Life After Sports
In the current professional sports environment, athletes are earning so many millions of dollars that once they have decided to retire from their respective sport, most will never have to find new employment ever again in their lifetime.
There are those, however, from the past and some in the present that could simply not walk away and bask in the sun resting on their laurels. Some have sought a second career be it in politics or entertainment and some thrived in those new fields. Some of the more prominent athletes turned politician or actor are household names.
The 2016 Presidential election gave us a real estate and business king named Donald Trump who won the election. While not a former pro athlete, many Presidents before Trump dabbled in sports. But aside from the presidency, there has been a slew of athletes who created a legacy in sports but later became prominent politicians.
Coming out of Syracuse University and then playing guard in the National Basketball Association was Dave Bing. Bing would go on to become the Mayor of Detroit in 2009 replacing Kwame Kilpatrick and then won re-election in 2010. Bing was a Democrat and before he was a Mayor, the great basketball player Bill Bradley retired from playing with the New York Knicks and became a Senator from New Jersey for 18 years.
In 1964 Bradley was a member of the gold medal-winning United States basketball team while playing his college ball at Princeton. Bradley was not only a gold medalist but he also won an NBA title with the Knicks as well but also played for a championship team that won a European club title joining only Manu Ginobili to complete the accomplishment.
Another NBAer who went into politics was Kevin Johnson. A member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns, Johnson was the Mayor of Sacramento from 2008 until 2016.
Having played Major League Baseball for the Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, but primarily known for being a Philadelphia Phillie, Jim Bunning followed up his baseball career by becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives out of the state of Kentucky from 1987-1999 and won the Senator seat in Kentucky keeping that role from 1999 to 2011.
Roberts would win 286 games in his major league career but he also hit five home runs as a batter. For six straight seasons, Robin Roberts won 20 or more games leading the league in victories from 1952 to 1955. In ’52 he won 28 and lost just seven and in that same time frame of leading the majors in wins, h also led in complete games.
Joining the political arena after a career in baseball was Wilmer David Mizell, a member of the House of Representatives in North Carolina and a Republican. But Mizell was better known in the MLB by his nickname, “Vinegar Bend.” That moniker was also the name of the city from where Mizell was born, located in the state of Alabama.
While track stars have never earned the amounts of salary that represent themselves in other sports and often don’t provide a professional avenue to transition to, many have had to resort to a career in another arena. At the 1964 Summer Olympics, Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell was captain of the United States judo team and would later go on to become a House Representative and Senator in Colorado.
The name “Nighthorse” was placed upon Campbell by the Indian tribe Blackhorse of which his father was a member and at the Northern Cheyenne reservation, in a name-giving ceremony, he was dubbed Nighthorse. Bob Mathias was also an Olympian and politician a winner in the Decathlon of the 1948 and 1952 games. Later Mathias was in the House of Representatives for California from 1967-1975.
Staying with track and field we had Jim Ryun, a world record holder in the mile and competed in 1964, 1968, and 1972 Summer Olympics. He also served in the House of Representatives in Kansas’s 2nd congressional district fro 1996-2007. Ryun also set world records at one time in the 880-yard outdoor and indoor race in 1966 and 1967, the 1,500 meters, and the mile.
Professional football is probably the sport that has had the most impact in politics, in movies, and on television for athletes that turned to these second career choices. Jack Kemp is one of the most well-known politicians that had a solid career in pro football. A quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, Kemp served nine terms as a Congressman from New York, covering the years 1971 to 1989. Kemp also served as Housing Secretary under George W. Bush and ran for President in 1996.
Perhaps the greatest receiver in the history of the Seattle Seahawks as Steve Largent. Upon retiring, Largent traveled into the political arena and became a member of the House of Representatives serving from 1995-2003. From 1976 to 1989, Largent would catch 819 footballs good for 13,089 yards. He also scored 100 touchdowns through the air and another touchdown when rushing with the ball. Largent is also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Former football players have also made their mark on the judicial bench. More recently, Dwayne Woodruff a fine cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers became a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Pittsburgh. He still holds that seat. Before him and many moons ago, Byron “Whizzer” White became one of the Steelers' greatest players ever and ended up as the U.S. Deputy Attorney General serving under President John F. Kennedy. White would also become a Supreme Court Judge and left behind a storied legacy when he passed away in 2006.
The NFL Player Association annually awards the “Byron Whizzer White NFL Man of the Year Award” to a player who best exemplifies charity work. There is a federal courthouse in Denver that bores the name of Byron White. Colorado is also from Fort. Collins, Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado. A Navy veteran, White wanted to be a Marine but because of his color blindness, he was not permitted to enlist. He earned two Bronze Star medals for his service and left the military as a Lieutenant Commander. As a player, Byron White played in just three seasons, one with the Steelers in 1938 and two more with Detroit in 1940 and 1941. On a personal level, Byron White was married to his wife Marion for 56 years but met her in 1921. They would marry in 1946.
Another man who served on the bench was Alan Page who was a member of the feared “Purple People Eaters” defensive line for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s and he was Alan Page. In society, he was an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court from 1993 to 2015.
When it comes to athletes who turned to acting, there are far too many to be named in one article. But some of the more significant ones came out of football and baseball. One of the most colorful characters from football was the late John Matuszak. Tragically he died at just 38 years of age after a drug overdose. The drug Darvocet was the culprit. But before his death, he famously played the role of “Sloth” in the movie Goonies. Matuszak also appeared in “North Dallas Forty,” “Caveman,” “The Ice Pirates,” and on television appeared in such shows as M*A*S*H*, Trapper John M.D., The Dukes of Hazzard, Silver Spoons, Hunter, The A-Team, and Miami Vice.
Speaking of the show “Hunter” the star of that drama was former L.A. Ram defensive lineman Fred Dryer. Dryer was slated to also star in the role of Sam Malone in “Cheers” but he failed to gain that job. Dryer holds the distinction of being the only player in history to score two safeties in the same game.
One of the funniest athletes turned actors was Bob Uecker. A self admitting lousy baseball player, Uecker scored big on television especially in commercials with his humor. Uecker starred in “Mr. Belveder,” and was in the movie “Major League” as an announcer. One of the biggest athletes as far as size goes that turned to acting is Shaquille O’Neal.
You will find Shaq all over television these days in commercials and he is now part-owner of Dominoes Pizza. But he played a movie part in “Kazaam” and in “Blue Chips” where of course he was a highly sought after basketball recruit. Another larger than life athlete turned actor was Merlin Olson. Part of the “Fearsome Foursome” of the Los Angeles Rams, Olson would have roles in “Little House on the Prairie” and “Father Murphy.” It was in Father Murphy that Olson had a large acting role.
Football defensive players seem to dominate the athlete turned actor scenario because former Detroit Lion Alex Karras also had a successful acting career appearing in “Webster,” and the hilarious movie “Blazing Saddles” where he starred as “Mongo” and had the crazy scene of punching out a horse.
A two-sport athlete is rare but for Chuck Connors he did it. Having played professional basketball in the NBA and then baseball in the major leagues, Connor made himself a household name starring in “The Rifleman.” Turning back to football, one of the greatest running backs in history was Jim Brown. Ironically his last name was where he played his entire career, with the Cleveland Browns. But he would go on to play roles in multiple movies including “The Dirty Dozen.”
If you ever saw the low budget horror movie “The Thing With Two Heads” it became a cult film that starred former defensive standout Rosey Grier. The movie was about a mad scientist that grafted the head of a white racist onto another Grier’s body with Grier playing the role of an ex-convict. It sounds silly but it’s out there. There were many more roles for Grier but another possibly little known fact is that Grier is also an outstanding needlepoint talent. He even wrote a book on the skill titled “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.”
Once finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting, Ed Marinaro would go from Cornell University to the Minnesota Vikings and played for the Jets and Seattle Seahawks as well but is best remembered for his role as Officer Joe Coffey on “Hill Street Blues.”
Another defensive football player had a fine career on film and that was Bubba Smith the former Colt who as hilarious in the “Police Academy” movie series as Moses Hightower. Someone that left his mark in the film industry for sure is “Apollo Creed” aka Carl Weathers. Appearing in the first three “Rocky” movies, Weathers played roles on television and other movies but it was as Creed where he will be best remembered. Before that, he did make a go of it in the NFL but wasn’t in the league long instead of playing up north in the Canadian Football League.
“Don’t call me surely.” A line for the ages from the movie “Airplane” which starred basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. One of Fox Sports' best football analysts and funniest is former Steelers four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw. But Bradshaw also appeared in Burt Reynolds’ movie “Smokey and the Bandit.”
How about a boxer? That would be Tony Danza from “Cheers” and “Who’s the Boss.” You didn’t know he was a pro boxer? It’s tur and as a pro, he turned in a record of 9-3. Then there is a fantastic swimmer from way back when named Johnny Weissmuller who would become “Tarzan” on television and movies. Weissmuller not only won gold in the Olympics but he also earned a bronze medal in water polo.
Joining Tony Danza in boxer turned actor is Randall "Tex" Cobb who while he didn’t have a stellar career as an actor he did appear in “Raising Arizona,” “Police Academy,” and “Fletch Lives” among other roles. Cobb earned a heavyweight title fight against the then champion Larry Holmes but the champ beat him mercifully to a point it caused the late Howard Cosell to quit calling fights.
In the NBA playing for the champion Lakers was Rick Fox who would make his way onto the HBO heralded series “Oz.”
“In high school, I scored four touchdowns in one game.” Those the words of Al Bundy, aka Ed O’Neill who once had a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers after a collegiate career at Ohio University and Youngstown State. He was the star of “Married with Children” and has had man other TV roles.
One of the creepier athletes turned actor who ruined his life by committing crimes was O.J. Simpson. We all know his story so it isn’t worth repeating but before he landed in jail, he had starred in several movies. I mentioned Burt Reynolds and at one time he was a promising collegiate football player who never made it to the pros because of injuries. A major Hollywood star, who can forget his role in “The Longest Yard.” A so funny movie where he played, of course, a football player in jail.
While never a pro athlete, he was a professional martial artist and perhaps the absolute greatest ever in that form of combat sports and he was the late Bruce Lee. Simply put a legend. Lee’s movies are well known but he did compete in some martial arts exhibitions. Along with Lee one of his foes in a movie was fellow martial artist Chuck Norris who made a huge impact in movies. But unlike Lee, Norris competed on a pro level and upon retirement from competitive fighting had wracked up a record of 183-10-2 winning in the neighborhood of 30 tournaments. He also held the World Professional Middleweight karate belt for six years.
The list could go on and on but this gives the idea of “Life after Sports.” It has happened for so many athletes but there are probably few and far between cases of an actor turning athlete. Several have tried it, especially on the old Fox show “Celebrity Boxing” where the likes of Danny Bonaduce from the television sitcom “Partridge Family” once boxed “The Brady Bunch” star Greg Williams and clobbered him. The show was so ridiculous that in 2002, TV Guide Magazine ranked the show the “sixth worst television show of all time” from a list of 50.