TOP 7 Actors playing Athletes in Sports Films

We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.

With Whip It swirling its way into theaters, it’s a wonder no one has fully acknowledged the absolutely amazing athletic work these brave actresses have put into the final product. Let’s face it, not all actors can “bring it” when it comes to believably portraying a real-life athlete.

Truth of the matter is, it’s about as rare a feat as you’re likely to see capably pulled off in Hollywood. Ellen Page (who will more than likely make a later edition of this list) made frantically scuttering around a cylindrical death-track look effortless, even graceful. Hell, the entire cast made roller derby look like the ballet with brute violence. This got me to thinking – Which other Hollywood actors have been the most convincing athletes on the big screen? They deserve their due (to go along with their millions of dollars)

7.  Kevin Costner as Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup (1996)

Recap: After Costner realized he would never make another Dances With Wolves, he became re-acquainted with his calling: Depicting washed up/super talented athletes whose respective attitude almost always gets in the way of their ever realizing the significant potential lurking beneath their slacker-exterior. There’s a little Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy in all of us, and who better to reveal how our faults get the best of us than Costner?
Reason: Costner is a born athlete. Though most actors tend to over-play excellence in a realm they’d otherwise steer clear of … it’s obvious the then 41-year old actor had hit his fair share of fairways. Though the actor has rarely found his stride as a leading man since the Field of Dreams days, throw a camera on him while he’s swinging away, and you’ll see why he’s so good at gracefully revealing the jocular nature of someone born to compete.

6. Rob Brown as Ernie Davis in The Express (2008)

Recap: As the Jackie Robinson of  college football, Rob Brown shoulders more than pads as Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner in NCAA history. Bravery can be defined as many things, but Davis redefined it amidst a torrid amount of prejudice, and brash white heckling. Though many expected him to catapult into professional football, a stunningly unfortunate injury kept him from ever doing so.
Reason: Brown exudes the confidence of a young man whose dreams soared higher than the dreary reality that was the state of affairs for African Americans in the 1960s. You absolutely believe he’s scared to play the game he loves. His banter with onscreen coach Dennis Quaid reveals an inner strength not often revealed in a film about American’s most jocular past time. Plus. the kid’s got skills with the pig skin. Mad skills.

5. Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttesworth in He Got Game (1998)

Recap: Before he began sinking crucial thirty-foot 3-pointers for the most storied franchise in NBA history, Ray Allen brought his arsenal of round-ball skills to the big screen, portraying the son of a convict who’s let out of prison to convince his gifted son, Jesus, to attend the Governor’s alma mater.
Reason: You can’t guard Ray Allen in real life, and no body could in this film. The man simply has the ability to move effortlessly without the ball, and once he gets it… forget about it. Lights out. Allen not only wows us with superior skills on the basketball court, but a convincing portrayal of a young man torn between the wishes of his father, and the man who was convicted of killing his mother (also his father).

4. Paul Newman as Eddie Felson in The Hustler (1961)

Recap: A young pool hustler tries to prove his worth as the game’s greatest player by going after it’s figurehead, “Minnesota Fats.” Paul Newman portrays a money/victory hungry scrapper whose wits get the best of him before he can reach his goal. This is a film about a dreamer who sacrifices everything to become the best. Pure proof there’s a large difference between “down and out,” and being “on top of the world.”
Reason: Rebel cool. James Dean personified it in his youth, and Newman brought it to the cusp of middle age. As a drifter-cum-pool shark with a witty-slew of one-liners, and unflinching bravado, he knocks ‘em down with a confidence rarely seen on the big screen since. Few actors can convincingly master a game it takes years to perfect. Tom Cruise’s flaccid attempts at doing so in the long-awaited sequel to this film is proof of that. As far as we’re concerned, there’s only one true king of the billiards, and it’s Eddie Felson, may he rest in peace.

3. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire (1996)

Recap: The story about a prima donna/NFL wide receiver whose mouth has proven bigger than his talent. After meeting down-on-his-luck sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise), the two of them learn there’s more to winning than earning what you think you’re worth. Fast talking and boastful promises only get you so far, and each of them find the strength they need to see the light, ultimately earning them each gigantic sums of money. Irony, anyone?
Reason: All anyone talks about is the Oscar acceptance speech. Yes, it was a sight to see, but it did sort of place an unnecessarily large cloud over the performance that got him up on that stage in the first place. Why Gooding has largely made trivial swill since is beyond anyone’s guess, but he absolutely WAS the bawdy, speak-before-you-think narcissist professional athlete that helped Tom Cruise “find himself” amidst a sports world that had been losing its ethical focus. Plus, he’d go across the middle.

2. Robery DeNiro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980)

Recap: The story of a fighter whose turbulent personal life nearly overshadows his huge success as a middle weight with a stiff hook. Robert DeNiro portarys Jake La Motta with a gusto and staunch dedication rarely seen in Hollywood before, or since.
Reason: DeNiro’s methodical plight to capture the essence of Jake La Motta was like no other actor could possibly hope. He put his body through a destructive transformation in the process. Imagine being dedicated enough to strap yourself into excessively impressive shape, then balloon to a weight reserved for those battling cholesterol issues… AND redefining the term “actor” while doing so.

1. Kevin Costner as “Crash” Davis in Bull Durham (1988)

Recap: Costner knocks it out of the park as a middling minor league catcher whose best playing days are behind him. When a young pitching phenom (Tim Robbins) needs a hand figuring out how to get to “the show,” Davis is called upon to teach him how to turn potential into the “right stuff.”
Reason: Say what you want about Costner’s floundering film career in the 90s. In the 80s, he was the king of the diamond. Apparently, the home run he hit in the film actually happened, off of decent pitching nonetheless. If this fact isn’t enough to prove the “sluggers” worth as our number one sports actor, I don’t know what is.

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6 Comments

  1. Jamie Meinecke says:

    I think you missed Jared Leto as Steve Prefontaine in Prefontaine (1997).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXyh4dAuZl8

  2. Nick Allen says:

    Gary Busey as Chet Rocket Steadman in “Rookie of the Year”

  3. Jeff Bayer says:

    Don’t worry Chris … I have the actual top 3.

    3. Maris Valainis as Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers. His athleticism doesn’t stand the test of time, but it’s not supposed to. This was basketball in the 50s and Valainis nailed it, just like almost every shot he took. My favorite might be while he’s shooting outside on the overcast day and just stroking it.

    2. Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits. This one has to crush Chris. He’s a runner. A good one in fact. So he should be required to love this performance. Admit it Chris, you’re dying right now aren’t you? And Crudup crushes Leto.

    1. Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed to Rocky. Perfectly cut, that refers to both his body and his mouth. He had the swagger of a champ and was able to find the balance of still rooting for him even though we won’t Rocky to win. Plus, the man could take a (fake) punch better than Sly.

  4. Jamie…

    … Billy Crudup’s effort as “Pre” in WITHOUT LIMITS trumps Leto’s…. By a long shot. Leto’s performance was a bunch of sprint-laden short shots. Crudup’s skills as an actor were enhanced by what was required of him as an ACTUAL RUNNER. His onscreen depiction of the “James Dean of track” was un-matched because of wide-angle shots in which he was required to run like a three-miler…. Do your homework.

    Still, more a Top 10 then a “Top 7.”

  5. lakin tripure says:

    10. Billy Chapel- Kevin Costner

    9. Kenny Powers- Danny McBride

    8. Robert De Niro- Bang the Drum Slowly

    7. Gale Sayers- Billy Dee Williams

    6.Roy Hobbs- Robert Redford

    5.Roy McAvoy- Kevin Costner

    4.Mickey Mantle- Thomas Jane

    3.Roger Maris- Barry Pepper

    2.Rocky Balboa- Sylvester Stallone

    1.Crash Davis- Kevin Costner

  6. lakin tripure says:

    and don’t forget charlie sheen in major league or paul newman in the hustler or Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man. Really there should be a top 15 or 20 cause its to hard to narrow down as many sports figures that theyre are.

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