'American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story' hits theaters: Actors who've played football players

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Football is one of America’s great pastimes, so it comes as no surprise that the sport has served as the basis for a number of fantastic films. Countless actors have taken the field over the years to portray the padded athletes, and now Zachary Levi is tossing the pigskin in the new biopic “American Underdog.” The drama focused on the life of beloved former NFL player Kurt Warner documents his journey as an undrafted player who ascends to win Super Bowl XXXIV. Kurt went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback, and his career is regarded as one of the greatest stories in professional football history. “What surprised me most about playing Kurt was when I was learning more about his story, I realized that his story is less about football and more about family, love, faith and perseverance,” Zachary told People magazine. “That is the heart of this film. It’s kind of like: Come for the football and stay for the family. I love that.” To celebrate “American Underdog” hitting theaters on Dec. 25, 2021, join Wonderwall.com as we look at more actors who’ve portrayed football players…

RELATED: Best football movies of all time

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In 1993, Sean Astin starred in one of the most acclaimed football films and sports dramas of all time — “Rudy.” The biopic is an account of the life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who harbored dreams of playing football at the University of Notre Dame despite significant obstacles. It received a glowing reaction upon its release, with Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times writing that the film “has a freshness and an earnestness that gets us involved, and by the end of the film we accept Rudy’s dream as more than simply sports sentiment. It’s a small but powerful illustration of the human spirit.” “Rudy” was named one of the best 25 sports movies of the previous 25 years in two polls by ESPN and it was ranked the 54th most inspiring film of all time in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years” series.

RELATED: NFL stars who transitioned into Hollywood

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“Jerry Maguire” served as a massive breakthrough for Cuba Gooding Jr. The romantic comedy stars Tom Cruise as a glossy sports agent, but it’s Cuba who steals the show as his client Rodney “Rod” Tidwell, a fictional wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals who’s disgruntled with his contract. Cuba received rave reviews for his performance with the Hollywood Reporter writing, “Gooding is so believable in his role as Jerry’s selfish, pea-brained, wide receiver client that the Dallas Cowboys might consider signing him to complement Michael Irvin.” His work as the arrogant yet charismatic football player garnered him an Academy Award for best supporting actor and his exuberant “Show me the money!” line in the film became a ubiquitous catchphrase.

RELATED: Hollywood’s most successful former sports stars

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Keanu Reeves looked exactly like the hunky quarterback you’ve always had a crush on when he starred in the 2000 comedy “The Replacements.” He plays Shane Falco, a left-handed former All-American quarterback for Ohio State who fell off the grid after choking in the 1996 Sugar Bowl and washing out of the pros after one season. Then, when an NFL team goes on strike with the playoffs fast approaching, Shane is recruited as part of a team of replacement players getting a second chance. The film was a hit at the box office and provided another great leading part for the always charming Keanu, despite mostly negative reviews.

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George Clooney both directed and starred in his first foray on the field with 2008’s “Leatherheads,” which focuses on the early years of professional American football. The period comedy stars the leading man as Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly, captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a struggling team in the ’20s, who is determined to recruit a new player who will finally lead them to a winning streak. While it didn’t make a major dent at the box office, it proved George’s ability to tackle more humorous material both in front of and behind the camera. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that “film fans used to speculate about whether Clooney could become the Cary Grant of our time, and now we know he’s our Clark Gable and William Holden and Dean Martin too.”

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1999 gave Jamie Foxx one of his first major feature roles in the drama “Any Given Sunday” as part of an incredible ensemble that also includes Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, LL Cool J, Ann-Margret, Charlton Heston and Aaron Eckhart. He plays “Steamin” Willie Beamen, the third-string quarterback of once-great fictional football team the Miami Sharks. He eventually moves up the ranks but causes tension among staff and teammates because of his tendency to ignore calls and play by his own rules. His hot-shot behavior off the field eventually gets him demoted and he has to learn to mature to secure his spot on the team. The drama was a $100 million winner at the box office and scored great reviews too, with Time Out New York writing, “A surprisingly balanced film that merges [director Oliver] Stone’s hyperkinetic style with a character-centric narrative approach reminiscent of John Sayles and Robert Altman at their best, ‘Sunday’ proves that powerful human drama and MTV visual pyrotechnics actually can coexist after all.”

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On his way to ’80s heartthrob status, Tom Cruise picked up a football for the 1983 drama “All The Right Moves.” He plays Stefen “Stef” Djordjevic, a Serbian American high school defensive back who’s gifted in both sports and academics and is determined to escape his small Pennsylvania town. Everything is put into jeopardy when he’s kicked off the team and has to fight his way back to ensure he gets a college scholarship. It was an opportunity for Tom to show off his athletic prowess and signified the end of his time playing teen roles as he transitioned to more adult features. Variety said the film “crackles with authenticity” and The New York Times praised its “fairy-tale quality.”

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Adam Sandler had an unstoppable winning streak in the ’90s and has starred in numerous sports comedies including 1998’s “The Waterboy.” The film documents Bobby Boucher Jr., a devoted college football waterboy who defies his overprotective mother by becoming a linebacker once the team’s coach discovers his unique tackling abilities. While the movie was ripped apart by critics upon its release, fans couldn’t get enough. With winning supporting turns from Henry Winkler and Kathy Bates to an endless assortment of quotable lines (medulla oblongata, anyone?), the legacy of Adam’s football hit lives on more than two decades later. “People will come up and they’ll talk about ‘Misery,'” Academy Award winner Kathy told SB Nation. “But a lot of people will talk about Waterboy.'”

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The late Chadwick Boseman had a chance to hit the field in 2014 thanks to the drama “Draft Day” opposite Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner. The premise revolves around a fictional general manager of the Cleveland Browns deciding what to do after his team acquires the No. 1 pick in the upcoming National Football League draft. Chadwick portrays Vontae Mack, a top prospect in the draft class who previously played linebacker at Ohio State University. Vontae fights to be the team’s first choice and does whatever he has to to ensure his spot on the team. The film didn’t make a huge impression at the box office and received mixed reviews, with Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper calling it “a sentimental, predictable, sometimes implausible but thoroughly entertaining, old-fashioned piece.” That said, it’s provides a great glimpse at Chadwick before he became famous for “Black Panther.”

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The high school football tale “Friday Night Lights” features an an ensemble of young players including Garrett Hedlund as fullback Donny Billingsley. The 2004 drama documents the success and pressures faced by a team in the small town of Odessa, Texas. Donny is often seen balancing the stress of performing well on the field with continuous fights with his alcoholic father, played by Tim McGraw, who was once a star high school football player himself and holds his son to an impossible standard while verbally abusing him. The film was a hit at the box office and received critical raves for its gritty, unflinching portrayal of the struggles teen athletes often face. As Newsweek wrote, “Few films have shown so powerfully the slashing double edge of sports fever.” The movie’s success spawned a hit television series that ran for five seasons.

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1974’s “The Longest Yard” brought some much-needed comedy to football. It follows a former NFL player who recruits a group of prisoners who play football against their guards. Burt Reynolds leads the rag-tag team as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former professional quarterback who’s sentenced to prison after taking police on a major car chase, who then turns an assortment of his fellow inmates into winning athletes. Burt was more than prepared for the role, having played football for Florida State University before injuries curtailed his career. The movie was a box office sensation and the actor was singled out in the many positive reactions. Variety declared it “an outstanding action drama” and said that “Burt Reynolds again asserts his genuine star power.” He received a Golden Globe Award nomination for his work in the feature, which won the trophy for best musical or comedy.

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Dwayne Johnson got his start as an athlete, wrestling for WWE for eight years prior to pursuing an acting career. But in 2007, The Rock tried his hand at football thanks to the Disney comedy “The Game Plan.” He stars as Joseph “Joe” Kingman, a professional quarterback who finds out he has an 8-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Comedic hijinks ensue as he struggles to balance his career with his new role as a father. It served as Dwayne’s first lead role in a comedic feature and despite awful reviews, it raked in a ton of money at the box office and proved his versatility as an actor. BBC called the film “cheesy” but praised Dwayne’s performance, saying he “is actually quite good,” while Variety wrote that “Johnson strikes a winning balance of swagger, exasperation and sensitivity.”

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Another coming-of-age drama set in the world of football arrived in 1999 with “Varsity Blues.” It stars James Van Der Beek as Jonathan “Mox” Moxon, an academically successful yet rebellious backup quarterback who must rise to the occasion when the star player becomes too injured to play. It’s set in the small fictional town of West Canaan, Texas, where football is a way of life and losing is not an option. Mox and his teammates must face this pressure while having their overbearing coach constantly on their backs. It became a surprise hit for James while he was riding a wave of fame from hit TV series “Dawson’s Creek,” debuting at the top of the box office and kicking off a new era of hit teen-oriented movies.

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2006’s “We Are Marshall” is a historical sports drama focused on the coaches of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team as they bring the athletes back to glory following a tragic plane crash that killed numerous members of the program as well as the staff. Anthony Mackie got a chance to shine as Nate Ruffin, one of the few football players who didn’t make the flight. Despite experiencing injury, he still leads the grieving team to victory on the field. Based on a harrowing true story, the inspiring flick didn’t garner much love from critics but some celebrated the performances of an ensemble that includes Anthony, Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox. The Orlando Sentinel said that it “doesn’t always have a handle on the grief, but it does keep emotions close to the surface. That allows McConaughey to be the most refreshing, funny and believable he ever has been.”

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Mark Wahlberg took an athletic turn in 2006’s “Invincible” as Vince Papale, a real-life former wide receiver who played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976 to 1978. The biographical drama shows Vince’s start as a substitute teacher and part-time bartender who attends an open public tryout for the Eagles and lands a spot on the NFL team. It received a decent return in ticket sales and a warm reception — critics were especially impressed by Mark’s performance. “It may not break new ground, but ‘Invincible’ is an entertaining film, awash in clichés but leavened by the charismatic performance of Mark Wahlberg as Vince Papale,” wrote USA Today.

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The 1978 fantasy-comedy “Heaven Can Wait” finds Warren Beatty as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who’s looking forward to leading his team to the Super Bowl. That is, until an overzealous guardian angel plucks him into the afterlife too quickly and forces him to search for a new body to live in when his is cremated. Warren, who also co-directed and co-wrote the film, initially hoped to get Muhammad Ali to play the central character, but because of his continued commitment to boxing, Warren changed the character from a boxer to an American football player and took on the role himself. The film was a massive hit with both viewers and critics, with the Los Angeles Times writing that “Beatty and his accomplices have brought it off, with only minor patches of turbulence. The script has been expertly contemporized.” It went on to win three Golden Globe Awards including best musical or comedy and best actor for Warren, plus nine Academy Award nominations.

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The 1986 teen rom-com “Lucas” saw Corey Haim play an unlikely football hero. It follows the titular nerdy high school student who joins the team in a last-ditch effort to impress the girl of his dreams. He becomes significantly injured during a game and ends up earning the support of his entire school as he recovers. It wasn’t a big box office success, but it helped make Corey one of the decade’s leading young stars and won over the hearts of numerous critics. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “is as irresistible as its slight, brilliant, bespectacled 14-year-old hero” and Entertainment Weekly ranked it at No. 16 on its list of the 50 Best High School Movies.

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While not originally a theatrical film, the television movie “Brian’s Song” became one of the most beloved football stories ever when it hit the small screen in 1971. It recounts the life of Brian Piccolo, a real-life Chicago Bears football player stricken with terminal cancer after turning pro in 1965, told through his friendship with Bears teammate Gale Sayers. James Caan stars as the late Brian, who tragically passed away in 1970 at 26 after spending four years in the NFL. The production was such a success on network ABC that it was later shown in theaters by Columbia Pictures. Critics have called it one of the finest telefilms ever made. A readers poll taken by Entertainment Weekly ranked “Brian’s Song” seventh in its list of the top “guy-cry” films ever made. It received 11 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including one for James, and won five trophies.

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Another football biopic arrived in 2008 with “The Express: The Ernie Davis Story,” which is based on the life of Syracuse University football player Ernie Davis, the first African American player to win the Heisman Trophy. The drama starring Rob Brown as the titular athlete explores racism, discrimination and athletics. Sadly, the film was a box office bomb, but critics were pleased with the depiction of the groundbreaking football hero. The Dallas Morning News wrote that “Davis is played winningly, without a single false note, by Rob Brown,” while the Los Angeles Time called the movie “at times stirring, inspiring and thoughtful.”

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Dennis Quaid played a 1950s star athlete known as “The Grey Ghost” in the 1988 drama “Everybody’s All-American.” His character, Gavin Grey, plays football at the fictional University of Louisiana and becomes a small-town hero before getting recruited to play professionally. Upon doing so, he struggles with his newfound lack of notoriety while maintaining a healthy life outside the sport.





















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