playing the mistreated and deformed, but soft-hearted Sloth Fratelli in The Goonies.
Matuszak was only 38 years old when passed due to an accidental OD of the prescription drug Darvocet. His final film role was playing Jed Stewart in the comedy Down the Drain, which was released after his passing.