Ten of the Best Portrayals of Athletes by Actors

Ten of the Best Portrayals of Athletes by Actors


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? 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

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 Muhammad Ali appear modest. Carl Weathers and Apollo Creed will always be linked – not because Weathers played Creed, but because Weathers became Creed.

2. Jamie Foxx as Willie Beaman – Any Given Sunday

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.

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

In my 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 are spot on. 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

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.

5. Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta – Raging Bull

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

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 hard-bodied fighter that would beat you to a pulp. Chick or not, Swank was impressive jumping rope, hitting the speed and heavy bags, and owning 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

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.

8. Tom Selleck as Jack Elliot – Mr. Baseball

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.  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

If someone’s going to argue with me that Any Given Sunday isn’t good, 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 vicious 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.

10. Maris Valainis as Jimmy Chitwood – Hoosiers

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 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

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

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?  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.

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