Tony Gonzalez, arguably one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history, makes his big screen debut in xXx: Return of Xander Cage as Paul Donovan, one in a group of thrill-seeking cohorts assembled by Xander (Vin Diesel). Gonzo is just the latest pro football player to catch the acting bug. Here is a look at the NFL’s players turned actors who have gone beyond merely playing themselves on screen.
NFL Players Turned Actors
A shoe-in for the Hall of Fame in 2019, tight end Tony Gonzalez’s athleticism and production were unparalleled in the NFL. After several appearances on NCIS as Special Agent Tony Francis, Gonzo makes his big screen debut in xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) as one of Vin Diesel’s recruits.
Although he was a member of the 1960s All-Decade NFL Team, Alex Karras is far better known as Emmanuel Lewis’s adoptive father on the 1980s sitcom Webster. Shockingly, he didn’t even showcase his full range in Webster. Karras was considered for the role of Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather, and appeared in both Blazing Saddles (1974) and Victor Victoria (1982).
He announced his retirement after Browns’ owner, Art Modell, insisted that he report to training camp instead of finishing work on the film, The Dirty Dozen (1967). The Hall of Famer played memorable roles in Slaughter (1972), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Any Given Sunday (1999). He has shared the screen with Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson.
Before his various legal issues, O.J. Simpson was the best known NFL player to successfully transition to Hollywood. Besides portraying the stumbling Officer Nordberg in all three Naked Gun movies, Simpson also appeared in Roots (1977), Capricorn One (1977), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), The Klansman (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974) .
A Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams, Merlin Olsen was a star on the gridiron during the 1960s and 1970s. After his retirement, he proved he was also a star off it. Olsen played Jonathan Garvey on the hit-series Little House on the Prairie, portraying the farmer from 1977-81. Among his memorable lines: “I don’t know nothin’ `bout football.”
Nicknamed “The Hammer” during his career with the Steelers, Raiders and Chiefs, Williamson was known for his flashy, hard-hitting style. It only makes sense then, that he’d transition to Hollywood after retirement, starring in the original M*A*S*H as well as Black Caesar (1973), 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1983). He also had notable supporting roles in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Starsky & Hutch (2004).
Former linebacker Terry Crews, who had a brief career playing for the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins, has had far more success in Hollywood. While Crews has appeared in countless films, his most prominent roles have been in sitcoms, including Everybody Hates Chris and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
The injury-riddled Carl Weathers had a brief professional football career, playing for the Raiders in 1970-71 and the CFL’s BC Lions until 1973. He then turned to acting, where he achieved considerably longer success. Some of his well-known roles include Dillon in Predator (1987), Chubbs Peterson in Happy Gilmore (1996) and, perhaps most of all, Apollo Creed in Rocky (1976).
The only man in NFL history to record two safeties in one game, Fred Dryer went on to broader success in life after football. As the title character in NBC’s Hunter, Dryer played an LAPD homicide detective for seven seasons. He has also produced and directed.
The first overall pick in the 1967 draft, a Pro-Bowler and a Super Bowl champion, Bubba Smith had a solid NFL career. Still he’s better known for teaming up with Steve Guttenberg and Michael Winslow in the Police Academy movies. As Lt. Moses Hightower, Smith provides the brawn on an otherwise weakly cast.
Following a modestly successful six-year NFL career, distinguished by trips to two Super Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings, in 1973 and ’74, running back Ed Marinaro turned to acting. He became one of TV’s heartthrobs when he played hot-blooded officer Joe Coffey from 1981 to ’86 on Hill Street Blues. Marinaro has since appeared in countless TV series and movies.
The first overall pick in the 1973 draft, and a two-time Super Bowl champion, Matuszak wore both a Raiders and Superman t-shirt on screen in his most notable acting role — Sloth, in The Goonies. Matuszak appeared in numerous 80s sitcoms and dramas, including Miami Vice, Perfect Strangers, The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team.
Never one to shy away from the spotlight, “Broadway Joe” Namath had trouble turning down acting roles after his NFL days ended. Aside from appearances on TV shows like The A-Team, The Love Boat, and Alf, Namath also starred in the 1971 movie, The Last Rebel.
A two-time All American and four-time Pro Bowl quarterback, Roman Gabriel enjoyed a lengthy, 16-year career with the Raiders and Rams. His acting tenure was shorter lived, highlighted primarily by roles in Skidoo (1968) and The Undefeated (1969), the latter of which he played Blue Boy, John Wayne’s adopted Indian son.
Terry Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in his Hall of Fame career, earning him praise and plenty of attention. He never shied away from it. Following his retirement, the quarterback took to Hollywood, appearing in Hooper (1978), The Cannonball Run (1981) and several other movies, television shows and commercials. In 2006, he appeared in theaters again, playing Matthew McConaughey’s father in Failure to Launch.
A nine-time Pro-Bowl defensive end, Howie Long scored a starring role in the 1998 film, Firestorm. Despite playing an athletic character, Long’s prowess on the gridiron didn’t translate into success on the screen. Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post wrote: “Howie Long is to acting what Sir Laurence Olivier was to the National Football League: that is, nothing at all.”
Lyle Alzado took his trademark intensity to Hollywood, where he starred as a serial killer in Destroyer (1988). The former Raider great also appeared in Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) and played a high school principal/pro wrestler in Learning the Ropes (1988).
After quickly fizzling out in the NFL, Brian Bosworth enjoyed similar success in Hollywood. The Boz starred in the 1991 film, Stone Cold, as “a cop who enforces his own brand of justice.” The role earned Bosworth a Razzie nomination for Worst New Star. It would have looked good next to his Butkus Awards.
One of the most feared players in NFL History, Dick Butkus was an unmistakable presence on the football field, earning eight Pro Bowl nods and six First Team All-Pro selections. True to form, he maintained that personality as an actor. Butkus appeared in numerous films and TV Shows, including his role as diner owner Ed Klawicki in My Two Dads.
A star defensive tackle for the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Raiders, Bob Golic racked up 22.5 sacks in his 14-year career. He retired in 1992 and promptly proceeded to portray an ex-football player. Beginning in 1993, he claimed the role of Mike Rogers, the tough yet caring dorm adviser on Saved by the Bell: The College Years.
Aside from unforgettable playing and broadcasting careers, “Dandy Don” Meredith tried his hand at acting as well. He appeared in movies such as Terror on the 40th Floor (1974) and Three Days of Rain (2002), most notably starring as the title role in Banjo Hackett, a 1976 Western.
Rosey Grier was one of the great defensive tackles of all time, and with both the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, he lifted line play to a kind of celebrity status. Enough, perhaps, to get him some roles in Hollywood. Grier appeared in numerous TV series and movies through the years and starred quite literally opposite Ray Milland in the film The Thing with Two Heads (1972).
Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan, who spent 15 seasons with the Giants, was also a Super Bowl champion with New York in his final season in 2007. Strahan went on to star in and produce the short-lived Fox sitcom Brothers, with Carl Weathers as his father, but it’s his big screen role as a male stripper in Magic Mike XXL (2015) that garnered much attention.
A Hall of Fame defensive end credited with terming the word sack for how he knocked down quarterbacks, Deacon Jones was the leader of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome unit from 1961-71. After appearing in a Bewitched episode in 1969, Jones made cameos in other TV programs with a couple of big screen roles as well, including 1978’s The Norseman and Heaven Can Wait.
A defensive end for the Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders, Ben Davidson used his 6-8, 275 frame to bully opponents during his 11-year career. His size also benefitted him on the big screen. He was cast as Rexor in Conan the Barbarian (1982), though he is eventually defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a physically imposing presence in his own right.
Despite a successful college football career and a cup of coffee in the NFL — an abdominal injury forced him to retire from football — Bill Goldberg is still best known for his time as a professional wrestler. He has also dabbled in acting sporadically, with smaller roles in films like Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) and The Longest Yard (2005).
Arguably the greatest defensive player ever, 10-time All-Pro, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Super Bowl champion Lawrence Taylor is a legend on the football field. Not so much on the big screen, although his role in Any Given Sunday (1999) as Luther “Shark” Lavay — a linebacker and the captain of the defense, with a cortisone addiction and nearing the twilight of a very successful career — was a role he seemed born to play.
During his 15-year career with the Green Bay Packers, Ray Nitschke was perceived as a smart, seasoned, physical linebacker, playing a key role in the team’s Super Bowl I and II triumphs. He gave off that same persona on the big screen, appearing in 1974’s The Longest Yard.