35 Celebrities Who Were Once Star Athletes

Celebs June 19, 2019 By Hugo

All actors want to be musicians, and all musicians want to be actors. This is a famous case in Hollywood of always wanting what you don't have. However, in many cases, many actors and performers also wish they could live out their childhood dreams and be sports stars. However, some actually were and transitioned to Hollywood later in their careers.

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Here we take a look at some of Hollywood's most famous faces who were first and foremost incredible athletes.


1. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

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Most people know that the Hollywood superstar was, and still is, a wrestler before taking a turn in The Fast and Furious franchise, HBO show Ballers and the upcoming Baywatch film but fewer know about his early football career. After joining the University of Miami’s championship team, Johnson played briefly in the Canadian Football League before turning to wrestling when he was eventually dropped.

The rest, as they say, is history after he used that as a platform to launch his incredibly successful acting career.


2. Terry Crews

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The funnyman in cop comedy Brooklyn-99 hard man in The Expendables films and funny hard-man in the Old Spice adverts, Terry Crews actually had a brief spell as an NFL player after being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1991.

He earned a football scholarship to Western Michigan University as a defensive end but that was after he earned an art scholarship and although he may have retired from football in 1997, he still draws and sketches.


3. Jason Lee

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It seems odd that the bumbling idiot behind the title character in My Name is Earl or the hardened slacker Brodie in Mallrats ever had anything to do with sports but he started out his professional life as a skateboarder and entrepreneur.

It was when he got noticed by writer and director Kevin Smith that he got cast for Mallrats and now his acting career has gone from strength to strength.


4. Stacy Keibler

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Appearing in shows such as What About BrianGeorge LopezOctober Road and How I Met Your Mother, Stacy Keibler started out as a popular wrestler for WCW and WWE (then WWF) as well as a manager and cheerleader for several other wrestlers.

She has also appeared on reality and talk shows including co-hosting The View.


5. Michael Jordan

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Michael Jordan only has one film credit to his name, and that was the 1996 smash-hit Space Jam where he plays himself alongside the Looney Tunes, but it is such a darn good film we thought he deserved a mention.

Jordan is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time and by acclimation of trophies and awards, is the best. He also had a brief stint playing pro-baseball although that was not so successful.


6. Chuck Norris

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His antics in action movies has led him to be globally recognised as a popular internet meme but Chuck was actually a martial artist before he hit the silver screen.

A championship karate athlete Norris was cast as the bad guy in Bruce Lee's Return of The Dragon in 1972 and from then on started appearing in films.


7. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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Another man who fought Bruce Lee on-screen, this time in Game of Death. Kareem was a three-time championship winning NBA player who was known for his unique sky-hook shot before going on to play himself in the comedy Airplane.

He's also a regular on various basketball shows providing in-depth analytics.


8. Kurt Russell

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A child actor that became a Hollywood mainstay, Kurt Russell played minor league baseball for a few years but never quite made the step-up to the big leagues because he wasn't prepared to give up his burgeoning acting career.

Probably a good thing since he's now appeared in several cult classics such as Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China as well as blockbusters like Furious 7 and The Hateful Eight.


9. Jason Statham

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If a tough-guy, action hero type did a sport you might think it was boxing or martial arts but in the case of Statham, it was actually diving.

A member of the British National Diving Squad for twelve years, Statham competed at the Commonwealth Games for England in 1990 and it was only his immense diving skills that saved him from an on-set accident whilst filming The Expendables III as the truck he was driving careened off the dock's edge into the water, Statham managing to dive out last minute. Phew.


10.  John Cena

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Appearing in films like The Marine, Trainwreck and Sisters, John Cena is a wrestler, wrapper and TV host who has turned his hand to acting.

Still wrestling with the WWE, it probably won't be long before we see Cena in more films in the future.


11. Joe Namath

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Before commenting on pro-football and appearing on TV shows like The Waverly Wonders and films such as C.C and Company Namath was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and is an NFL Hall of Famer.

Some people are just good at everything, and Namath is a perfect example of this.


12. Arnold Schwarzenegger

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The Austrian action star is known for his mountainous muscles, and it was his bodybuilding career that helped him get into acting.

The 7-time Mr. Olympia winner was noticed and cast in the title role for the 1970 film Hercules in New York. He later went on to star in Conan the Barbarian which was his big break and in 1984 played his iconic android role in The Terminator.


13. Ronda Rousey

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Ronda Rousey's domination of UFC has led to unwavering popularity and she has become one of the most celebrated mixed martial artists of all time and used the popularity from that to launch a career in film and television.

Starring in Furious 7, The Expendables III and EntourageRousey, who started her career as a judo fighter, hopes to feature in more films in the future.


14. Shaquille O'Neal

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Most of his roles come from playing (or at least lampooning) himself as a former basketball player and businessman.

Considered an NBA great, he was still playing when he appeared in films such as Kazaam and Steel. He also went on to have a successful rap career and has licensed his name to an array of products.


15. Mark Harmon

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Star of St. ElsewhereChicago Hope and NCIS and son of NFL legend Tom Harmon, it's perhaps no surprise that Mark was pretty nifty with a pig-skin himself.

A collegiate football star, Mark won the Rose Bowl whilst quarterbacking the UCLA Bruins.


16. Lawrence Taylor

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Appearing in several films, perhaps his best-known one was Any Given Sunday alongside Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx, but before that, he was a Hall of Fame American Football Player for the University of North Carolina and the New York Giants.

Impressive.


17. Hulk Hogan

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Appearing in Rocky III and Mr. Nanny Hogan was a staple of dubious 80s and 90s films often playing a version of himself on television shows and B-Movies.

He came from the wrestling world and was a WWE hall of famer until being stripped of the honour when he was recently fired by the company for racially divisive remarks he made.


18. Burt Reynolds

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A man with such a formidable filmography to his name, not to mention that photograph of him on a bearskin rug, Burt Reynolds is a legend in Hollywood but he was also a college football player in the 1950s before injury ended any career prospects.

He then moved toward acting which seems to have worked out very well for him.


19. Bob Uecker

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More well known for being a play-by-play man than actor, Bob has appeared in the sitcom Mr. Belvedere as well as the film Major League. Before that, he was a catcher in the major leagues but not one of the best.

Still, he is a much loved play-by-play caller now so it all worked out in the end.


20. Caitlyn Jenner

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A reality show mainstay, Caitlyn announced she was transitioning from being Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner in 2014.

As Bruce she appeared in the 80s film CHiPs and before that won the gold medal for the 1980 Olympic decathlon.


21. Andre The Giant

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André Roussimoff was best known as Andre the Giant. Making several appearances on television, perhaps his best known and most loved on-screen role was as Fezzik in the cult classic The Princess Bride.

However, being 7' 6" made him a natural shoo-in for wrestling as he towered above opponents and this is where he was before being cast in his iconic movie role.


22. Jim Brown

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The Dirty Dozen, Running Man and Small Soldiers are just some of the big hits Jim Brown has acted in.

He was still in the NFL when he began his theatrical career, a legendary running back for the Cleveland Brown's he continues to act now.


23. Lou Ferrigno

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The man who made The Hulk the character he is today started out as a bodybuilder and is actually good friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger and was the subject of the documentary Pumping Iron alongside him.

He also played pro football in Canada but was not very successful before his big break came along.


24. John Wayne

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The man who made his name as a star of many a Western, John Wayne was the essence of post-war masculinity and won an Oscar for his role in True Grit in 1960.

Before acting though, he played football for USC until an injury forced him to look into other career paths.


25. Gina Carano

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Appearing in Fast and Furious 6 and Deadpool should mean that Ms. Carano is bound to crop up in many more blockbusters but before this, she found fame on the mixed martial arts circuit.

A pretty nifty fighter, Carano started out in Muay Thai before making the leap to competitive MMA. 


26. Sam Hunt

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Okay, this one is kind of cheating as Sam Hunt is a singer, not an actor, but his story is remarkable and is worth being told. As well as his natural good looks and brooding southern voice, Sam Hunt is also a multi-instrumentalist, though his natural flair for music came later in life. Growing up in a small town in Georgia, Hunt, like most southern kids, was raised on football, a sport he excelled at, which led him to win a place on the Middle Tennessee State University team. However, it was at college that Hunt discovered his love of music, and after picking up a guitar, he started writing lyrics, most of which were inspired by his now-wife Hannah Lee Fowler, whom he met at college. 

But after an unsuccessful foray into the NFL (he attended a summer training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs) Hunt packed up his bags at 24 and headed to Nashville in the hopes of making it as a recording artist, with just "some food and two mattresses and [...] his mom's minivan" to his name. 


27. Bubba Smith

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From being a standout college player at Michigan State to playing nine seasons in the NFL as a defensive end, Bubba Smith had a remarkable career which culminated in a Super Bowl-winning season with the Baltimore Colts.

For younger readers, he is probably better known as Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies. Smith has also appeared in various Miller Lite commercials before sadly passing away in his Los Angeles home at 66-years-old following acute drug intoxication.


28. Howie Long

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After making the big time as a second-round pick in the 1981 NFL draft, Howie Long was selected by the Oakland Raiders and enjoyed 13 seasons with them before retiring in the 1993 season to forge a career in show business.

Soon, Long was booking slots on Firestorm and Broken Arrow and now serves a spokesperson for several companies. He also does a bit of football stuff as well, his most prominent gig being a studio analyst for Fox’s NFL coverage.


29. Vinnie Jones

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Soccer hardman Vinnie Jones made a name for himself in the English Premier League for his no-nonsense approach and winning by whatever means necessary. Representing AFC Wimbledon, Jones's reputation as a character in the game would see him shift attention away from his sporting prowess and to Hollywood where he would go on and star in a string of Guy Ritchie movies.

But instead of being typecast as an English thug, Jones also appeared in a string of Hollywood popcorn flicks including X-Men: The Last Stand and alongside Bradley Cooper in The Midnight Meat Train. Not bad for a former soccer player that no one in America had heard of. 


30. Mark Wright

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From one former English soccer player to another, Mark Wright may not be a fully-fledged Hollywood actor, but he did manage to land himself a coveted presenting role on the Emmy-winning series EXTRA alongside Mario Lopez.

In his youth career, Wright represented the likes of Arsenal and Spurs, before transitioning into reality television and then presenting.


31. Fred Williamson

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Nicknamed "The Hammer" throughout his professional football days, the Northwestern star would set the acting world alight as Diahann Carroll's love interest in the sitcom Julia.  He then went full-circle and starred in a series of Blaxploitation movies such as "Tough Guys," "Three the Hard Way" and "That Man Bolt."

Williamson's other notable credits include the 2004 flick Starsky and Hutch, Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn and the original Inglorious Bastards.


32. Terry Bradshaw 

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While Bradshaw has gone back to his football roots as a football analyst and co-host on Fox’s NFL Sunday, he remains the only ever NFL player to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after 14 seasons as a star quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

His film credits include the 1978 film Hooper, 1981’s The Cannonball Run and a starring role alongside a nude Sarah Jessica Parker in the romcom Failure to Launch. 


33. Kevin Durant

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One of the NBA's most prized players, Durant is widely considered one of the world's best basketball players, with his dunking and three-throwing abilities second to none. But as well as possessing exceptional talents that only the likes of Lebron James and Stephen Curry can better, Durant has also branched out into the acting world in recent years, most notably appearing in the 2012 movie Thunderstruck as himself.

A proud Christian, Durant was baptized by Hillsong Church Pastor Carl Lentz in 2013 and credits his faith with keeping him grounded. "When people tell me I’m great, I remind myself that I can always be better. Humility comes before honor,” Durant said.  


34. O.J. Simpson

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In what was billed as ‘The Trial of the Century’, O.J. Simpson stood accused of the double murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ron Goldman. ‘The Juice’ as he was known to fans was one of the NFL’s most revered players and broke record after record. Simpson would even go onto have a successful career in Hollywood after his ball career came to an end, and is perhaps most known in Tinseltown for his role in the Naked Gun series. 

But his dream life turned into a nightmare. And though the former running back was miraculously acquitted of both murder charges, O.J. was convicted years later of robbing, kidnapping, assault and criminal conspiracy after attempting to steal sports memorabilia from a Las Vegas hotel. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2008 but was released in 2017. 


35. Esther Williams

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Esther Williams would become the face of the MGM musicals such as Million Dollar Mermaid and Neptune's Daughter, but few are aware of her distinguished past as a teenage swimmer. Competing in breaststroke and freestyle competitions, Williams would excel in the pool for some time until she caught the acting bug.

It's little wonder then that the complex swimming scenes for many of Wiliams's pictures were performed expertly.


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