It should not be surprising that many celebrities are incredibly talented. After all, we see them completely transform themselves in what seems like an instant to accurately portray whatever role they have taken on. It may be surprising to learn, however, that many celebrities were not just talented actors while in high school and college, but also talented athletes as well. It makes sense though, as the same qualities that make someone a successful athlete can be applied to achieve success in all other aspects of life as well.
For many of the celebrities on this list, a simple twist of fate helped to push them in the direction that would lead them to fame. Many suffered injuries that prematurely ended their athletic careers and forced them to consider a future elsewhere. For others, the pull of fame was already drawing them in, and many left their academic and athletic careers behind in order to pursue what they felt was their calling.
The celebrities on this list played in a diverse array of sports, including soccer, hockey, basketball and wrestling, but the list is certainly dominated by football players. Perhaps there is something about the gridiron that prepares an individual for the life of a celebrity, or perhaps it is simply a mere matter of coincidence. Regardless of the reason, what follows are 15 celebrities who excelled at collegiate athletics well before moving on to the careers that would ultimately make them famous.
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15 Steve Carell
The star of The Office and the Anchorman movies, Carell grew up in Massachusetts as a very serious hockey player. A goalie, Carell had an opportunity to play at the Division-I level, but instead opted to play for a Division-III school at Denison University, according to ESPN. He has said that he realized in high school he had to either commit to hockey full-time as a potential career or simply keep playing for the fun of it. He choose the latter, and still plays in a recreational league in Orange County, California.
14 Rick Ross
Before earning fame as a rapper, William Leonard Roberts II earned a football scholarship to Albany State University. This was, of course, before he adopted the name he would come to be known by, but despite being a talented football player, Ross only lasted a single season at Albany State University, according to TheUrbanDaily. There would be other stops along the way before Ross achieved fame in the music industry, as he also worked as a corrections officer for 18 months.
13 Josh Duhamel
Before appearing in All My Children and Transformers, Josh Duhamel was a North Dakota quarterback. Duhamel earned a scholarship to play football at nearby Minot State University before finding his way as a model and then as an actor. While at Minot State, Duhamel studied biology and intended to go on to dental school after graduation. A move to northern California changed all of that.
12 Billy Baldwin
The star of Backdraft, and member of one of the most famous acting families, was also a member of Binghamton University’s wrestling team. After a standout prep career on Long Island, Baldwin went on to a wrestling career at the upstate New York university. His biggest contribution to the team would come long after he graduated, as Baldwin helped to save the school’s wrestling team and has also been involved in trying to bring wrestling back to the Olympics, according to ESPN.
11 Joel McHale
McHale, the star of Community and host of The Soup, was athletic enough to be recruited to the University of Washington for one sport and then switch to another once there. Initially recruited to join the school’s rowing team, McHale decided to try out for the team’s football team instead, according to ESPN. Despite only playing a year of high school football, McHale tried out as a walk-on and made the team as a tight end. He only played one season, but he lasted long enough to join the team at the Rose Bowl in 1993, though his lasting contribution there was a skit in which he gave a comedic performance as the team doctor.
10 2 Chainz
Rapper 2 Chainz only had a brief collegiate basketball career, as the music industry was already calling his name back then. After a successful prep career that included a Georgia state title, 2 Chainz, then known as Tauheed Epps, was heavily recruited by several Division-I basketball programs that included the University of Memphis, according to ESPN. Epps ultimately wound up at Alabama State, and although he didn’t play much his freshman season, he was still able to quickly fill a stat line, scoring 14 points while grabbing seven rebounds in just 10 minutes of play in the season finale. That was his lone season at Alabama State, and soon Epps would be making his way under his more well-known moniker: 2 Chainz.
9 John Goodman
Goodman’s Falstaffian frame has allowed him to play a number of outsized characters in film, including baseball legend Babe Ruth and, perhaps most notably, Walter Sobchak in the cult classic The Big Lebowski. That large frame also allowed Goodman to excel on the football field, as he earned an athletic scholarship to Southwest Missouri State, according to Biography.com. Goodman appeared headed for a professional career before injuries derailed his hopes, but those injuries would ultimately lead to a long and prosperous acting career instead.
8 Burt Reynolds
The star of countless classics that include Deliverance, Boogie Nights, White Lightning and Gator, Reynolds may be best remembered by sports fans for his performance in both the original and the remake of The Longest Yard. He was able to draw on plenty of real-life experience for that particular role, as Reynolds attended Florida State University as a halfback. Though he was a highly touted recruit, Reynolds would have his playing career derailed by injury, one during the first game of his career and another caused by a car accident. He then turned to acting, enjoying a long career in Hollywood that has spanned over 50 years.
7 Phil Robertson
Robertson has long called Louisiana home, and though it is hard to imagine Robertson anyplace other than a duck blind, he was once the starting quarterback at Louisiana Tech in the 1960s, according to NFL.com. While Robertson currently sports long hair and a long beard, he played college football with a crew cut and a clean-shaven face. Robertson was known for his strong arm, throwing for 2,237 career yards and tossing 12 touchdowns from 1965 to 1967, but he elected not to play his senior year, clearing the way for future NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.
6 Jon Stewart
Though Stewart’s most recent foray into the sports world involved accepting Seth Rollins’ on-air challenge to join him in the ring, which you can see here, Stewart’s previous athletic experience came not in the ring, but on the pitch. Long before taking on the hosting duties of The Daily Show, Stewart was a member of William and Mary’s collegiate soccer team. Though he downplays his abilities, Stewart racked up 10 goals and 12 assists during his three years on the team. Even then, however, his contributions to the team did involve his comedic skills, as his college coach, Al Albert, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Don't listen to his jokes about himself. Jon was a good player. He did a good job on the field and also in the locker room, keeping everybody loose with his humor."
5 Denzel Washington
Washington has had a long and storied film career that has included a number of roles in which he portrayed characters involved in athletics. In one of his more memorable athletic roles, Washington acted opposite NBA star Ray Allen in Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Washington has real basketball experience, as he played collegiate basketball at Fordham University under future NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo. According to a teammate, Patrick O’Connell, Washington “was a tremendous athlete, extremely fast and quick. He could jump. He was quicker than the ball. He had a nice handle, but not great. He was physical. He could take contact, go to the basket and finish. He shot his jump shot from the top of his head, it was kind of funky. But he was tough and could flat-out play defense.”
4 Mark Harmon
Harmon comes from a football family, as his father, Tom Harmon, was the 1940 winner of the Heisman Trophy. Mark also played collegiate football, starting at quarterback for the UCLA Bruins while at the school in the early 1970s. Harmon led UCLA to one of the greatest upsets in NCAA history, as UCLA defeated two-time champ Nebraska to snap the Cornhuskers’ 32-game winning streak in 1972. In his two seasons as the starting QB, the NCIS star helped UCLA to a 17-5 record.
3 Tommy Lee Jones
Known for his performances in Lincoln, The Fugitive, and No Country For Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones has been a Hollywood leading man for the better part of five decades. Before his acting career took off, Jones was a jack of all trades at Harvard University, playing on the offensive line while studying English literature and rooming with future Vice President Al Gore. He earned All-Ivy League honors for his exploits on the football field, but opted to pursuing an acting career on Broadway rather than trying for the NFL.
2 Suge Knight
Controversial rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight has a reputation for being a hard-nosed negotiator, as it was once alleged that he dangled Vanilla Ice over a hotel balcony by his ankles in order to secure the royalty rights to “Ice, Ice Baby.” Before that, however, Knight was a hard-nosed defensive end at UNLV, lettering for two seasons in 1985 and 1986 before briefly playing in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams. Despite his reputation, Knight actually earned Dean’s List honors while a student at UNLV.
1 Ed O’Neill
Playing Al Bundy on Married With Children, O’Neill’s character frequently referenced his football exploits while playing for Polk High, often noting how he once scored four touchdowns in one game. In a case of art (if you can all Married With Children art) imitating life, O’Neill actually had a collegiate football career, earning a scholarship to Ohio University before transferring to Youngstown State. A defensive end, O’Neill was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, though he was ultimately cut during training camp. Fortunately for O’Neill, he would achieve acclaim for his acting in a variety of roles, including most recently as the pater familias on Modern Family.
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