Finding work as role players

Upon learning of Bubba Smith's death at age 66 this week, football fans may have remembered him as one of most fearsome defensive players of the 1960s, a stalwart in college at Michigan State and a key player in leading the Baltimore Colts to a victory in Super Bowl V. But he probably was just as well known to some people for his appearances in Miller Lite commercials or as an actor in movies and television. In fact, in the hours after his death, the word "Hightower" – a reference to his character Moses Hightower in the Police Academy films – was a trending topic on Twitter.

Here are some other notable, some not-so-notable, and one infamous athlete who became as well known for their roles away from sports as they were in competition:

Burt Reynolds: Before he was The Bandit and a 1970s Hollywood sex symbol, he was a Florida State running back.

Carl Weathers: The NFL barely knew him as a reserve for the Raiders. You and Rocky Balboa know him as "the Master of Disaster, the King of Sting, the Count of Monte Fisto, the one ... the only ... Apollo Creed."

The Rock: Before he was cooking up WWE fame and starring in lame Disney movies, he was winning a national title on the Miami Hurricanes' defensive line in 1991 under the name Dwayne Johnson.

Joe DiMaggio: Of course there's the 56-game hitting streak and the marriage to Marilyn Monroe that made this Yankee a baseball icon. But to a certain generation who never saw him play, he might also be remembered as "Mr. Coffee."

Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice: Two who could tango, the NFL's all-time leading rusher and leading pass catcher turned heads, and pirouettes, on "Dancing with the Stars."

Larry Csonka: He helped the Miami Dolphins win two Super Bowls as a tough-guy running back. He traded aqua-covered pads for a hosting role on the late-1980s TV series "American Gladiators." No wonder he retired to Alaska to do a fishing show.

George Foreman: Few athletes have reinvented themselves more dramatically. In his first incarnation, he was the brooding basher taken down by Ali's "Rope a Dope" in The Rumble in the Jungle. He later became Big George, nice-guy hero to the masses as the oldest heavyweight champ in history. He had a short-lived TV show, playing, well, George. Even if you didn't know any of that, you know he's made millions selling a lean, mean grilling machine.

Merlin Olsen: This Hall of Famer was the anchor on the Rams' Fearsome Foursome defensive front. In retirement, he showed his sensitive side in commercials for FTD, a flower-deliver company. And he was one of the best football analysts of his era for NBC. If you were a child of the '70s, you knew him as Charles Ingalls' best friend on "Little House on the Prairie."

Bruce Jenner: This U.S. Olympian won decathlon gold in 1976 and was immortalized on a box of Wheaties. He starred in films and TV shows. But today, perhaps just as many people know him as stepdad to the Kardashian sisters from the reality show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians."

Dick Butkus: This Chicago Bears icon tried mightily to gain success as an actor and always seemed to be linked to big Bubba as he starred in Miller Lite commercials and even a short-lived TV series with Smith. However, when your name is Butkus, you could win 10 Oscars and you'd still be the living definition of a football player.

Shaquille O'Neal: The Big Diesel was a decent rapper – though we're guessing Kobe Bryant isn't a fan – and has real potential for post-NBA stardom if he doesn't become a sheriff somewhere. But he'd better go buy up all the DVDs of "Kazaam."

Fred Williamson: "The Hammer" was a big star in the AFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, known for his big hits and forearm shivers. But getting KO'd himself by the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I may have encouraged him that action movies would be a safer exercise.

John Madden: He's immortalized by the video game that carries his name, image and voice. But how many people who play those games actually remember that he won a Super Bowl as arm-waving, sideline-stomping, burly, wavy-haired coach of the Raiders?

Bob Uecker: His laughable major league baseball career became a hysterical search for a front-row seat in Miller Lite commercials. In his role as wise-cracking Cleveland Indians announcer Harry Doyle in the Major League movies, he gave voice to the calls that every fan wishes their home team announcer could make.

O.J. Simpson: Before he was acquitted of double murder in one of America's most infamous trials, he was the NFL's first 2,000-yard rusher, hurdled through airports for Hertz and stumbled through his scenes as the bumbling Officer Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies.

tistephens@tribune.com

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