Ten of the Best Portrayals of Athletes by Actors

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There’s lots of sports movies and lots of actors trying to pass as athletes, but very few can actually pull it off.  I mean, have you seen Michael J. Fox playing basketball in Teen Wolf?  I’ve seen epileptic quadriplegics with better coordination.  And no, I’m not gonna make a Parkinson’s joke, so get bent.  Anyway, becoming an athlete on screen isn’t easy, but here are ten portrayals where the actor or actress was convincing.  The rule for this rundown, though, is that the actor didn’t play professionally in the sport that his character plays in the movie -so no Ray Allen in He Got Game.  Got it?  Good.  Here are those ten performances, in no particular order:

1. Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed – Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, and Rocky IV

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Carl Weathers played college football at San Diego State and went on to have a very brief NFL career as a linebacker, but he had no trouble convincing audiences he was a heavyweight boxer in the Rocky movies.  Weathers is big, muscular, shredded, and moves effortlessly around the ring as Apollo Creed.  He looks the part of a fighter, can move and throw punches like a real fighter, and even managed to show off a swagger that would make Muhammed Ali appear modest.  Carl Weathers and Apollo Creed will always be linked – not because Weathers played Creed, but because Weathers became Creed.  I could probably beat him up, though.

2. Jamie Foxx as Willie Beaman – Any Given Sunday

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I would have never expected a guy who acted the fool on In Living Color to come off so convincing as a pro quarterback.  Jamie Foxx beefed up for this role, and the scenes where he is running and throwing show you how athletic he really is.  I thought Dennis Quaid did a pretty good job of playing a pro quarterback, too, but Jamie was more believable.  I know it’s somewhat polarizing, but Any Given Sunday is probably my favorite football movie.  It shows the barbaric and violent nature of the pro game, along with the perks and problems that come along with being a professional football player.  Plus, I can’t get the locker room scene out of my head.  You know, where the guy with the horse dick swinging like a beef pendulum between his legs is talking to Cameron Diaz?  Pretty awesome when you see that movie in the theater with your mother.  Not awkward at all.

3. Charlie Sheen as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn – Major League

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In my worthless humble opinion, portraying a baseball player is harder than portraying any other type of athlete.  It’s not just speed and strength of the athlete that the actor needs to embody, but the precise mechanics of throwing a baseball, as well.  Or, in Sheen’s case, pitching a baseball.  Many have tried and failed (Tim Robbins – was he trying to channel Fernando Valenzuela?  It didn’t work.), but Sheen’s wind up and delivery make me moist.  Sheen’s portrayal of Ricky Vaughn is believable because the mechanics of his windup are great, and not just for an actor.

4. Duane Martin as Kyle Watson – Above the Rim

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Admittedly, Martin’s performance as Kyle Watson is my favorite on this list.  The kid can flat out ball.  In fact, he had a brief stint with the New York Knicks, but I am pretty sure he never played in a regular season game (check www.basketball-reference.com; he’s nowhere to be found). Ergo, he qualifies under our rule.  Dribbling the ball seems almost second nature to Martin, so his role as a varsity basketball player who earns a scholarship to Georgetown isn’t far-fetched at all.  Above the Rim, as far as basketball movies go, is pretty good, and a lot of that is due to Martin’s skills.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the greatest rapper of all time in the movie, too.  Hennessy and weed for me, playa.

5. Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull

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Most critics adore Scorcese’s Raging Bull, and rightfully so.  DeNiro plays boxer Jake LaMotta in this black-and-white classic, and without DeNiro selling the idea that his character is a vicious, brawny boxer, the movie would fall apart.  LaMotta himself and trainer Al Silvani trained DeNiro for his role, and it’s pretty clear that it paid off.  Equally impressive as the boxing, I suppose, was DeNiro gaining 60 pounds to play LaMotta post-retirement.

6. Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald – Million Dollar Baby

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Swank deserved her Best Actress Oscar for this role – not just for her ability to convey an entire spectrum of emotions throughout the film, but for becoming a hardbodied fighter that would beat your ass.  Chick or not, Swank was impressive jumping rope, hitting the speed and heavy bags, and owning hoes in the boxing ring.  In fact, Swank is more convincing as a boxer than a lot of men who have played boxers – her technique is more sound than Stallone’s.

7. Kevin Coster as Roy McAvoy – Tin Cup

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Costner may have been able to make the cut for his role as Crash Davis in Bull Durham, but his golf swing is a lot better than his baseball swing.  Looking good while swinging a golf club ain’t easy, but Costner manages to do it in Tin Cup.  Matt Damon is a pretty good actor, but his swing in The Legend of Bagger Vance is atrocious, which goes to show that not just anyone can convincingly play a golfer.

Damon’s swing : Costner’s swing :: Claire Dames : Audrey Bitoni

No doubt.

8. Tom Selleck as Jack Elliot – Mr. Baseball

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Awesome Don Mattingly-esque mustache aside, Tom Selleck looks like a ballplayer.  I don’t know if it’s his size, how he carries himself, or something else, but Tom Selleck looks like he could easily be playing first base for an AL squad, hitting 45 home runs, striking out over 150 times, and OBPing somewhere around .380.  Yet some moron would point out that he’s only hitting .255 and say that he sucks.  If you’ve seen Mr. Baseball, then you know that Selleck’s sweet swing puts Tom Berenger’s and Dennis Haysbert’s swings to shame.  I WANT TO HUG DENNIS HAYSBERT MORE THAN ANY OTHER PERSON ON EARTH.  Ok, I feel better now; I just had to get that out.  He’s like a big cuddly bear.

9. Burt Reynolds as Paul Crewe – The Longest Yard

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If someone’s going to argue with me that Any Given Sunday sucks, they’re likely to cite The Longest Yard as what a football movie should be.  And I’d agree – it’s a classic sports flick.  Reynolds plays Paul Crewe, helping his fellow inmates drop some hurtin’ bombs on the scumbag prison guards.  It’s no surprise that Reynolds easily passes as a football player; the dude played for Florida State University in college before a knee injury led him to a career in acting.  I like Burt Reynolds, and I love the FSU Cowgirls, but seriously, f*ck Florida State. [shameless Florida Gators plug goes here]

10. Maris Valainis as Jimmy Chitwood – Hoosiers

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Who the heck is Maris Valainis?  He’s been in like three movies, was 5’6″ as a teenager, and got cut from his high school basketball team three straight years.  Whatever.  Maris’ soft-as-my-wang-after-12-beers jumper is sweeter than anyone else’s in Hoosiers, and everybody knows Jimmy Chitwood thanks to Maris’ gorgeous stroke.  Maris is currently out of acting and makes a living as a golf pro, but back in the day, the dude could shoot the pill.

Honorable Mention #1 – Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Rod Tidwell – Jerry Maguire

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Yes, Cuba looked the part and nailed the attitude of an NFL prima donna wide receiver, but there wasn’t enough on-the-field action for him to make the cut.  Sorry.

Honorable Mention #2 – Whoever Played the Wolf in the Basketball Scenes in Teen Wolf

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I know that it wasn’t Michael J. Fox, but for the life of me, I could not find who played the Wolf for the basketball scenes in Teen Wolf.  I’m guessing it was probably a Harlem Globetrotter or a real werewolf.  Does anyone know who it was?  Cuz the guy can play some serious ball.

Did I miss anyone?  Overrate a performance?  Hit me up and let me know!  As always, insulting my mother and/or suggesting her profession involves intercourse is welcomed.


  • Mike

    Turns out that Jamie Foxx had some skills for his role as Willie Beamen already; he was a high school quarterback in Texas and set a career passing record while he was there (under his birth name, Eric Bishop).

  • Vinh

    Tom Selleck played volleyball in college.

  • M

    I was expecting to see mentioning of Will Smith for his portrayal as Muhammad Ali in “Ali”

  • Brian

    What about Kevin Costner in “For the Love of the Game”. And to note that, with him and Tom Seleck why are these baseball movies about the Detroit Tigers?? Where are my Cubbies? (Besides that movie with the little kid that hurt his arm and could pitch for the cubs, or was that Kerry Wood in disguise?)

  • Dixon Gorged

    The “Wolf” in the basketball scenes was played by Jeff Closser. http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1800125613/cast

  • Brian S

    Charlie Sheen was a scholarshipped baseball player in college. He can throw in the high 80s. IMDb my friend

  • ted

    How do you leave out Costner in Bull Durham, the best baseball movie of all time?

  • Bukator

    happy gilmour….jk

  • Eugenius

    Jeff Closser was Michael J. Fox’s basketball stunt double in Teen Wolf. Fox’s b-ball skils were supposed to look horrible to make the wolf look that much better. Besides, this movie is a cult classic! It was the 80’s and the “eternal teenager” could do no wrong.

  • Rich

    How about Ray Allen as Jesus in He Got Game? Pretty convincing that hes good at basketball (which isn’t true in real life)

  • Madison

    @ Rich

    From the opening paragraph in this article:

    “The rule for this rundown, though, is that the actor didn’t play professionally in the sport that his character plays in the movie -so no Ray Allen in He Got Game.”

    I’d say thanks for reading, but I think a “thanks for looking at the pretty pictures” is more appropriate.

    And Ray Allen isn’t good at basketball? Really?

  • Will

    What about Russel Crowe in Cinderella Man, as Jim Braddock

  • texan farmer

    how do u leave out white men can’t jump!!!???

  • Scanain

    Not mad about the list.

    I’d be more interested in athletes that actually got athletic:

    Carl Weathers / Sly Stallone / Robert DeNiro – agreed

    No mention of Billy Cruddup – Without limits

    Will Smith – Ali

    Daniel Day Lewis – The Boxer

    Ralph Machio – (just kidding)

    Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler

    All examples of people who actually got into serious shape for the roles they played.

  • cory

    To the previous statement Mickey Rourke was at one time a professional boxer so I’m not sure that he fits the criteria of the article. Also I agree with the texan farmer White Man Can’t Jump is a hell of a movie. “Your mothers an astronaut” priceless

  • kzeck

    Gotta have Happy Gilmore

  • buzzlongshot

    Shocking but true…

    Keanu Reeves was offered a tryout with the Baltimore Ravens while filming The Replacements.
    (http://ilovesportmovies.blogspot.com/2007/10/replacements.html)

    Though nothing he does in the film stands out as particularly impressive (decent throwing motion, I guess), the football scenes were filmed in the Ravens stadium during preseason with real Ravens’ coaches acting as trainers and technical advisors on the film. Apparently he must have impressed them somehow.

  • FSU Graduate

    F-L-O-R-I-D-A! S-T-A-T-E!

    FLORIDA STATE!
    FLORIDA STATE!
    FLORIDA STATE!

    WOOOOOOOO!!!!1

    (Seriously, F*ck the Gators)

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  • Joe R.

    How about Robert Redford in “The Natural”? He had a beautiful and realistic looking swing.

  • John Meiklem

    Robert Ryan in “The Set Up”. Terrific performance from the best actor the world has seen.

  • Kong

    So, pretty good list, but I’m sorry, you’re completely wrong about Costner’s golf swing vs. his baseball swing. Costner played ball, and is a legitimate switch hitter. Those homers in Bull Durham are really him cracking the ball. His golf swing sucks however, and frankly the golf swings of most actors as pro players suck. Matt Damon’s sucked in whatever that shitty movie with Will Smith was, Shooter Mcgavin in Happy Gilmore = pure crap, in fact Sandler’s walk over swing is much more natural and believable.

    The most believable and decent swing from any actor in a movie is Randy Quaid in Dead, Solid, Perfect but nobody has ever seen that film.

    BTW, Sheen is also in Eight Men Out, with an entire group of actors that could play. In fact, instead of readings for the roles, they had tryouts on the field.

  • Madison

    @ Kong

    I guess I was trying to make it all relative. Costner does have a good baseball swing, and – although you disagree – his golf swing is pretty good. In fact, I included it because it’s a helluva lot better than most other actors’ golf swings, whereas his baseball swing really is not.

    Very interesting about Eight Men Out; I remember they did a sVmilar tactic in Miracle when casting the hokey players.

    Thanks for reading.

  • MPC

    I always thought James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope did a great job capturing the look of early boxing.

  • j

    What about Michelle Rodriguez in Girl Fight? I thought she was fairly convincing.

  • billybtown00

    What the hell kind of list is this?! Where is Roy Hobbs in The Natural played by Robert Redford? Or Sean Austin playing Rudy? DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly?

    Of course no list would be complete without Matt Adler as Rick Cane in North shore.

  • brujenk

    Paul Newman and Michael Ontkean in Slapshot!

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  • It has to be Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed – Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, and Rocky IV.

  • The Mutt

    The minute Diaz walked on the screen in Any Given Sunday, I turned to my friend and said, “There’s gonna be a scene with her in the locker room with a Black guy with a huge dick.” I never expected them to actually show it.

    Hard to believe you left off Wesley Snipes, who has shown his mad skills in three different sports in three different films.

  • Madison

    @ The Mutt

    That’s pretty funny. The theater was abuzz during that scene when I saw it.

    Anyway, I considered Wesley Snipes. He’s definitely a decent athlete, but he doesn’t – to me at least – come off as GREAT in any one sport. He’s a good basketball player, but looks like a total amateur compared to Duane Martin.

  • Marty

    You gotta pull out your Selleck selection. Not sure where to back this up, but I know from watching all those Magnum P.I. episodes with him & his Tigers cap that he had a pro tryout with them at some point (which is why he always wore that cap in the show). I don’t know if it was an appeasement to a celebrity that they let him play or he was good enough to actually try out, but he did get on the squad although cut from the big club.

    • Zombietroy

      Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker Guest Starred in at least one episode…

      • Great call Zombie. Totally forgot about that, but were they good?

  • nana

    fuck happy gilmore

  • TP

    Agree with @brujenk — Newman and Ontkean for Slapshot!

  • Scott

    How about Andre 3000 in Semi Pro?

  • W4LT

    Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler.”

    and, before you tell me that pool is not athletic, let’s see you drink booze for 30 hours and still have a dead eye and a steady cue.

  • moi

    yay you put million dollar baby one of my fav movies! i agree hillary swank was excellent in it. and that’s the only one on this list i have seen. i don’t like sports much 😛

  • Steve

    Yes idiot, MJ Fox was supposed to look like a bad basketballplayer and wolf was supposed to look great, that’s the idea of the film. I bet you weren’t even born when the movie was a succes you idiot.

  • Madison

    @ Steve

    Wrong. On both counts. He was supposed to be good in the last game as himself, but he was atrocious. They had to edit his shots so they looked like they went in.

  • stalin rajesh

    what about russel in cindrella man dude …….. that lists the top fuck…..kkkkk!!!

  • I just like to say it how I see it. Take care.

  • Jesse

    Even though it was only a TV show Ken Howard of The White Shadow should have gotten a nod.

  • john

    Barry Pepper as Roger Maris in 61*

  • Duane Martin as Kyle Watson – Above the Rim
    this is my favarite out of all.