The NFL has produced its fair share of superstars. The game of football is so popular (with the Super Bowl commanding gigantic ratings each year) that its players become household names.
Many of these stars turn that exposure into careers in the media and show business. Some, like the Raiders Howie Long and the 49ers Joe Montana, star in long running commercials. Others, like the Giants Fred Dryer ("Hunter") and the Rams Merlin Olsen ("Father Murphy") become stars of hit TV shows. Michael Strahan of the Giants even took over the seat of TV talk show legend Regis Philbin.
It's the big screen, however, that holds the most allure. Several NFL stars have tried to become matinee idols. It doesn't always work. Many of them wind up just playing variations of their football roles (coaches, team mates, broadcasters, etc) in football films. This list is not about them, as funny or as memorable as their appearances might be (Dan Marino in "Ace Ventura" and Ray Nitchske in "The Longest Yard" come to mind.)
This list is of NFL players that have had at least one standout role or cameo in a hit film that had nothing to do with football (even if they were playing themselves, the main plot did not involve football - so, once again, Ace Ventura and The Longest Yard don't make the cut.)
Here are the ten most memorable appearances by NFL players in a non-football movie:
Fred "The Hammer" Williamson -
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Given the name "The Hammer" because of his ferocious hits on opponents, former Chiefs and Raiders standout Fred Williamson had a cameo in the feature version of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, then starred in a bunch of B movies when his football career was done in the early 1970s.
These low budget action films featured Williamson as an anti-hero who cleans up gritty urban streets. Titles like "Hell Up in Harlem" and "Bronx Warriors" became synonymous with The Hammer.
By the 1990's he was doing commercials and enjoying success as an entrepreneur when director Quentin Tarantino, a fan of Williamson's B-movies, wrote a role for him in the vampire crime thriller, "From Dusk Till Dawn."
Director Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino hired Williamson to play Frost, opposite an up and coming star named George Clooney, even giving The Hammer a memorable monologue about his days in Vietnam.
"Dusk" brought Williamson back into the spotlight for young fans, who have since re-discovered his earlier work.
Terry Bradshaw -
Failure To Launch (2006)
The only former NFL star to have an actual star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (mostly for his work as a broadcaster) Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw is accomplished in many areas.
His silver screen career began in the 1980s with appearances in "The Cannonball Run", "Hooper" and "Smokey and the Bandit II", all of which were produced by his friend Burt Reynonlds.
After a hiatus to concentrate on his broadcasting duties, Bradshaw retuned to acting in 2006 with a role as Matthew McConnaughey's father (opposite Kathy Bates as the mom) in "Failure to Launch."
While the film wasn't a hit at the box office, it is most memorable for Bradshaw's 20 second scene where he appears completely nude as he feeds his fish. The scene is shot from the back, but it is indeed Terry in all of his birthday suit glory, an image most NFL fans probably thought they would never see.
Bubba Smith -
Police Academy series (1984 - 1989)
The late Bubba Smith played for nine years in the NFL. He even won a Super Bowl with the Colts.
To most people, though, Smith will best be remembered as Moses Hightower, the gentle giant from the "Police Academy" series.
Starting in 1984, the 6 foot 7 Smith brought a light touch and unique comic flair to a role that could have just been one note. Often playing his size for laughs, Bubba was one of the few cast members that returned for the span of almost the whole series. (He only missed "Police Academy 7.")
Smith passed away in 2011. Future aspiring NFL comic actors will find it hard to fill his (quite large) shoes.
The Goonies (1985)
Few characters were as memorable on the football field as John "The Tooz" Matuszak.
A two-time Super Bowl winning defensive end with the Raiders, Matuszak's antics on the gridiron caught the attention of Hollywood studio executives, who then cast him in a series of film and TV roles from 1979 on.
His biggest claim to fame, though, came from a part where he was made virtually unrecognizable.
In 1985, Matuszak was cast as Sloth, the fearsome looking but gentle Baby Ruth loving son of the film's main villain in "The Goonies."
Sloth became an instant pop culture icon.
The success of the Steven Spielberg produced film boosted Matuszak's profile, and he seemed destined for even greater heights.
Unfortunately, Matuszak passed away four years later at the young age of 39, leaving fans to wonder what might have been.
Terry Crews -
Though his NFL career was a short one, Terry Crews' phenomenal physical condition helped him to get roles as intimidating trainers and bruisers after he retired in 1997.
Crews, known mostly for his TV work (in "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Brooklyn Nine Nine") was cast in the 2006 film "Idiocracy" as the United States President with the improbable name of Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.
Written and directed by Mike Judge ("Office Space") this was a pure satire, set in the future, about the dumbing down of American culture. "Idiocracy" wasn't a hit in its initial release, but has become a cult classic in the years since, thanks in part to Crews' energetic performance.
That boundless energy and enthusiasm led, in part, to Terry being named host of the popular TV quiz show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." He remains a very busy guy.
OJ Simpson -
The Naked Gun Series (1988-1994)
Of all the former players on this list, Hall of Famer OJ Simpson has the most legitimate claim to the title of movie star.
Even before his football career ended, "The Juice" had appeared in leading roles in hit films like "The Towering Inferno" and "Capricorn One", as well as the mini-series "Roots." In 1988, he took on a comic role, as the hapless detective Nordberg, in the Naked Gun films.
The first Leslie Nielsen slapstick comedy was such a blockbuster, they made two sequels, with Simpson reprising his role in those as well.
Shortly after the release of the third Naked Gun film, in 1994, Simpson was accused of murdering his wife and a friend. The subsequent trial, the public's negative feelings towards him, and his later incarceration on a different charge, cast a pall on his previously wholesome image and effectively ended Simpson's career for good.
Still, he should not be excluded from a list like this.
Jim Brown -
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Jim Brown is widely considered the greatest football player to have ever suited up.
Brown only played for nine years but he set and shattered NFL records. He walked away from the game at his physical peak, just shy of 30 years old.
His next move was to Hollywood.
In 1967, Brown co-starred, alongside Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, as the ill fated Private Jefferson in "The Dirty Dozen", a war movie that became an instant classic. He could have retired from acting then and there. His cinematic legacy would still have been secure, that's how good the film, and his performance, was.
Brown chose to continue his acting career, and is still going strong at 78 years old. His last appearance was in the 2014 Kevin Costner film "Draft Day."
The Hall of Famer has still got it.
Happy Gilmore (1996)
When people think of Carl Weathers, the sport they usually associate him with is boxing. That's largely due to his breakout role as Apollo Creed in the 1976 Academy Award winning film "Rocky."
While he trained hard to portray a boxing champion, Weathers was, by trade, a pro football player before turning to acting. His stint in the NFL was short, just one season with the Raiders, before moving to the Canadian Football League.
After "Rocky" - and its two sequels featuring Apollo - were done, Weathers played variations on the action hero role in other films, sticking closely to type.
In 1996, Adam Sandler - a huge sports fan - cast Weathers against type as the goofy one handed golf instructor Chubbs Peterson in "Happy Gilmore." Audiences loved the character so much that the role was reprised by Weathers a few years later in "Little Nicky", a completely unrelated Sandler film.
Those comic turns freshened Weathers career, and he's been busy ever since.
Brett Favre -
There's Something About Mary (1998)
This is the one and only player on this list to be here for playing himself in a movie. It's also the one and only film role (to date) for this football legend.
Brett Favre started an amazing 321 NFL games in a row, including the playoffs, over a 19 year span. He led the Packers to a Super Bowl championship and holds numerous quarterback records. For film fans, however, he is notorious for his less than ten minutes of screen time in 1998's unexpected comedy hit, "There's Something About Mary."
In the Farrelly brothers film, Cameron Diaz's title character is pursued to Florida by several would-be boyfriends, including ones played by Ben Stiller and Matt Damon. Throughout the film she makes several allusions to the fact that her ex-boyfriend is named Brett and that they broke up because she is a 49ers fan. The big payoff comes when it's revealed that the "Brett" in question is actually Favre. He happens to be in town to play the Dolphins and stops by to re-kindle the relationship flames.
Favre has fun with the role. His reactions are totally deadpan and serious (some have said wooden, but it is his first acting gig, after all.) He lets the more seasoned comic actors do the heavy lifting. They all have plenty of fun trying to pronounce his last name.
Other than occasional commercial appearances and cameos on TV shows, Favre retired from acting after "Mary." Like Jim Brown, his debut is classic enough to stand on its own.
Alex Karras -
Blazing Saddles (1974)
This scene from "Blazing Saddles" tops the list.
It is not just the greatest ever by a former NFL player, it's arguably the greatest ever in film comedy history - period.
The 1974 spoof of westerns, written and directed by Mel Brooks, is still one of the top grossing movies of all time, when adjusted for inflation. That means that millions around the world have seen Karras - who enjoyed a twelve year career with the Detroit Lions - step up to the trough as tough guy Mongo and knock a horse out with one shot. (The horse was unharmed.)
The dim witted Mongo later turns out to be a softie at heart, "just a pawn in game of life", as he describes it, helping the good guys beat the villains.
That featured role led to a series of other ones for Karras, in films as diverse as "Porky's", "Victor/Victoria" and "Against All Odds."
Karras, who died in 2012, will probably be best remembered by TV fans as George Papadopolous, the adoptive father of the title character in the popular 1980s sitcom "Webster." The show lasted for seven seasons and saw Karras starring alongside his real-life wife, Susan Karras Clark, as Webster's adopted mother.