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From the Gridiron to Hollywood

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

It’s true that professional ball players are more than athletes. They’re also entertainers who perform for large audiences, using a national stage to display their talents and showmanship. That’s one reason why many pro athletes are able to transition into broadcasting or acting. Football in particular has provided a fertile breeding ground for future Hollywood stars. Here are seven famous gridiron greats who went on to show business success:

♦ MERLIN OLSEN. Olsen was a 14x Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams – part of the famous “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line – before transitioning to acting and TV broadcasting. Most notably, Olsen landed a recurring role as “Jonathan Garvey” in the hit NBC series, “Little House on the Prairie.” He later starred in his own TV drama, the short-lived “Father Murphy.”.

♦ FRED DRYER. Dryer was an All-Pro defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams and the answer to this rather unique NFL trivia question: “Who is the only player in league history to score two safeties in one game?” His acting career was highlighted by his leading role in “Hunter,” an NBC crime drama that lasted seven seasons. Dryer was also a candidate for the role of “Sam Malone” in the smash sitcom, “Cheers” – a role that went to Ted Danson. (However, Dryer went on to have a recurring role in the series, playing Sam Malone’s ex-teammate.)

♦ FRED WILLIAMSON. Known as “The Hammer” for his aggressive hitting style, Williamson was a standout defensive back for the Steelers, Chiefs and Raiders. Upon retiring from the NFL after eight seasons, Williamson had a prolific movie career, appearing in such films as Three the Hard Way and Original Gangstas. He also made frequent appearances on the small screen, including a guest role in the original “Star Trek” series.

♦ JIM BROWN. Still regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time, Brown shocked the sports world when he walked away from the game in 1966. He was filming The Dirty Dozen in London at the time, and Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell threatened to fine him $1,500 for every week of training camp that he missed. Instead, Brown announced his retirement. The Dirty Dozen was a smash hit, and MGM Studios signed Brown to a multi-film contract. He would go on to star in such films as The SplitRiot and Ice Station Zebra.

♦ ALEX KARRAS. Karras’ remains one of the greatest players in the history of the Detroit Lions, having been a 4x Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the franchise before being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He caught the acting bug late in his football career and, after retiring from the game in 1971, turned to acting full time. Karras landed roles in films such as M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple, but his most famous role was as “Mongo” in the comedy Blazing Saddles. How many other movie characters KO’ed a horse with one punch?

♦ CARL WEATHERS. Before he became Rocky Balboa’s greatest nemesis as “Apollo Creed,” Carl Weathers was a defensive end at San Diego State for legendary Hall of Fame Coach Don Coryell. Weathers then played linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in 1970. He retired from football after a brief stint in the CFL, and found success with roles in RockyThe Mandalorianand Predator.

♦ DWAYNE JOHNSON. No, The Rock never made it to the NFL. But he was a defensive tackle for the Miami Hurricanes for four years, including the national championship team in 1991 (Johnson’s career stats: 77 tackles, 4.5 sacks), and he did land a tryout with the CFL’s Calgary Stampede. It was after football, of course, that he became a megastar, first as a professional wrestler, and then as Hollywood’s biggest box office draw. Among his film credits: Scorpion King, Walking Tall, Gridiron Gang, Baywatch, Jumanji and the Fast & the Furious films. Johnson will also star in the DC film, Black Adam, which is scheduled to be released next summer.

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