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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Life imitating art, or art imitating life? Both of Ed O'Neill's iconic sitcom characters (Al Bundy on “Married...With Children” and Jay Pritchett on “Modern Family”) have character backstories that include time as school football stars. In reality, O'Neill's college football career began at Ohio University and continued after he transferred to Youngstown State, where he played as a defensive lineman in 1967 and 1968. O'Neill was even signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but was cut during training camp, which led him first to dabble in teaching, before finally pursuing acting.
Unlike many of the celebrities on this list, Emma Watson—of “Harry Potter” mega-fame—attended college after she was already a household name. Watson entered Brown as a freshman in 2009 and spent part of her time as a member of the club field hockey team. Watsons' love of hockey began in childhood due to her parents' shared passion for the sport, and she has maintained her involvement by visiting elementary school teams and sharing why she cares about field hockey so much.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy served as the 35th president of the United States from 1961–63, but back in the late 1930s, Kennedy was found in Harvard's locker rooms. Kennedy tried out for several sports teams upon his arrival in Cambridge and was ultimately accepted to the varsity swimming team. Surprisingly, the charismatic future president despised having his picture taken at the time and would have to be dragged from the shower room when newspaper photographers wanted to photograph the team. Coaches later recalled that Kennedy was a bit frail as an athlete and looked like a lanky string bean but he was immensely popular and even then possessed the charm and diplomacy that would carry him into the Oval Office.
Today, Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) uses his experience in psychology to dole out life advice or offer takes on true crime cases, but in 1968, he was celebrating an athletic scholarship to the University of Tulsa. McGraw, who stands at 6-foot-4, played middle linebacker on the same team his father suited up for many years before. McGraw's time on the team did not see many great successes—the Golden Hurricane famously lost a game against the University of Houston 100-6 during this period—but McGraw has said that he has only fond memories of his time both as a football player and a spectator in his alma mater's stadium.
Music hasn't treated Master P too shabbily. As a rapper and CEO of No Limit Records, Master P, born Percy Robert Miller, has an estimated net worth of $200 million. There was a time, however, when the mogul's sights were set on the NBA. The 6-foot-4 Miller attended the University of Houston and played on the basketball team, but had to call it quits due to a knee injury. This wasn't the end of his time on the court, though. In 1999, as an effort to drum up publicity, Master P was invited to participate in the Charlotte Hornets' training camp. Though he didn't make the cut, he did hold his own with a couple of three-pointers and assists.
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Robin Roberts has gained recognition through her multi-decade career in broadcasting, which began during her time at Southeastern Louisiana University as sports director of the college radio station. Roberts also played basketball for the Lady Lions from 1979–83, and in that time, she built up a hugely impressive set of statistics: 1,446 points, 1,034 rebounds, and a free throw percentage of 72%. In honor of this résumé, Roberts was awarded a place in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as a spot on the NCAA's list of 100 most influential student-athletes.
Billy Crystal—known for films like “Analyze This” and “When Harry Met Sally” and a frequent host of “Saturday Night Live” and the Academy Awards—was once a rising baseball prospect. Crystal entered Marshall University in 1965 on a baseball scholarship, but never actually got to play and did not return to Marshall after his freshman year. He chose instead to return home and eventually study at New York University. Despite Crystal's short collegiate affair with baseball, his love for the sport has remained true, and he was able to live every Yankees fan's dream when he played a spring training game with the team in 2008.
Stephen Hawking's life was full of extraordinary achievements. He changed the way we understand black holes, revolutionized the study of cosmology, and wrote best-selling books, all while battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. However, a chapter in Hawking's story which few may be aware of is his collegiate athletic stint. Before he was diagnosed with the disease that confined him to a wheelchair, Hawking was a member of the Oxford rowing team. Hawking was a coxswain, the team member responsible for navigating the boat and maintaining a steady rowing pace, and biographers have posited that this role was important in pulling Hawking out of the unhappiness of his freshman year and helping him find his place at Oxford.
Ellie Kemper's time as a Princeton field hockey player may not be the stuff of athletic lore, but it's still an era she remembers fondly. Kemper, who is best known for her work on “The Office” and as the titular character in “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” entered Princeton as a freshman in 1998, and played on the field hockey team for one year, during which the team came in second place in the country. Despite this impressive feat, Kemper ended her athletic career the following year in order to pursue improvisational comedy, and says that she spent “roughly 97%” of that fateful 1998 season sitting on the bench and providing water to her teammates.
Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett may be best known for his absurdist exploration of the human condition—his short play “Not I” consists of a black stage where only an actress's frantically speaking mouth is visible—but he was also a bloke who loved cricket. Beckett was a strong player throughout high school and continued to play as a left-handed opening batsman during his time at Trinity College in Dublin, where he averaged 35 runs in four innings. Becket's fascination with the concept of “game” in sports, especially in chess, is prevalent through much of his work.
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One could argue that a political figure is sometimes defined by a younger generation for his or her portrayal on “Saturday Night Live”—and in the case of Gerald Ford, that portrayal involved Chevy Chase as a clueless, klutzy president. Surprisingly, however, Ford was a highly skilled athlete, serving as the captain of his high school football team, and then a center, linebacker, and long snapper at the University of Michigan. During two of Ford's seasons at Michigan (in 1932 and 1933), the Wolverines went undefeated, and Ford was widely known as the star player. His prowess earned him "most valuable player" awards and offers from multiple NFL teams, which he turned down.
Hugh Laurie, known for his work on “House” and as half of the comedic duo Fry and Laurie, received the type of elite academic experience most can only dream of. He attended the prestigious Eton College for secondary school, and then went on to study at Cambridge, where he became a rower. Laurie had already excelled at rowing in his teen years, having competed in the Junior World Rowing Championships. In 1980, Laurie partook in the 126th boat race between Oxford and Cambridge. Laurie's team ultimately lost in one of the closest and most exciting races in decades.
Before Rick Ross (born William Leonard Roberts II) was signing multi-million dollar deals at Def Jam Records, receiving Grammy nominations, or getting into various forms of legal trouble, he was playing football. Ross was a skilled and respected athlete in high school, and his abilities earned him a football scholarship to Albany State. Ross spent only one year playing football at the historically black university before leaving to pursue a career as a corrections officer, and then in the music industry.
It may come as a surprise that the actor who gave us the American version of Michael Scott— perennial workplace goofball—once entertained dreams of life on an ice rink. Steve Carell played hockey throughout his childhood in Boston, but when it came time to pick a college, Carell settled on a Division II school (Denison University), where he could get more playing time as a goalie than he would at a more competitive Division I school. Carell has said that, at that time, he chose to play hockey for the love of the sport rather than as a means to a career. He still plays in a weekly Los Angeles recreation league.
Already recognized as one of the industry's finest thespians, Denzel Washington's ball-playing skills in the 1998 film "He Got Game" were not scripted. Rather, they came from a spontaneous display of Washington's decades of basketball training. Washington's talent on the court dates back to his years at Fordham, where he earned a spot on the junior varsity team for two seasons from 1972–74. Teammates from that time report that Washington was fast, strong on defense, and a natural athlete, although his outside shot was a known weakness.
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John Wayne, born Marion Morrison, has solidified himself as one of the most important figures both in Hollywood history and amongst the graduates of the University of Southern California. Wayne, a high school football player, entered USC in 1925 on an athletic scholarship, which at that time meant just $280 a year for tuition plus one meal a day. He began on the junior varsity football team and earned a varsity spot his sophomore year, but he allegedly had to give up the sport when he broke his collarbone while surfing. Wayne then spent time doing grip work and other manual labor on the Fox lot, until he finally worked his way in front of the camera.
In 2018, Beto O'Rourke made major political waves as the longshot Democrat who nearly beat out Ted Cruz in the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas. O'Rourke gained attention for his everyman demeanor and surprising past as a punk rocker, but he also holds a long history as an athlete. During his junior year at Columbia, O'Rourke co-captained the heavyweight rowing crew, a type of rowing geared towards larger, stronger athletes. Unlike the majority of his teammates, O'Rourke had no prior rowing experience and was a walk-on, but he was skilled enough to earn an outstanding oarsman award and is still involved in various athletic pursuits today.
Forest Whitaker, the fourth black man to receive an Academy Award, did not always know he wanted to act. First came music and then football. In 1979, Whitaker began his studies at Cal State Polytechnic University, Pomona, on a football scholarship but was haunted by persistent back trouble. The injury eventually worsened to the degree that Whitaker could barely move, at which point he left sports behind. He turned his focus to singing, and then to drama, transferring to the University of Southern California and graduating from its School of Dramatic Arts.
Today, Leslie Jones is known as a comedic force and a key player on “Saturday Night Live,” but her height (she's 6-foot tall) might give a clue as to the athletic path she considered prior to writing and performing. Jones received a basketball scholarship to Chapman University, although she didn't play there for long. She transferred to Colorado State University in order to follow a Chapman coach that moved on. At Colorado State, however, Jones' transfer status meant that she was red-shirted and unable to play in any basketball games for a whole season—a fact that freed up Jones' time and allowed her to try her hand at stand-up comedy, which she then dropped out of school to pursue.
As of 2019, Bradley Cooper can add “Oscar-nominated producer” to his list of achievements, but “member of the Georgetown rowing team” has been on there since the mid-1990s. Cooper's college career began at Villanova, but after just one year, he transferred to Georgetown, where he studied English, became fluent in French, and rowed alongside his fellow Hoyas. Cooper stepped away from his crew team for most of a season in order to perform in a play, and when he asked his coach if he could row in the final crucial race, he was given a firm “no.” After a little insistence, however, he was allowed, and gave an effort that Cooper's coach said was “the most magnificent thing” he'd ever seen in rowing.
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