AS A YOUNG OREGON SPORTSWRITER in the 1980s, I never saw a high school quarterback who could throw and act like Terrell (Texas) High’s Jamie Foxx or catch and sing like Gibbs (Tennessee) High’s Kenny Chesney.
Then again, I never saw any high school plays or heard any teenage garage bands back then. There could have been a singing southern Oregon linebacker or thespian tackle who escaped my notice — and everyone else’s. If any 1980s-era southern Oregon football players made it as entertainment or political superstars, they’ve kept it awfully quiet.
There’s nothing quiet about the following, who have made more noise on the stage, screen, or stump than they did on the high school football field. In fact, the only restriction for this list is the person cannot be a former NFL star, like Michael Strahan, or college football superstar, like Cornell’s Ed Marinaro, who finished second to Pat Sullivan in the 1971 Heisman Trophy voting.
Let me know if I’ve missed on any first-rate celebrities with prep football backgrounds —I’m sure I have.
QUARTERBACKS: Jamie Foxx, Terrell High (Texas), class of 1986. Phil Robertson, North Caddo High (Vivian, Louisiana), 1965. Forest Whitaker, Palisades High (California), 1979.
MY ONLY BEEF with Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles (Ray, 2004) was all that beef on his arms, which looked buff from lifting weights, not bruised with heroin needles. Foxx passed for more than 1,000 yards in high school and later portrayed a football player in Any Given Sunday (1999).
Robertson is that “Duck Dynasty” guy; he later played college ball with Terry Bradshaw at Louisiana Tech. Whitaker’s burly physique seems more suited for linebacker, which he played in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), than quarterback. Mark Harmon (“St. Elsewhere,” 1982-88) also played high school and college QB, but what’s the big deal? His dad was Michigan legend and 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon.
RUNNING BACKS: Burt Reynolds, Palm Beach High (Florida), 1954. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abilene High (Kansas), 1910. James Caan, Rhodes Preparatory School (New York City), 1957. Willie Nelson, Abbott High (Texas), 1951. Patrick Swayze, Waltrip High (Houston, Texas), 1971. George Strait, Pearsall High (Texas), 1970.
Reynolds and Caan looked like athletes and played major college football, the former at Florida State and the latter at Michigan State. Although he’d been acting for a decade, Caan got his big break by playing real-life running back Brian Piccolo in the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song.” Reynolds portrayed football players in The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977).
It’s hard to imagine Willie Nelson (“On the Road Again,” 1980) as a high school jock, although it’s easier if you picture him as someone like Zonker Harris from Doonesbury, firing up a blunt in the huddle.
Former five-star general and 34th president Eisenhower ranks with Gerald Ford as our finest football-playing chiefs, although the tall and freakishly strong Abe Lincoln could’ve made a dominating, Ted Hendricks-type linebacker.
Strait (“All My Exes live in Texas,” 1987) and Swayze (Dirty Dancing, 1987) are two more Texans, which begs the question: Is high school football a prerequisite to show-biz stardom in the Lone Star State? Sure seems like it.
WIDE RECEIVERS / TIGHT END: Kenny Chesney, Gibbs High (Luttrell, Tennessee), 1986. Ashton Kutcher, Clear Creek-Amana High (Tiffin, Iowa), 1996. Matthew Fox, Wind River High (Pavillion, Wyoming), Deerfield Academy (Massachusetts), 1984. Nick Nolte, Benson High, Westside High (both in Omaha, Nebraska), 1959.
Nolte, the tight end in this group, portrayed a creaky wide receiver in North Dallas Forty (1979, right). Chesney is one of many high-school-athletes-turned-country-music-stars, a category that includes Tammy Wynette, an all-state basketball player in Mississippi. “Lost” (2004-10) star Matthew Fox went on to play at Columbia University, where the Lions lost 38 out of 40 games — talk about lost. Kutcher (“That 70s Show,” 1998-06) played linebacker as well as wide receiver in high school and has been an assistant coach at Harvard-Westlake High in North Hollywood.
OFFENSIVE LINE: John Wayne, Glendale High (California), 1925. Tommy Lee Jones, St. Mark’s School (Dallas, Texas), 1965. Joe Don Baker, Groesbeck High (Texas), 1954. Ed Asner, Wyandotte High (Kansas), 1948. Hoyt Axton, Robert E. Lee High (Jacksonville, Florida), 1956. Brian Dennehy, Chaminade High (Mineola, New York), 1956. Gerald Ford, South High (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1931. Warren Beatty, Washington-Lee High (Arlington, Virginia), 1955.
Wayne (Stagecoach, 1939) who played at USC, and Jones (No Country for Old Men, 2087) who played at Harvard, are the Oscar-winning guards. Jones started for the 1968 college squad that scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to tie Yale; he is featured prominently in the 2008 documentary, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.
Ford, the 38th president (right) and Beatty hiked the ball, although the future star of Heaven Can Wait (1979) looked nothing like a hard-nosed center — he was too lean and far too handsome to be a member of the “big uglies,” which is what sportscaster Keith Jackson called offensive linemen. Ed Asner (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” 1970-77), Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall, 1973), and Brian Dennehy (First Blood, 1982) are bigger and less comely than Beatty, although some would describe them as ruggedly handsome rather than homely.
The Axton family had a good year in 1956: Mae Boren Axton’s “Heartbreak Hotel” made Elvis Presley a superstar, and her son Hoyt earned a scholarship offer to Oklahoma State. The Axton boy would later write “Joy to the World (Jeremiah was a bullfrog)” for Three Dog Night.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Chris Farley, Edgewood High (Madison, Wisconsin), 1982. Toby Keith, Moore High (Oklahoma), 1979. Terrence Malick St. Stephen’s Episcopal (Austin, Texas), 1961. Dwayne Johnson (the Rock), Freedom High (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), 1990. Ed O’Neill, Ursuline High (Youngstown, Ohio), 1964. John Goodman, Affton High (St. Louis, Missouri), 1970.
A 5-foot-8, 215-pound nose tackle, Farley (Tommy Boy, 1995) was agile, energetic, and apparently quite good. It’s easy to imagine the Rock (The Tooth Fairy, 2010) and wide-bodied John Goodman (“Roseanne,” 1988-97) stuffing the line, but high school linemen didn’t get much better than Ed O’Neill, who portrayed Al Bundy on “Married with Children.” O’Neill went on to play at Youngstown State and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers. They cut him in favor of a couple of other rookie defensive linemen, Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood.
Malick’s face and physique are unfamiliar to most of us because he’s a behind-the-camera guy with Oscar nominations for directing The Thin Red Line (1998) and The Tree of Life (2011). Toby Keith had a huge-selling 2003 duet with former running back Willie Nelson (“Beer for My Horses”) as well as 19 solo number-one country singles.
LINEBACKERS: John Belushi, Wheaton Central (Illinois), 1967. Brett Michaels, Mechanicsburg High (Pennsylvania), 1981. Jon Hamm, John Burroughs School (Ladue, Missouri), 1989. Chris Klein, Millard West (Omaha, Nebraska), 1997. Kris Kristofferson, San Mateo (California), 1954.
Michaels, who became lead singer for the rock band Poison (“Every Rose Has its Thorn,” 1988) two years after high school, also played quarterback and defensive end. Kristofferson portrayed a pro wide receiver and the best buddy of running back Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough (1977), and Klein played an injured quarterback reluctantly running for class president in 1999’s Election.
Belushi (Animal House, 1978) may have honed his physical comedy skills on the football field; it’s a shame he never made a “Samurai linebacker” sketch during his days on “Saturday Night Live.” While Hamm (“Mad Men,” 2007-15) played football, his real sports passion was baseball. He played catcher in high school and was best friends with John Simmons, son of long-time Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Lee Majors, Middlesboro High (Kentucky), 1957. Bill Cosby, Germantown High (Philadelphia), 1953. Dean Cain, Santa Monica (California), 1984. Ryan Seacrest, Dunwoody High (Georgia), 1993.
These actors are often listed as former high school defensive backs, but it’s hard to find specific details about their positions (were they cornerbacks or safeties?). They may have been two-way players who garnered more attention for their offensive skills.
Raise your hand if you’re surprised to find Ryan Seacrest (“American Idol,” 2002-14) on this list.
Majors (“The Six Million Dollar Man,” 1974-78), originally named Harvey Lee Yeary, took his last name from a former Heisman hopeful from the University of Tennessee — Johnny Majors. Runner-up to Paul Hornung in the 1957 Heisman, the earlier Majors may be more familiar to college football fans as head coach of the national champion Pittsburgh Panthers team of 1976, as well as a long-time coach at his alma mater, Tennessee.
Cosby (“The Cosby Show,” 1984-92) dropped out of high school after the 10th grade to join the Navy. At Temple University, he excelled at a number of track events (high jump, shot put, low hurdles, javelin and discus) and played fullback on the football team.
Dean Cain (“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” 1993-97) was a superb all-around athlete who played football at Princeton and signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills. A knee injury ended any hopes of a pro career.
KICKER / PUNTER: Will Ferrell, University High (Irvine, California), 1986. Ronald Reagan, Dixon High (Illinois), 1928. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abilene High (Kansas), 1910.
Ferrell’s (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 2004) field-goal kicking was no joke: He made 14 field goals and 41 extra points his senior year (although he also missed nine PATs). Reagan, the 40th president, could do just fine as the punter, but the multi-skilled Ike is around just in case.