30 famous people you might not know were college athletes
The level of fame afforded to celebrities and college athletes can, at times, seem quite comparable. At schools like the University of Florida or Ohio State where sports reign supreme and tailgates are the hottest event of the semester, the young men and women whose athletic abilities have earned them a spot on the team are campus stars. This setup, of course, also comes with complications.
The lack of payment to young athletes who bring in buckets of money for their respective schools is a consistent point of contention: 65 schools of the 2,078 with athletic programs brought in $7.6 billion in college sports-related revenue in 2018, according to a March 2019 report from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, called "Madness, Inc." Meanwhile, college quarterbacks are often followed by unwanted student paparazzi. For some college athletes, walking across the quad to a biology lecture can feel akin to walking a red carpet.
There are also times when the celebrity factor does not sink in until later in life, when it's unrelated to touchdowns, goals, or shocking upset victories. There's no shortage of famous faces who once held athletic passions over the goals they eventually pursued; actor Patrick Dempsey, for instance, was previously a world-renowned juggler. For all the celebrities on this list, their first passion was sports, which seemingly held enough appeal to justify early morning workouts and rigorous schedules.
The celebrities on this list cover an array of industries. There are musicians, politicians, actors, writers, and reality TV stars. For some, an athletic career was a real, promising possibility that ultimately faded away due to injury or an alternate calling. Others scrapped their way onto a team and simply played for fun and the love of the sport. Read on to find out if your favorite actor, singer, or politician once sported a university jersey.
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Throughout his childhood, Garth Brooks adored sports—especially baseball—and dreamed that his athletic abilities would someday pay his bills. Though Brooks eventually earned his fame and fortune through country music, his childhood dream came true when he earned an athletic scholarship to Oklahoma State University. The sport that got him there? Javelin-throwing. Brooks spent 1981 to 1984 in the track and field community, perfecting his javelin throw, though he failed to qualify for the important Big Eight Conference championships and quickly realized sports would never be his true calling.
Most people know Mahershala Ali as a two-time Oscar-winning actor and some may even know him as a once-upon-a-time rapper, but few are aware of the star's history as an NCAA Division I basketball player at St. Mary's College of California. Ali was awarded a basketball scholarship and played four seasons as a guard, averaging seven points a game in his final year. Ali's involvement with the sport ended with his 1996 graduation, after which he fell in love with theater during an apprenticeship and decided to attend a graduate acting program at New York University.
Joel McHale, known for his work on “Community” and “The Soup,” was well served by his acting skills long before he viewed them as a potential career path. McHale successfully spun a story about his (very limited) high school football career, and was thus accepted onto the University of Washington team as a freshman walk-on in 1992. College friends of the 6-foot-4 McHale recall that the tight end "wasn't great," but had plenty of drive and passion, and knew how to take a hit. It was clear even then, however, that comedy was a natural fit; McHale finally earned the other players' respect when he performed a hilarious skit about the team doctor.
Jon Stewart has worked hard for his success, and that includes his place on the College of William and Mary's soccer team. When Stewart arrived on campus in 1980, he assumed his high school experience would earn him a place on the varsity team, only to be informed by the coach that junior varsity seemed a better fit. Stewart persevered, however, and by the following fall, he had earned a place on the varsity team, where he played well throughout the next three years. Though Stewart was not the team's star player, the winger did get in at least one game-winning goal in a 1983 match, and today, the “Leibo” award (derived from Stewart's original last name, Leibowitz), is given to the William and Mary soccer player whose positive attitude most benefits the team.
“Orange Is the New Black” actor Uzo Aduba excelled in two dramatically different ways during her time at Boston College: as an opera singer and as a track star. Since then, she has found ways to keep both these passions alive. She still sings (even performing with Taylor Swift), and ran the 2015 Boston Marathon in just over five hours. Aduba was accepted to Boston College on a track scholarship and has said that the commitment and motivation required to excel as a college athlete has likely helped her persevere in acting. Aduba originally auditioned for an “Orange Is the New Black” character whose story centers on her time as a track and field star, but was instead cast in the role of Crazy Eyes.
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Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson
The surprising turn of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson's career path is one most people know well—WWE icon turned verified movie star. However, there's a chapter that comes before Johnson's time as a beloved, record-breaking wrestling champion. Johnson's high school football skills earned him a plethora of collegiate Division I offers, from which he chose an athletic scholarship to the University of Miami, where he graduated in 1995. A gregarious defensive lineman who earned the nickname "Dewey," the 6-foot-5 Johnson played in 39 games, totaled 77 tackles, and has been described by teammates and coaches as a strong player and wildly impressive physical specimen.
Channing Tatum's athletic abilities are no well-kept secret—he broke onto the scene with his incredible dancing in the film “Step Up.” The naturally athletic Tatum earned a football scholarship to Glenville State College in West Virginia, where he played for a little while before dropping out to begin the exotic dancing work that would form the basis of the movie “Magic Mike.” Tatum has said that he lost the love of the sport in college and played as long as he did only to maintain his scholarship.
Back in the mid-1990s, rapper 2 Chainz was still Tauheed Epps, a 6-foot-5 teen who was accepted to Alabama State on a Division I basketball scholarship. In the 1996–97 season, Epps played in 24 out of 29 games and, in a particularly strong performance against Alcorn State, scored 14 points and picked up seven rebounds in 10 minutes. Epps has maintained an involvement in the basketball community through his music career, recently releasing a song called “NCAA” in which he points out the inequality in a system that requests so much of college athletes, yet pays them nothing.
Ronald Reagan: 40th president of the United States of America, actor, and college cheerleader. That's right—during his tenure at Eureka College, from which he graduated in 1932 after studying economics and sociology, Reagan spent many a night decked out in a university sweater, megaphone in hand, cheering on the Red Devils from the side of the basketball court. More than one future president (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Bushes) spent their college days cheering just like Reagan.
There aren't many celebrities that exist in the intersection of duck hunting and reality television, but Phil Robertson, multi-millionaire and conservative patriarch of the hit show “Duck Dynasty,” is one who does. Before he was breaking cable TV records, Robertson was playing football, well enough to serve as the Louisiana Tech starting quarterback in 1966 and 1967. The team didn't perform spectacularly well during Robertson's time as QB, but he was known for an accurate arm, and by the time he wrapped his two years on the field, he had accumulated 2,237 yards and touchdowns.
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