Stephen Hawking Cambridge
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Celebrities Who Were Surprisingly Good Athletes

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Stephen Hawking Cambridge
Karwai Tang/Contributor/Getty

Heavy Lifters

One of the pathways to becoming a celebrity, whether as a film star, a singer, or even the president of the United States, is through sports. It’s the first big stage for many stars, giving them a chance to get comfortable performing in front of crowds. It’s no surprise that many celebrities were good and even great athletes before they moved into acting, singing, or politics. Here is a look at some celebrities who were once serious athletes.


Related: Celebrities With Health Conditions You Didn’t Know About

Uzo Aduba
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Uzo Aduba | Track

Aduba isn’t just a good athlete — she’s great. Aduba was a star sprinter for the track team at Boston University, winning an award for her outstanding leadership as a senior. Aduba ran a 55-meter race in 7.07 seconds, just short of the record of 7.03 seconds. Aduba, who has received three Golden Globe nominations, is best known for her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”


Related: Celebs Whose First Job Was Worse Than Yours

Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali by Walt Disney Television (CC BY-ND)

Mahershala Ali | Basketball

The only former Division I basketball player to win two Oscars is Mahershala Ali, playing at St. Mary’s College from 1992-1996. Ali, who went by the name Hershal Gilmore in college, averaged seven points his senior year. After finishing at St. Mary’s, Ali enrolled in New York University’s graduate acting program and later won Best Supporting Actor Oscars for “Moonlight” and “Green Book.”


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Garth Brooks
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Garth Brooks | Javelin

Brooks was a baseball and football player at Yukon High School in Oklahoma. He earned scholarship money to Oklahoma State University for track and field by throwing the javelin. Brooks never loved javelin, which is why he decided country music was a better option.

George W. Bush
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George W. Bush | Rugby

The 43rd president of the United States, who became an owner of the Texas Rangers, played on the Yale Club Rugby team. Bush played the fullback spot, a defensive position in rugby. John Griswold, a teammate of Bush, said he was “strong, wiry and somewhat small but tenacious” despite the future world leader being 5-foot-11.

Alice Cooper Golf
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Alice Cooper | Golf

Cooper is the only celebrity to write a self-help book about golf, “Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: A Rock n’ Roller’s 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict.” His golf addiction, he said, helped him beat his drinking problem. Cooper, who was once a scratch golfer, still has a single-digit handicap. The heavy-metal rocker plays hundreds of rounds a year, many of them on the road before he goes on stage for a concert.

Sheryl Crow
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Sheryl Crow | Track

Crow is a sports fanatic who tears up during the Olympics when they show touching stories of the athletes and says her all-time biggest stage fright moment came when she had to sing the national anthem during a Mets-Yankees World Series game — but she hasn’t always watched from the sidelines. At Kennett High School in Missouri, Crow ran track and medaled in the 75-meter low hurdles.

Geena Davis
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Geena Davis | Archery

Davis said she “took up archery on a whim.” That whim almost led her to a berth in the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Davis finished 24th out of 300 women who tried out for the team. Davis didn’t make the cut but was selected as a wild-card entry for the Sydney International Golden Arrow Competition. Before she became an archer, she won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in “The Accidental Tourist” and was nominated for best actress for “Thelma & Louise.”

John Goodman
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John Goodman | Football

Goodman had dueling passions at Affton High School in Affton, Missouri: football and theater. In 1970, Goodman earned a scholarship to play football at Southwest Missouri State. He quit after his freshman year after suffering an injury and focused his energy on acting, earning a drama degree. He has starred in the TV series “Roseanne” and appeared in “The Big Lebowski,” “Raising Arizona,” and “Barton Fink.”

Mark Harmon
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Mark Harmon | Football

Mark Harmon, whose father Tom was a Heisman trophy winner at Michigan in 1940, played quarterback at University of California, Los Angeles. Harmon led the team to a 17-5 record in 1972 and 1973. Mark was good enough to give pro football a shot but he decided to go into acting. Harmon currently plays Leroy Jethro Gibbs in the CBS series “NCIS.”

Stephen Hawking Cambridge
Karwai Tang/Contributor/Getty

Stephen Hawking | Rowing

Hawking is mostly remembered as a brilliant physicist who spent most of his life confined to a wheelchair after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when he was 21. Hawking wrote popular science books and made groundbreaking discoveries about how science viewed black holes. Because physics was too easy, Hawking became a coxswain on the Oxford rowing team.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
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Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson | Football

Before Dwayne Johnson was an action star or even a pro wrestler, he was a starter on the defensive line for Miami University. Johnson won a National Title with the Hurricanes in 1991 and played for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League after college. Johnson was also a star wrestler and football player at Freedom High School in Pennsylvania. Since then he’s starred in “Fast Five,” “Baywatch,” and the HBO series “Ballers,” which was about a football player from Miami who was leaving the game for a career in business.

Leslie Jones
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Leslie Jones | Basketball

Comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” star Leslie Jones played college basketball at Chapman University in California as well as at Colorado State. Jones, who is 6 feet tall, said her father talked her into playing the sport. She later morphed into comedy and acting.

Tommy Lee Jones
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Tommy Lee Jones | Football

Jones played on the offensive line for Harvard, but developed his stern on-screen persona while a student there. The 1969 graduate was “intense” and “taciturn,” according to former football teammates. Jones’ interest in theater started in high school when he played the lead role in “A Man for All Seasons.” Jones later won an Academy Award for his role in “The Fugitive.”

Kate Middleton
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Kate Middleton | Rowing

The Duchess of Cambridge played field hockey, ran cross country, and played tennis in boarding school. In 2007, Middleton was on a rowing team that was going to cross the English Channel, but her grandmother-in-law, the Queen of England, ordered her not to do it. Middleton has climbed Mount Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe.

Phil McGraw
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Dr. Phil | Football

Dr. Phil, who also goes by Phil McGraw, hasn’t always just spent time on TV dispensing advice. McGraw, who is 6-foot-4, also played middle linebacker at Tulsa University. He was taking after his dad, who played football at Tulsa. The future TV doc, who played football at Shawnee Mission High School in Kansas, later transferred from Tulsa to Midwestern State University in Texas, where he earned his psychology degree.

Burt Reynolds
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Burt Reynolds | Football

Had it not been for a knee injury, Burt Reynolds might not have become one of the most popular male actors of his time. Reynolds played football at Florida State after starting at Palm Beach High School as a running back. Reynolds injured his knee as a freshman after playing in six games. He tried to play his sophomore year but he wasn’t the same. Reynolds was voted the highest-grossing actor at the box office from 1978-1982. He starred in “The Longest Yard,“ “Boogie Nights,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” and “Deliverance.”

Ronald Reagan
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Ronald Reagan | Football and Swimming

Reagan played football at Eureka College in Illinois, where he started on the offensive line as a guard his junior and senior years. He was also a member of the swim team and was a Cubs announcer for their minor league team in Iowa. Reagan got his start in acting when he traveled to California to cover a Cubs game and a friend set up a meeting for him with an agent. His most famous role was as George Gipp in the film “Knute Rockne.” Gipp was a Notre Dame running back who died in college and Rockne’s famous halftime speech about “Win one for the Gipper,” which Reagan used as a catchphrase during his presidency, came from a deathbed conversation with Gipp.

Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves by Governo do Estado de São Paulo (CC BY)

Keanu Reeves | Hockey

Keanu Reeves was a good enough hockey player that he was considered an elite prospect and played in a major-junior league — a minor league for professional hockey players. Reeves, a goalie, played at De La Salle College, a high school in Toronto. An injury ended his hockey-playing days, but Reeves got to relive his time on skates in “Youngblood,” a movie about a teenager who lives on a farm but has dreams of playing professional hockey.

Robin Roberts
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Robin Roberts | Basketball

The reason that Robin Roberts is so skilled at interviewing athletes on HBO’s “Real Sports” is likely because she was a great college athlete herself, playing basketball at Southeastern Louisiana State University. She finished her career as one of the all-time leading scorers and rebounders in SLSU’s history. In 2012, Roberts was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Roberts has worked for ESPN, HBO, and “Good Morning America.”

Tom Selleck
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Tom Selleck | Basketball

Selleck, who is 6-foot-4, had an unremarkable career as a basketball player at the University of Southern California, playing in 10 games over two seasons and scoring just one point. Selleck, who graduated from Grant High School in Los Angeles, went to Los Angeles’ Valley Junior College for two years, where he played basketball. Selleck transferred to USC for his junior and senior years and earned a degree in business. Selleck has appeared in more than 50 film and television roles and is perhaps best known for playing the detective Thomas Magnum in “Magnum, P.I.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger
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Arnold Schwarzenegger | Bodybuilding

Everyone knows that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t originally a politician or an actor. The very buff former governor of California won a Mr. Universe title when he was 20. Schwarzenegger, a workout freak who won seven Mr. Olympia titles before segueing into acting, has appeared in films like “The Terminator,” ''Predator,” and “Total Recall.”

Jason Statham
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Jason Statham | Diving

The star of the “Transporter” film trilogy was an elite diver during his post-high school years. At one point, Statham was ranked 12th in the world for platform diving and he considered pursuing the sport full time. Statham was a member of the British National Diving Squad for 12 years and he competed for England in the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Statham gave up diving because he decided it would be too hard to make money at it.

Jon Stewart
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Jon Stewart | Soccer

Jon Stewart, whose real name is Jon Leibowitz, was a soccer player for the College of William & Mary, where he was a winger. His college coach, Al Abert, called him “athletic, feisty and quick” in an ESPN story. Stewart also played soccer at Lawrence High School in New Jersey. At William & Mary, he landed a spot on the varsity his sophomore year. He's best known for hosting “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” from 1999 to 2015.

Justin Timberlake golf
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Justin Timberlake | Golf

Timberlake is so devoted to golf that he sponsored the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open in Las Vegas from 2008 to 2018. Timberlake, who sports a single-digit handicap, started playing with his dad when he was 12.

Michael Warren
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Michael Warren | Basketball

Warren, who played Officer Bobby Hill on “Hill Street Blues,” was the point guard for University of California, Los Angeles, helping the Bruins win national titles in 1967 and 1968. Warren also had a part in the “White Shadow,” averaging 13.7 points at UCLA, and was inducted into both the UCLA and Indiana Basketball Halls of Fame.

Denzel Washington
Michael Loccisano/Staff

Denzel Washington | Basketball

Washington was good enough to play at Fordham on the junior varsity team as a sophomore, where P. J. Carlesimo was his coach. Carlesimo later coached at Seton Hall and in the NBA. Washington played with Gus and Ray Williams (who eventually played in the NBA) in the Bronx before heading to Fordham. Later, Washington has won an Academy Award for best supporting actor in the movie “Glory” and an Academy Award for best actor in the crime thriller “Training Day.”

John Wayne
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John Wayne | Football

Wayne got his first taste of the movie business when his football coach at the University of Southern California, Howard Jones, got him a part-time prop job at Fox Studios. Wayne was an offensive tackle who earned a scholarship after playing at Glendale High School in Glendale, California. Alas, Wayne broke his collarbone surfing and lost his scholarship but eventually became one of the most iconic male movie stars ever.